Michael Bell has the unfortunate luck of being the father of a man who was killed by police. On November 4, 2004, his son was coming back from a night out when a skirmish in front of his home led to his son being shot in the head by a Kenosha, Wisconsin officer.
Within a few days, the police department cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing, and then submitted their report to the district attorney, who ruled the shooting justified. The Bell family filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city, which was settled for $1.75 million.
His son's case sparked a long post-career of advocating for police accountability in Wisconsin (Bell is a retired Air Force officer). "If the police shoot my son, who is blond haired and blue eyed, and they clear themselves of it without any accountability, what kind of other stuff are they getting away with?" he asks in a phone conversation with Fusion. He is one of the main reasons that last year, Wisconsin passed the nation's first bill requiring police departments to undergo outside reviews for deaths that occur in custody. Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law.
Recently, Bell has found his work back in the spotlight. On March 4 in his hometown of Kenosha, a man was shot by police. Even more troubling: the very day the officer who shot the man was back on the job— 10 days later— he was involved in another shooting.
The officer, Pablo Torres, has been on Bell's radar for about ten years now. Back in 2005, Torres tasered one of Bell's then-employees while he was holding his 18-month-old daughter, and then proceeded to beat him. The incident is on Torres' internal affairs record, but no disciplinary action ever came of the case. Bell's employee's injuries were so severe that Bell filed a formal complaint alleging excessive use of force against Torres. He even took out an ad in the local paper to display it:
"This is what really bothers me here: I have access to [Torres's] internal affairs file, and this guy has been an excessive force candidate for a long time, and you have to scratch your head and ask if these things are all coincidences," Bell said.
Not that the cases Torres is involved with are all cut and dry. The victim in the first case was said to be advancing on police with knives, and in the most recent case, the victim was said to be using a "weapon" against police officers. Police have so far declined to clarify what weapon that might have been. Both cases are currently under investigation.
But recent incidents do raise some questions about how police departments might keep tabs on potential bad apples in the bunch. In other words, whether police departments are participating in "liability management," as one police consultant puts it.
University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman says the answer is a resounding "no." In one study, he found that almost half of all complaints and lawsuits filed against the Chicago Police Department came from only a handful of police officers, but that the city doesn't even track it.
"There’s a small percent who have been allowed to just do this with darn near impunity," Futterman recently told Marketplace. "Despite the bills racking up, and despite all the complaints."
Chicago isn't an outlier. According to a study released last year by the New York University Law Review, some of the biggest police departments across the nation don't keep data that will help them identify problematic officers.
Back in Kenosha, Bell says that he has been scheduled on the agenda for an upcoming city council meeting, where he will be taking up some of these issues with local leaders.
"If you don't start putting the pressure on [the police], nothing will change," Bell said.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.