יום רביעי, 10 באוגוסט 2016

Reaching Across the Thin Blue Line


How the head of a police union and the father of a son killed by a police officer found common cause.

The cycle of violence between police and their communities shows no sign of ending. Last month,, police officers were shot to death in Dallas and Baton Rouge, apparently by perpetrators bent on vengeance of some sort for the killings of African-Americans. Now, in the wake of the shooting death of an unarmed teenager named Paul O’Neal in Chicago on July 28, street gangs in that city are reportedly planning to retaliate against police. As a result, around the country some police officials are coming to realize they must make a better effort to reach out to their communities, just as some advocates of victims are seeking a better dialogue and greater understanding with police.

One of the most remarkable stories of these attempts at reconciliation involves Jim Palmer, head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, and Michael Bell, the activist-father of a police-shooting victim, both of whom overcame initial hostility and mistrust to join together in supporting one of the most forward-looking pieces of legislation in the country intended to restore trust to police. Here is their story, told in their own voices:

Jim Palmer

The first time I heard the name Michael Bell was in 2005, when the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA)—the state’s largest law enforcement group, of which I’m executive director—planned to give awards to officers in the city of Kenosha for actions that resulted in the death of a 21-year-old male suspect on Nov. 9, 2004. The man had struggled with alcohol addiction since his early teens, and despite having a court appearance the following morning on a felony charge of marijuana possession and several misdemeanors, and that he was free on bond on the condition that he not drink and drive, he had gone to a tavern that night with some friends. According to the officers at the scene, after unsuccessfully attempting to subdue the young man with a Taser, they were forced to shoot him when he grabbed one of the officer’s holstered gun.

The young man’s name was Michael Bell. His father was Michael Bell Sr.

A businessman and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Bell placed full page ads in several national newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times, criticizing the WPPA for awarding the officers that had caused the death of his son, and raising for the first time the issue of whether police departments should be allowed to investigate themselves when it comes to use-of-force cases. While I was only working as a legislative lobbyist and staff attorney for the WPPA at the time, it was clear that the leadership of the organization was uneasy at the public attention.

I knew that he Kenosha Police Department investigated the matter, quickly concluding that the officers’ actions were justified. Shortly thereafter, the local district attorney did the same. In the announcement of his decision, the DA said people “do not have the right to fight with a cop. Nobody does.” Following these determinations and on the basis of the facts considered by the authorities, the WPPA’s awards committee of officers from around Wisconsin concluded that it would recognize the Kenosha officers at its annual convention in May of 2005.

Nonetheless, while Bell’s unorthodox approach had effectively served to draw attention to his son’s case ...


Michael Bell

After my son, Michael, was killed by a police officer, I resisted the urge to rush to judgment and waited until the facts came in, before concluding whether the officer had used excessive force. Michael’s mother and sister had witnessed him being held down by an officer, hands cuffed behind his back, and hearing an officer scream “He has my gun!” Another officer immediately drew his weapon, placed the barrel directly against my son’s temple, and pulled the trigger, taking Michael’s life.

As a United States Air Force pilot, I expected a National Transportation Safety Board-type of investigation of my son’s death. Instead, the local police department cleared itself of wrongdoing within 48 hours. Two weeks later, a district attorney, who refused to give our family an inquest, ruled the shooting justified.

I reached out to state and federal officials but was simply ignored. Then the state’s largest police union gave the three officers involved in my son’s death meritorious service awards. Recognizing that the traditional justice system had locked down in support of police officers and failed us, I had to resort to press/radio ads, TV commercials and highway billboards to call attention to a system that investigated itself.

After our city and I reached a $1.75 million settlement in a federal civil rights lawsuit, we brought awareness to the death of a Vietnam vet killed over a dispute involving fireworks, a young black male who suffocated in the back seat of a squad car and a white musician who inadvertently entered the wrong side of his duplex and was shot by police. But I knew the only way to really change things was to change the law and create a body that would independently investigate police violence.

If you think changing state law is easy, think again. It’s next to impossible, especially in regards to law enforcement.


Jim Palmer

In the next few years that followed, I was generally aware that Bell had continued to push the case of his son. For example, the Wisconsin attorney general rebuffed his request to review the matter, stating that she lacked the authority to do so. With few other options, Bell sued the City of Kenosha over the death of his son, and in 2010, that suit was settled for $1.7 million, which was a significant sum for cases of this type in Wisconsin.

