October 25, 2014

Lawmakers want outside review of officer-involved deaths

Following several high profile cases of officer-involved deaths, state lawmakers are pushing a plan that would create new rules for how those incidents are investigated. The bill, from state Representatives Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) and Chris Taylor (D-Madison), would require police departments to appoint a three-person team to investigate deaths involving one of their officers, with two members coming from outside of the agency.

Bies, a former law enforcement officer, says the bill would establish a procedure for how the investigation is conducted and who will conduct it so that there is more transparency to the process. The findings of the panel would only be recommendations. Local district attorneys would make the final decision on whether any charges are warranted.

Police agencies across the state often come under fire after police are involved in the death of someone. In Madison, the agency’s handling of the fatal shooting of Paul Heenan last November by a Madison police officer has been the subject of intense scrutiny. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing, but later resigned after police discovered other evidence of misconduct. Milwaukee Police have also faced heavy criticism, after a robbery suspect died in the back of a squad car from a medical emergency while officers ignored calls for help.

Rep. Taylor says the public needs to have confidence that an impartial review is being done after these types of incidents take place. She says “community members depend on law enforcement to keep us safe, and law enforcement officers depend…on the trust and faith of their community to do perform that job.” Taylor believes the bill will help to enhance both of those.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen says officer-involved deaths are already subject to intense review and taken very seriously by police and prosecutors. He says the bill is “unnecessary, unworkable and an expansion of government’s already too burdensome bureaucracy.”