When police kill, should officers judge themselves?

In 129 years, no Wisconsin review board has faulted a police officer for killing someone; could a new law change that?

Update 12/23/14: On April 30, former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney shot Dontre Hamilton 14 times in a Milwaukee park. His death sparked protests, echoing those in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the family called for criminal charges. In the highly anticipated decision, the Milwaukee County district attorney announced Monday that there would be no charges; a confrontation preceded the shooting, and it was found that Manney's use of force was justified.

The police chief had already fired Manney in October, not for excessive force, but for failing to follow department rules leading up the the shooting. The U.S. Department of Justice is now reviewing the case.

In September, America Tonight met with the family and examined why Hamilton's case had become so symbolic for Wisconsin.


MILWAUKEE – Maria Hamilton moved her three sons to Wisconsin, from Gary, Indiana, to flee the gang violence that had taken over that city. Gunfire was so frequent that her sons sometimes slept on the floor.

"I just decided I didn’t want them to be a statistic," Hamilton said. "So I made a choice to bring them here so they could get the education, be involved in the community sports like they were there."

Last year, Hamilton’s youngest son, Dontre, then 30, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. His brother Nathaniel said Dontre was never violent. "We were actually going to the mental health complex with him to make sure he was getting proper medication for this."

The three Hamilton boys, with Dontre Hamilton on the right.
Courtesy of the Hamilton family

But on April 30, the gun violence Hamilton had fled from to protect her sons caught up with the family.

Dontre was sleeping behind a food cart in Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee when an officer woke and searched him. An argument ensued, and as the police report details, the officer took out his baton and began striking Dontre, who grabbed it from him. The officer later said Dontre struck him repeatedly with the baton, but the family says there is no proof of that. The officer then unloaded his weapon – 14 bullets in all, one ricocheting and hitting the 31-year-old twice.

"We feel like it was some hatred, it was some type of emotion from getting his baton taken,” his brother Nathaniel Hamilton said. “But we feel Dontre was only trying to protect himself."

The shooting is under investigation and the district attorney has yet to determine if any charges will be filed against the officer. But in Wisconsin, there’s been a clear pattern in the results of these types of investigations. In 129 years, no police officer in Wisconsin has ever been found by a review board to be at fault for killing someone, reform advocates say.

And in Wisconsin, like in most parts of the country, the people making that judgment are often other police officers from the same department. Nationwide, no one knows how often officers are found at fault for homicide, or even the number of officer-involved shootings; there’s no government effort to track those numbers.

But the course of justice could be different this time. Dontre Hamilton was killed just days after Gov. Scott Walker signed a new state law, the first in the nation, requiring that police shootings be investigated by an outside agency not directly involved with the shooting – the culmination of a 10-year mission by another father overwhelmed by grief.

A father's mission

Sitting in his living room in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Michael Bell Sr. described his son as a young man who “had some flaws, had some promise.” He pointed to a framed picture on the table.

The last picture ever taken of Michael Bell Jr., bandaging his little brother's knee.
Michael Bell Sr.

“He was bandaging his younger brother’s knee,” he said. “They were out playing basketball together and the younger brother was crying and I go, ‘Hey, nice picture,” and I brought up my camera and I snapped it and that was the last photo I ever took of him.”

On the night of Nov. 7, 2004, the Kenosha police said they stopped 21-year-old Michael Bell Jr. on suspicion of drunk driving. Partially captured on a police dashboard camera, the situation escalated.

Bell Jr. ended up over the hood of a car with Officer David Krueger holding him in a bear hug, according to statements by officers present. At some point, another officer, Erich Strausbaugh started screaming: “He’s got my gun! He’s got my gun!” A third officer, Albert Gonzalez, put a gun to Bell’s head and pulled the trigger.

Strausbaugh later stated that he believed Bell Jr. was trying to take his gun. But an independent investigation raised another possibility, one supported by witnesses and later forensic tests: Strausbaugh’s gun got hooked on the car’s mirror. 

DNA and fingerprint testing found no evidence that Bell Jr. touched Strausbaugh’s holster or revolver. His mother Kim Bell, an eyewitness, insists her son never reached for the officer’s gun. In her first time explaining to the media what she saw that day, Kim Bell said she was able to see Bell Jr.’s hands when the officer put the gun to his head.

Ten years after her son's death, Kim Bell broke down into tears describing what she saw that day to the media the first time.
America Tonight

“And we’re screaming for help. And it didn’t go off right away,” she said. “And then the gun went off. And I saw my son fall to the ground. I fell to the ground.”

Bell Sr. didn’t witness his son’s shooting and initially withheld judgment. As a retired military pilot, he expected an in-depth investigation would sort out the facts, just like the Air Force Inspector General would do. Instead, he says the police investigation was a “sham.” Within 48 hours, he said a local reporter called him, breaking the news that the police held a review panel and cleared themselves of any fault.