Armed with new resources, Bell began a billboard campaign to publicly raise the question again: “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” The provocative ads appeared to inspire greater attention than his newspaper ads from five years before, though they seemed relatively sporadic and predominantly concentrated n Milwaukee. That attention grew considerably when, in 2012, Bell launched dozens of billboards in Milwaukee over the controversial death of a black man in police custody. The squad’s video of the man as he expired in the back of a squad car was played again and again by the media, and seemed to find a place within a larger narrative emerging on the national stage. Still, considering that Wisconsin had just come out of a contentious and historic two-year period brought about by an attack on the state’s collective bargaining laws, substantial reductions in the amount of state aid distributed to our cities, and an unsuccessful effort to recall the governor, the Milwaukee-targeted ads did not yet appear to generate prevalent statewide attention.

That changed when an officer with the Madison Police Department shot and killed a man by the name of Paul Heenan during a confrontation on November 9, 2012, when Heenan was said to have advanced on the officer who shot him, attempting to seize his drawn gun. The similarities of Heenan’s death and that of Michael Bell’s son seemed numerous. As reported in the media, both had histories of struggling with alcohol, both were intoxicated on the night of their deaths, and both were “unarmed” until it was determined that they moved aggressively toward police in such a way as to justify law enforcement’s use of deadly force. Additionally, both were white.

By this time, I had become the WPPA’s executive director. Among other changes, we launched a strategic public relations effort to expand our ability to communicate, educate and engage the media and general public. At the time of Paul Heenan’s tragic death, the WPPA had already begun formulating plans to better gauge public sentiment on law enforcement issues through the use of scientific polling—something that, even today, no other police group conducts on a consistent basis.

Almost immediately after the shooting of Heenan, Bell expanded his campaign to include not only billboards throughout the Madison area, but television and newspapers ads as well. Some of Bell’s new billboards used new messages, such as “Bad cops stain good cops,” which I and many local officers found offensive for inappropriately insinuating that an officer under investigation was a “bad cop.” Nonetheless, the Bell campaign garnered the widespread attention of the local media.

Then, in December of 2012, Michael Bell reached out to me.


Michael Bell

Our actual first meeting occurred in January of 2013, just months after a fatal shooting by the Madison Police Department. And it only happened because I barged into his office. I had leased billboards on major highways calling out police for investigating themselves. As you can imagine, law enforcement wasn’t keen about it. I had sent an email request to meet with the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association to discuss how we might improve the post-shooting investigation process. He was in no way amused and made it clear that he would not meet with me under those conditions. Our email exchange was contentious to say the least. The door was closed because we both refused to back down.

Several weeks later, while I was in Madison and driving past the WPPA headquarters, one of our team members laughingly suggested that I stop in and say hello. In my mind I thought NO WAY, but I remembered the words of General George S. Patton, “Audacity, audacity, always audacity.” So I went inside and asked for an impromptu meeting with James Palmer III. To my surprise and I am sure his, Jim invited me into his office. We ended up talking for an hour.

After some introductions, I discussed how aviation mishaps were handled by the NTSB and that if police fatal shootings were investigated in similar fashion, both the community and police would benefit. He seemed to be intrigued by my logic, but made it clear that as long as the billboards were up, the conversation would go no further.

After several argumentative days, we reached our first compromise. The billboards would remain up for several more days, but more importantly, I would not renew their lease, thereby effectively ending the campaign. He in turn would help me craft the legislation I sought.

Our first chore was building a level of trust. We set the ground rules for how we would handle our disclosures/discoveries. There would be no secret recording of our conversations, no running to the media with discrediting information, no grandstanding and no tearing down. During this phase we talked about our families, our sons and that his brother also was a USAF officer. At some level I think he felt what it must be like to lose a child. I recognized his deep respect for those who wear the blue uniform.

Over the next several months, we sat together in the WPPA conference room and crafted a bill. He shared with me the inner workings of legislation and law enforcement. I shared with him my aviator’s perspective on how pilots keep a jet from crashing, and how accidents were investigated when they do. To my amazement, we drafted a joint news release stating that the WPPA and the father of a man killed by a policeman were working together to craft legislation.


Jim Palmer

At times our language was direct, and I recall that we both candidly expressed our ire with the other. He was frustrated about the fact that the WPPA has awarded the officers that killed his son, and I was frustrated that he was using his campaign to encourage the destructive rush to judgment in cases of law enforcement’s use of force. Neither of us held back, and we still have passionate exchanges on these matters today.

Eventually, Bell raised the notion of the two of us meeting in person to begin a broadened conversation. I expressed a willingness to do so, but I also made clear that I would not agree to a meeting “at the tip of a spear” while his billboards remained. Not knowing me at all, he was understandably resistant at first. Would I agree to meetings in order to stall his campaign, only to then blow him off? He couldn’t be sure. Likewise, could I agree to examine and explore issues with him without concern that he might publicly distort my positions? I didn’t know.

