Wis. lawmaker: Police death bill faces tough fight
- Article by: TODD RICHMOND
- Associated Press
- December 12, 2013 - 5:30 PM
MADISON, Wis. — Families of people killed by police pressed a Wisconsin legislative committee Thursday to pass a bill that would revamp protocols for officer-involved death investigations, but the panel's chairman warned them the measure looks like a tough sell.
The bipartisan bill would require all departments to include at least two investigators from an outside agency in a death probe. The measure would create a new board within the state Department of Justice that review the investigation's findings and make a charging recommendation to the local district attorney.
The measure also would require any officer involved in a death to submit a blood sample. The sample couldn't be analyzed, however, without the officer's consent or a search warrant.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, chairman of the Assembly's criminal justice committee, told the measure's authors at the outset of a public hearing on the proposal that the measure makes it look like legislators don't trust the police.
"This is going to be a tough bill to get through," Kleefisch said. "There's no question about it."
Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, a former sheriff's deputy and one of the bill's chief sponsors, defended the measure, saying it would give the public confidence death investigations are handled properly.
"This makes it a much cleaner process," he said.
Wisconsin police are typically involved in anywhere from roughly a half-dozen to a dozen death incidents annually, according to the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. Smaller departments often rely on outside agencies to investigate, although the state's larger agencies, such as Madison and Milwaukee, investigate their own officers.
The bill's supporters contend such self-investigations force officers to investigate their friends and lead to credibility-sapping cover-ups. Relatives of people who died in officer-involved incidents lined up to speak to the committee about the bill despite Kleefisch's misgivings, taking turns telling the panel how they believe their loved one's death was unjustified, but officers still escaped charges.
John Heenan was one of them. Heenan's son, Paul Heenan, died in November 2012 when Madison Police Officer Stephen Heimsness shot him on the sidewalk during a scuffle. The department and the Dane County district attorney both found Heimsness did nothing wrong. Heimsness has since resigned, but Heenan's family and friends insist the investigation was a sham.
"We feel (the bill) would bring transparency and hopefully trust back to us and many members of the community who were left reeling after my son's death," Heenan said.
Sonya Moore's son, Derek Williams, a Milwaukee robbery suspect, died in July 2011 while gasping for air and pleading for help in the back of a squad car. The officers involved were never charged with any criminal wrongdoing — both state and federal prosecutors said they couldn't find enough evidence to support charges. Moore told the committee no one believes in the police.
"These are innocent kids getting killed," Moore said, telling a reporter outside the hearing: "How are you going to judge your friends? If he's your friend, you're going to say it's justified."
Opponents countered that most police agencies already have outside departments investigate officer-involved deaths and multiple levels of checks and balances already exist, ranging from criminal charges to internal discipline to civil lawsuits. Wisconsin judges also can initiate secret investigations into incidents, they said.
"This bill ... is a solution in search of a problem," Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, said in a letter Thursday to Kleefisch.
WPPA Executive Director Jim Palmer, who is weighing a run for attorney general as an independent next year, told the committee he doesn't have a problem with requiring all agencies to bring in outside investigators, saying everyone wants transparency.
But he said police don't need another level of bureaucracy. He questioned what would happen if a district attorney decided to go against the board's recommendations, telling a reporter outside the hearing such a dispute would hurt both sides' credibility.
Kleefisch said after the hearing he wants to see a compromise bill. He didn't elaborate on what he wants in it, saying only everyone should be able to live with it.
"I think that's possible," he said. "Law enforcement doesn't want bad deaths on their books."
© 2014 Star Tribune