“The crime lab report wasn't back,” he said. “The autopsy wasn't complete. None of these things had even come back and they had cleared themselves of all wrongdoing.”

He vowed to make a single change. “If a police officer takes a life, let’s make sure that the department [that] was involved in that shooting doesn’t investigate itself.” 

Grassroots change

Reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post weren’t interested in his mission, so he went grassroots, assembling a team who had experienced tragedy at the hands of Wisconsin police. They sought comfort in common tragedy and huddled to plot reform.

There was Amelia Royko, whose unarmed roommate Paul Heenan was gunned down by a policeman who mistook him for a burglar. There was Debra Jenkins, whose son Larry, also unarmed, was shot by a Milwaukee officer who was later sentenced to 17 years for excessive force in a police beating and was also convicted of threatening to blow up a police station. And there was Sonya Moore, whose son Derek Williams suffocated in the back of a police cruiser, pleading with his last breath for help. In all cases, the officers were absolved of responsibility. 

Michael Bell Sr. posing by one of the billboards that he paid for to raise awareness of the issue of how police shootings were investigated.
Michael Bell Sr.

The group honed their message to a fine point: When police kill, should they judge themselves?

In 2010, the Bell family reached a $1.75 million settlement with Kenosha, which admitted no wrongdoing or liability for Bell Jr.’s death. Bell Sr. spent much of that on a billboard campaign, at one point leasing every single one in the Milwaukee area. Bell Sr. said at the campaign’s peak, 12.5 million people were driving by these signs each week.

Their messages were simple: “Name one department that found its OWN shooting UNJUSTIFIED” and "Fix the review process, Bad cops stain good cops."

“It was every place you saw,” said Bell Sr.  who has also funded commercials, purchased print ads and written op-eds for national publications.

But while the billboards stirred up public interest, without support from the powerful police unions, there was little chance the reforms they sought would ever become law. So Bell Sr. reached out personally to the director of the state’s largest police association, James Palmer. 

At first, Bell Sr. said Palmer lambasted him that he would have the nerve to call him with those billboards. But Palmer also said that if they were taken down, he’d help Bell Sr. craft the bill he wanted.

“I said that as long as those billboards were running, that I couldn’t, in good conscience, begin a dialogue,” said Palmer. “To Michael Bell’s credit, he took the billboards down. And we began a dialogue that continues to this day.”

The two bonded over the common goal of ensuring public trust in the police.

“The degree of trust and confidence that the public maintains in the officers who police the streets is fundamentally important to the jobs they do,” Palmer said. “And I think everybody in the law enforcement community, that has to be of paramount importance.”

In April, advocates gather around Gov. Scott Walker as he signed the bill into law.
Jacque Tiegs

Some law enforcement pushed back. State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen called the bill "unnecessary, unworkable and an expansion of government’s already too burdensome bureaucracy."

But with the backing of several police unions, the governor signed the bill on April 23 this year, with Bell Sr.’s whole team, mothers of sons who had been killed by police officers, standing behind him.

“I did everything that I was supposed to do and that’s exactly what it felt like when we got this bill passed,” Bell Sr. said. “A lot of sacrifice. And believe me, it’s not just me. It was a team.”

Thanks to his efforts, all officer-involved deaths in Wisconsin must now be investigated by at least two outside investigators selected by the police department from an agency that does not employ the officer involved in the death. One of those outside investigators will lead the investigation. If a DA decides not to charge the officer involved, the report of the investigation must be released to the public. 

Bell and his team are now setting their sights on other states. But even in Wisconsin, the battle isn’t over. 

After the law

Maria Hamilton leads a rally in Milwaukee to protest the slow pace of the investigation into her son's death.

On Sept. 4, family and friends of Dontre Hamilton gathered to protest the slow pace of the investigation into his death. The family’s attorney, Jonathan Safran, has accused the police department of ignoring the new law. While the Division of Criminal Investigation at the Wisconsin Department of Justice may nominally be in charge, he says the Milwaukee Police Department is much too involved.

“We have concluded that much of the investigation, including witness interrogations, was conducted by police officers and detectives with the Milwaukee Police Department, contrary to the language and intent of this new law," Safran said.

He is also critical of the pace.

"DCI did not provide their investigation and report to the Milwaukee County District Attorney until Aug. 8, 2014, more than three months after the shooting occurred, certainly not what I think most people would believe to be in an 'expeditious manner,' as the law requires," he said.

The Milwaukee Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. DCI spokesperson Dana Brueck said that her office is indeed in charge of the investigation, but did not answer questions about the extent of MPD involvement.

Dontre Hamilton’s mother says she won't rest until justice is served.

"Dontre's name, his voice will be heard as long as I have breath,” she said. “We're going to dedicate our lives to changing our community. I'm not leaving anymore.”

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