Shortly after our email exchange, Bell made an unannounced and unexpected visit to my office. While I’m not one to turn down an opportunity to meet with anyone and have a discussion, I’m not a fan of insolence. Nonetheless, I received Bell and we discussed briefly how we might be able to come together and engage in a broad discourse in earnest. Not long after that meeting, Bell decided not to extend his billboard campaign as he had originally planned. To his credit, the billboards came down, as did the impediment to our ability to begin a dialogue. Though I was incredibly disappointed that the billboards didn’t garner as much attention when they came down as when they went up, I was prepared to fulfill my part of the bargain.

At our first meeting, Bell and I set about to establish some basic ground rules designed to build a foundation of trust. We both recognized that we would gain very little if one of us resorted to grandstanding, or if we couldn’t be candid with one another. But perhaps the most important achievement made in that meeting was that we first met as fathers. I began the meeting by openly talking about my own family, the fact that I had sons of my own, and that I couldn’t begin to fathom his loss. In that moment, and for the purpose of our ongoing dialogue, our views regarding the incident that resulted in the tragic death of his son were irrelevant. Like me, he was a father, and we spent much of that first meeting talking as one father to another about that inherent and mutual bond.

In the months that followed, we discussed a plethora of ideas for potential reform, some of which were very basic, while others were more convoluted. Though Bell has shared his belief with me that I backed away from him at some of these meetings, I don’t remember it that way. Nonetheless, it is true that there were some within law enforcement who were skeptical of my aims, and those who questioned why I would grant Bell an audience at all in light of some of his allegations. Fortunately, those pressures were not posed by the board of directors that oversee my performance.

In August of 2013, Republican state Representative Garey Bies introduced bipartisan legislation mandating the independent investigations of officer-involved deaths. Initially, all of the other law enforcement special interest groups, such as those that lobby on behalf of the chiefs and sheriffs in the state, and even the Wisconsin attorney general, opposed the measure. This opposition stemmed, in part, from the fact that the bill contained other provisions that would not have passed constitutional muster, but also because they felt there was no need to change how these sensitive situations are investigated. Additionally, there was much discussion among the law enforcement groups about whether this law would unnecessarily bind the hands of departments that already had personnel with the expertise and experience to conduct these independent reviews.

By contrast, the WPPA offered a different, more constructive response to the legislation. Whenever and wherever I could, I expressed the view that, as the state’s largest law enforcement group, the WPPA felt an obligation to maintain an open mind and explore whether improvements could be made.


Michael Bell

Of course, there was some backsliding. Other police shootings occurred in the state, and for whatever reason, Jim cancelled meetings. On occasion, I would tell him how close I came to buying additional advertising. Yet we always remained professional and never abandoned working together.

Around this time, Jim pulled away (I think he was getting massive heat from his board or the other unions) and our team pursued legislators to sponsor the legislation we crafted. I was blessed to meet Rep. Garey Bies, a Republican, U.S. Navy veteran and a retired chief deputy sheriff. Having a retired law enforcement professional leading the legislative charge was a tremendous boost to its credibility. On the other side of the aisle, we were able to work with Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat in whose district the Heenan shooting occurred.

An advocate suggested that local district attorneys, union officials and law enforcement personnel meet the families who lost loved ones from police action, but without the legislators. To my surprise, the Dane County Sheriff hosted the event and Jim Palmer and I sat side by side. The event was a success, clearly showing that law enforcement was serious about having dialogue with the community.

Then came another setback. The head of the state House justice committee refused to allow the bill to be heard. Our only hope for saving it was to have it transferred to an alternative committee. State leaders would determine the bill’s fate by Friday noon. That morning, I made an agonizing decision (without my wife’s knowledge or approval) to purchase an expensive national ad in USA Today, notifying millions of readers that retired NYPD detective Frank Serpico—the subject of the famous movie starring Al Pacino—had endorsed the reforms we sought. I subsequently called the Wisconsin speaker of the Senate, speaker of the House and the governor’s office to politely give them a heads-up that a national ad was coming, and to let each know I was sending a copy for their files.

Shortly after lunch, the bill was transferred to a friendlier committee and eventually was heard in a packed-house hearing. Our family and two others who had lost children, personally delivered copies of USA TODAY to each office at the capitol. Jim says that the USA Today ad was a key moment because it gave the bill enough strength to have legs of its own.

Other setbacks occurred. Two key bill items were stripped. Immediately, my team was up in arms. I had to calm the outrage, reminding everyone that what remained in the bill was still a large step forward. I knew, deep in my pilot’s heart, that changing the focus of an investigation from “Who is right or wrong?” to “How did it happen and what could we do to prevent it from happening again?” was critical to both sides—citizens and police officers. One of the bill’s most important features remained—external investigation (very similar to the NTSB investigation model).


