“When I saw the shooting, it turned my stomach,” Bell said. He referred to a woman in the video of Blake’s shooting, screaming and jumping after watching the Kenosha officer fire his weapon. “I knew what it was. That’s what they did to my son.”
Unlike the younger Bell, Blake has so far survived the gunshots, seven fired at his back, and is hospitalized in serious condition. And instead of being investigated by the police department itself, Blake’s case is being reviewed by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the result of a state law passed after Bell’s death.
Thanks to a 2014 law that the elder Bell helped champion, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to require an independent investigation any time a police officer kills someone in the line of duty. The law was heralded by police reform activists nationwide as a way to hold police accountable, but six years on, Bell and other police reform advocates say the law still doesn’t go far enough.
Few investigations since 2015 have led to charges against police officers who kill members of the public. One exception was a former Milwaukee police officer, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, who was charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the shooting death of Sylville Smith in 2016; he was later acquitted.
Wisconsin’s law requires independence only in investigations, not in prosecutions. That means prosecutors are tasked with determining charges against officers they work with, said David Sklansky, a faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
Protests erupt over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin
Under the current law, the state Justice Department’s division of criminal investigation or another independent agency will spend between one and four months investigating a case before handing the findings to the district attorney, who decides whether to bring charges.
“No matter how carefully and conscientiously the investigation and prosecutions are made, it’s difficult for outsiders to have confidence in the results when the agencies have a conflict of interest,” Sklansky said.
While independent prosecution could increase the public’s confidence in the fairness of how an officer’s case is handled, it won’t necessarily stop near-fatal or deadly encounters with police from happening.
That, Bell said, can only come from a comprehensive review of investigations and prosecutions to figure out what went wrong in the first place. He advocates for a review similar to one the National Transportation Safety Board has following plane crashes, or the debrief the military performs after an event, sometimes called an “after action review.” Sklansky agreed.
“They do this not only with air crashes, but near-misses and ask, ‘How did we get that close?’ ” Sklansky said. “The justice system in general does not conduct this sort of review.”
Bell has been advocating for new legislation that Wisconsin State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R), a former police officer, is expected to unveil Wednesday, which would add such a review to Wisconsin’s investigations.
“The 2014 law is critically important. But it attempts to eliminate the appearance of bias,” Scott Kelly, Waangaard’s chief of staff, told The Washington Post on Monday. “But tell that to a person who has been shot, and they’re not going to believe it.”
The proposed legislation, which stems from a summit Bell organized in 2017 with the S.C. Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Law School, would create an independent use-of-force advisory board that includes members of law enforcement organizations, legal scholars, mental health professionals and criminal defense attorneys.
Asma Kadri of the ACLU of Wisconsin noted that the state’s current law, while progressive, specifies independent investigations in fatal cases. Kadri believes it’s up the discretion of the state’s Justice Department to investigate nonfatal incidents, as they have in the Blake shooting.
“But to say Mr. Blake has to die to require an independent investigation is ridiculous,” Kadri said.
For Bell, any new laws will likely come too late for his 16-year-old case, but he hopes to honor his son’s memory and offer hope to families like those of Blake.