After police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot my 21-year-old son to death outside his house ten years ago — and then immediately cleared themselves of all wrongdoing — an African-American man approached me and said: “If they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we’ve been going through.”
I could imagine it all too easily, just as the rest of the country has been seeing it all too clearly in the terrible images coming from Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown. On Friday, after a week of angry protests, the police in Ferguson finally identified the officer implicated in Brown’s shooting, although the circumstances still remain unclear.
I have known the name of the policeman who killed my son, Michael, for ten years. And he is still working on the force in Kenosha.
Yes, there is good reason to think that many of these unjustifiable homicides by police across the country are racially motivated. But there is a lot more than that going on here. Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.
I got the phone call at 2 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2004. It was my oldest daughter. She said you need to come to the hospital right away, Michael’s been shot by the police. My first gut reaction was, “Michael doesn’t do anything serious enough to get shot by a police officer.” I thought he’d gotten shot in the leg or whatever. When I arrived, I saw the district attorney huddled with about five police officers. The last time I saw my son alive he was on a gurney, with his head wrapped in a big towel and blood coming out of it. I learned that an officer had put his gun up directly to Michael’s right temple and misfired, then did it again, and shot him.
From the beginning I cautioned patience, though Michael’s mother and sister were in an uproar. They had watched him get shot. But as an Air Force officer and pilot I knew the way safety investigations are conducted, and I was thinking that this was going to be conducted this way. Yet within 48 hours I got the message: The police had cleared themselves of all wrongdoing. In 48 hours! They hadn’t even taken statements from several eyewitnesses. Crime lab reports showed that my son’s DNA or fingerprints were not on any gun or holster, even though one of the police officers involved in Michael’s shooting had claimed that Michael had grabbed his gun.
The officer who killed my son, Albert Gonzalez, is not only still on the force ten years later, he is also a licensed concealed-gun instructor across the state line in Illinois—and was identified by the Chicago Tribune in an Aug. 7 investigative story as one of “multiple instructors [who] are police officers with documented histories of making questionable decisions about when to use force.”
From the beginning I allowed the investigation to proceed and didn’t know it was a sham until many of the facts were discovered. But before long I realized a cover-up was under way. I hadn’t understood at first how closely related the DA and the police were—during his election campaign for judge, the DA had been endorsed in writing by every police agency in the county. Now he was investigating them. It was a clear conflict of interest.
The police claimed that one officer screamed that Michael grabbed his gun after they stopped him, for reasons that remain unclear though he was slightly intoxicated, and then Gonzalez shot him, sticking the gun so close against his temple that he left a muzzle imprint. Michael wasn’t even driving his own car. He’d been out with a designated driver, but the designated driver drank and was younger, and so my son made the decision to drive.
Wanting to uncover the truth, our family hired a private investigator who ended up teaming up with a retired police detective to launch their own investigation. They discovered that the officer who thought his gun was being grabbed in fact had caught it on a broken car mirror. The emergency medical technicians who arrived later found the officers fighting with each other over what happened. We filed an 1,100-page report detailing Michael’s killing with the FBI and US Attorney.
It took six years to get our wrongful death lawsuit settled, and my family received $1.75 million. But I wasn’t satisfied by a long shot. I used my entire portion of that money and much more of my own to continue a campaign for more police accountability. I wanted to change things for everyone else, so no one else would ever have to go through what I did. We did our research: In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified. There was one shooting we found, in 2005, that was ruled justified by the department and an inquest, but additional evidence provided by citizens caused the DA to charge the officer. The city of Milwaukee settled with a confidentiality agreement and the facts of that sealed. The officer involved committed suicide.
The problem over many decades, in other words, was a near-total lack of accountability for wrongdoing; and if police on duty believe they can get away with almost anything, they will act accordingly. As a military pilot, I knew that if law professionals investigated police-related deaths like, say, the way that the National Transportation Safety Board investigated aviation mishaps, police-related deaths would be at an all time low.
And so, together with other families who lost loved ones, I launched a campaign in the Wisconsin legislature calling for a new law that would require outside review of all deaths in police custody. I contacted everybody I could. In the beginning, I contacted the governor’s office, the attorney general and the US attorney for Wisconsin. They didn’t even return my phone calls or letters. I even contacted Oprah, every Associated Press bureau in the nation, every national magazine and national news agency and didn’t hear a word.
But Frank Serpico, the famous retired New York City police detective, helped. He had his own experience taking on police corruption. I set up billboards and a website and took out newspaper ads, including national ads in the New York Times and USA Today, and Serpico allowed me to use his endorsement. “When police take a life, should they investigate themselves?” the ad read.
Finally we began to get some movement, helped by a friendly Republican legislator, Garey Bies, and a Democratic assemblyman named Chris Taylor, in August of 2012. In April of this year we passed a law that made Wisconsin the first state in the nation to mandate at legislative level that police-related deaths be reviewed by an outside agency. Ten days after it went into effect in May, local police shot a man sleeping on a park bench 15 times. It’s one of the first incidents to be investigated under the new law.
I’m not anti-cop. And I am finding that many police want change as well: The good officers in the state of Wisconsin supported our bill from the inside, and it was endorsed by five police unions. But I also think the days of Andy Griffith and the Mayberry peacekeeper are over. As we can see in the streets of Ferguson, today’s police are also much more heavily equipped, armed and armored—more militarized. They are moving to more paramilitary-type operations as well, and all those shifts call for more transparency and more rules of restraint. And yet they are even less accountable in some ways than the US military in which I served. Our citizens need protection from undue force, here in our own country, and now.
Michael Bell is a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force.