Jim Palmer

I openly expressed the view, in both public forums and private settings with some of the interested parties, that it was simply untenable for law enforcement to oppose everything in the bill. We needed to find something that we could be for, and thus become part of the driving force behind any reform. The WPPA strongly and aggressively supported the independent investigations bill, recognizing that this measure of accountability would help build credibility and trust in the officers who police our streets. Ultimately, to their credit, every law enforcement organization in the state came to support the bill as well.

As part of our efforts to support this legislation’s passage, the WPPA initiated its first statewide polling effort in 2014. Conducted by the St. Norbert College Strategic Research Institute, the object of the poll was to assess the public’s views on host of law enforcement and public safety-related issues. Included in this poll were multiple questions to gauge the public sentiment toward the independent investigations legislation.

Our poll revealed an incredible amount of public support for the initiative, with more than 80 percent of the poll’s respondents favoring it. In the waning days of the legislative session, I promoted these results in every media market in the state, meeting with as many newspaper editorial boards as I could. I shared these results widely with the Legislature as well and met with lawmakers of both parties to gain its passage. To this day, I credit those poll results and the way in we touted them as key to the bill’s eventual success. The poll served to reinforce the WPPA’s position with its members who were supportive, soften the opposition of those within law enforcement and otherwise, and motivate our state’s elected leaders from both parties to break with what had become a tradition of discord and derision inside our State Capitol. At the same time, Bell broadly ran ads to draw even more attention to this importance of the bill.

Eventually, through the combined efforts of law enforcement groups and citizen advocates alike, Wisconsin’s independent investigations bill was signed into law in April of 2014. Since then, it has worked very well. The law requires objectivity and transparency, and it has benefited both the public and law enforcement alike. While the success of our law is appropriately shared by many, a strong argument can be made that without Michael Bell and the WPPA, this groundbreaking reform would not have been possible. I’m sure Michael will continue to push for additional reforms, and I and the WPPA will actively do the same.

Going forward, we have already identified areas of some common agreement, such as the need for more states to formally require the independent investigation of officer-involved deaths, expanding law enforcement’s use of body cameras, and the need for more data on how law enforcement interacts with the public. Neither of us suffers from the misperception that these initiatives represent a panacea to the problems confronting our country, but they are all constructive and meaningful steps that can be pursued in the short term. While Michael Bell and I both recognize the reality that there will be times when we disagree, we also appreciate the importance of a dialogue that is built upon a foundation of candor, empathy, trust and a willingness to find common ground.

That foundation seems largely nonexistent today as this country finds itself caught in what appears to be a never-ending cycle dominated by sensational snap judgments and condemnations of blame that serve only to further divide us as Americans. The issues of policing and institutional racism are complex and deep, and the opposing views that exist on these matters are the byproducts of experiences that are real and unique. Only when we acknowledge the pain on the other side can we truly begin to heal as one nation. Whether that is possible in the hyperpoliticized environment of a presidential election cycle remains to be seen, but I for one, am optimistic. I want to believe that we possess the ability to set our differences aside.


Michael Bell

Before the law was signed, legislators told me that Jim had been in their offices several times. I later learned that he had to go to practically every legislator’s office and personally assure them that the WPPA supported this bill. Lawmakers were petrified at the idea they might be tagged as anti-law enforcement by supporting this type of reform. Jim had to work just as hard as I to insure the bill’s success.

Knowing what I know now, I’m convinced that this bill would have never been signed if it wasn’t for law enforcement. We were so fortunate to have some of the nation’s forward-thinking people in key positions.

The bill went to the floor and was unanimously passed by the House, followed by the Senate and signed into law on April 23, 2014. At the governor’s signing, families who lost members to police action, legislators and the leaders of five police unions stood side by side in the background to applaud. It was a healing moment for many and a step forward for the nation.

Moving forward, the gains made in Wisconsin could easily be duplicated elsewhere—in Louisiana, Missouri and Minnesota, in Texas and Illinois—if just one leader in a police union had the audacity to listen to what the public was asking. A simple advance in technology, the cellphone camera, has brought the historic problem of police investigating police to light as a national crisis. In our small way, Jim Palmer and I delivered at least a partial solution to the mistrust of policy in communities across America. Even though we still sometimes have vast differences in viewpoint, we set aside our egos, respected each other and worked for the greater good of the whole. The bill we put together is an essential starting point for police departments that want to establish greater credibility within their community. It all happens when law enforcement decides to be part of the solution.

Jim Palmer is the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

Michael Bell is an activist and the father of a police shooting victim.

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