By Zoe Harris, MPP Candidate 2017
For nearly a decade, Wisconsin drivers faced billboards with the nozzle of a gun and the text, “When police kill, should they judge themselves?”
The campaign was headed by Michael Bell, whose unarmed son was killed by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After the shooting, the Kenosha Police Department’s detective division and internal affairs division conducted an investigation and within 48 hours determined that there was no wrongdoing.
Bell’s campaign created enough waves that in 2014 Governor Scott Walker signed into law legislation that made Wisconsin the first state to mandate outside investigators for all incidences when police officers use deadly force. Remarkably, the legislation received bipartisan support and backing from police unions.
California, the state with the largest police force, must follow Wisconsin’s lead. In an attempt to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they intend to serve, the California State Legislature should pass legislation that mandates independent investigations for all fatal police and civilian encounters.
Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) introduced a bill – AB 86 — in 2015 calling for just that. The Bill would have required the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct the investigation, granting them the sole authority to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.
However, the Bill died due to the estimated costs. As McCarty’s office explains, the costs were calculated from outdated numbers and didn’t include the money saved on the local level from potential lawsuits and DA expenses.
While the exact frequency of police shootings in California is guesswork — Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, but as the title suggests, all deaths that occur before arrest are uncounted —the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California counted 610 homicides attributed to law enforcement in the process of arrest from 2008 to 2014. 598 of the 610 people were shot to death. The only two fatalities classified as unjustified also happened to be filmed.
The need for independent investigations stems from the close working relationship between law enforcement and DA’s, giving the appearance of impropriety. When police officers use deadly force, the local DA leads the investigation. Cook County’s former State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez pressed charges against the Chicago officer who shot and killed Laquan McDonald thirteen months after the incident and the day before the release of video footage.
Police unions and DA’s have stated their opposition. However, transparency will protect police officers who follow protocol and as McCarty explains, “district attorneys will no longer have to worry about investigating the police with whom they work so closely with.”
Last year, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter as her fellow justices granted immunity to a Texas officer who shot and killed a motorist fleeing the police. “By sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing,” Sotomayor wrote, “the court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.”
Independent investigations will begin to address our growing disillusionment with the justice system by returning a degree of impartiality and confidence to a system many feel is corrupt.