Vail Daily column: Steps to repair mistrust
“Don’t want to get shot by the police, don’t commit a crime” appeared on my Facebook wall recently. Tell that to Michael Bell’s family. He did not commit a crime. He was unarmed. That did not keep him safe. On Nov. 9, 2004, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot and killed Michael Bell, age 19. The police department conducted an investigation and after two days concluded the shooting was justified and the officer acted properly. His parents were not convinced and eyewitnesses did not corroborate the police department’s version of events. The Bell family eventually won a judgment against the city of Kenosha but did not stop there. Michael Bell’s father used the settlement money he received to fight to change the system. According to Bell’s father, “We researched the state of Wisconsin and we could not find an ‘unjustified’ ruling of a police-involved shooting in 129 years since the police and fire departments were first formed in 1885, and we knew that was an impossible record of perfection. Either the police officers were perfect, or there was something wrong with the system.”
Although Colorado does not share Wisconsin’s century of unlikely perfection, its streak is not without suspicion. In Colorado, an officer has not stood trial for an on-duty shooting in more than two decades. That streak ends this summer. In July, James Ashby, former Rocky Ford police officer, goes on trial for the shooting death of Jack Jacquez Jr. Ashby claims that Jacquez was armed with a bat and about to swing at him. However, the coroner found the entry wound on Jacquez’ back, indicating he was shot from behind. Because the Rocky Ford police department is small and lacks an internal affairs unit, it called in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to examine the facts and evidence in the shooting.
In Bell’s case, an internal investigation did not guarantee justice after his killing. His father pointed out what many Americans are beginning to suspect, “I have a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who was shot in the head while his hands were behind his back in handcuffs, being held down by another officer and there are five eyewitnesses, and his father is a retired Air Force colonel … and I (was) ignored and vilified. What must it be like for people (who) aren’t in that privileged class?”
Due in large part to Bell’s efforts, Wisconsin now has a law that requires an outside agency to investigate and independently gather evidence when someone dies in police custody. It is time for Colorado to adopt a similar law. Think about it, when a plane crashes in the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board leads the investigation, not the airliner flying the plane. Yet when an individual dies in police custody or in the process of arrest, the police department conducts its own investigation. Bias, real or perceived, can taint the findings when the police investigate themselves. Going forward, I propose that the Colorado Bureau of Investigations investigate all police-related deaths in Colorado, not just the ones that occur in small towns with limited resources. The good news is that no new bureaucracy needs to be created as the CBI is already in existence and operating in an investigative capacity.
According to the Department of Justice, “From 2003 to 2009, a reported 4,813 persons died during or shortly after law enforcement personnel attempted to arrest or restrain them.” What is unknown is how many of those individuals were unarmed. Thanks to the ubiquity of video footage, we know that Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, was unarmed when officer Michael Slager shot him eight times in the back. Slager now faces murder charges. But if there had been no video to implicate the officer, would an internal investigation have exonerated him, as it did in the case of officer Gonzales, Michael Bell’s killer? We cannot rely on a quick-thinking passerby to whip out their mobile phone and start filming. The technology exists to equip law enforcement with body cameras so that interactions with the public can be captured in their entirety. Perhaps instead of sending surplus military gear to local law enforcement, the federal government could instead assist communities in equipping their police forces with body cameras.
Polling by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of blacks had little or no confidence in the police to refrain from excessive use of force. And almost half of black respondents expressed the belief that blacks and whites are not treated equally by law enforcement. The recent spate of killings of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers only deepens this mistrust. And while blacks are shot by police at a higher rate than whites, 42 percent of those who die either in the process of arrest or restraint are white.
The two proposals I have set forth — independent investigations and body cameras — will not heal the racial divide in America. However, they might begin to repair the growing mistrust of law enforcement.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.
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