Ten years ago, 21-year-old Michael Bell Jr. was pulled over by police on suspicion of drunken driving and running a stop sign. He was stopped right in front of his house where he lived with his mom and sister in Kenosha, Wis., about an hour south of Milwaukee.
Dash cam footage from inside the squad car shows Bell exiting the vehicle he was driving, where he was confronted by an officer who grabbed his arm. The two walked off-camera, where police tried to arrest him. A struggle ensued, and while his mom and sister watched from the house, Bell was shot, point-blank, in the head.
The police mistakenly thought Bell had taken an officer's gun.
There was no investigation, the officer was cleared.
So in 2010, Bell launched his own investigation.
"I finally made a decision that we're never going to get to the truth of the matter, unless we bring in our own personal investigators," he says. "So we hired an investigative consultant who teamed up with a retired Kenosha police detective."
Gina Barton, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says that one of the experts hired by Bell came up with a theory that the gun had probably gotten caught on the rear-view mirror of the car near the scuffle. That mirror was in fact broken after the incident.
The Bell family ended up filing a civil suit for wrongful death. Six years later, they received a $1.75 million settlement. But there was no admission of wrongdoing, and the police maintained that Michael Bell Jr. caused his own death.
The family used the settlement money to fund a grassroots campaign. They took out ads in the New York Times, in USA Today and on radio and created TV commercials.
The campaigning went on for years, but Barton says the message really gained momentum after another police incident in 2011, where a 22-year-old man died in the backseat of a police car. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
Bell bought every available billboard in Milwaukee with slogans like: "When Police Kill, Should They Judge Themselves?"
"After we created enough ruckus, the unions ended up sitting down with us and talking with us," Bell says. They told him that if he wanted to take the billboards down, they would work with him in crafting some the legislation he sought.
"I had formulated in my mind what really needed to occur here to make this process better," he says.
The law they put forth would make Wisconsin the first state in the nation to mandate, on the legislative level, that if an officer was involved with a loss of life, that outside investigators must come in and collect the data and investigate that shooting.
This past April, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker passed the bill into law.
Gina Barton says Bell was able to work with politicians on both sides of the aisle, and sold the bill as benefiting both the family members of whoever died as well as the officers involved.
"Because if you actually did do everything right, why wouldn't you want a transparent investigation that clears you and that shows everybody why you did the right thing?" she says.
Bell recognizes that their accomplishment with the bill happened with the help of the police. Five police units were even present when Gov. Walker signed the bill.
"I'm not against law enforcement, even though a law officer killed my son," Bell says. "And I do recognize that a number of police officers risk their life to protect people. In fact, police officers need to be part of the solution."
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