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Local police departments ready for law requiring outside investigations in officer involved deaths

by
City of Wausau Police car. Image taken on 6/13/2011.
Wausau police cruiser with lights on outside Covantage Credit Union. copyright 2013 Midwest Communications, Inc.
City of Wausau Police car. Image taken on 6/13/2011.

MADISON, Wis. (WRN) -- Governor Scott Walker has signed into law a bill requiring outside investigators to take the lead on deaths involving law enforcement officers.

The new law requires a team of at least two investigators from an outside agency to lead reviews of such deaths. It also requires reports of custody death investigations throughout the state to be publicly released if criminal charges are not filed against the officers involved. The law makes Wisconsin the first in the nation to require an independent investigation of officer-involved deaths.

The bill’s authors, state Representative Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) and Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) were joined at the Milwaukee signing ceremony by family members of the deceased, law enforcement, and community advocates who worked together on language for the bill. “There has always been agreement that if the initial investigation isn’t handled correctly everything spirals downhill from there,” said Bies. “The public begins to lose trust in police-officers and that leaves our officers in harm’s way. An independent investigation process allows all parties involved to move forward with some peace of mind.”

Marshfield police chief Gary Jepsen says they've had a policy like this in place for some time. "We have been of the opinion that whenever we have a matter in which there appears to be some type of impropriety involving one of our officers, it would appear questionable for our department to investigate one of their own." Jepsen says he always hopes the program won't need to be used, but it is there. "Hopefully we're not going to have a serious incident in the future that's going to require this, but if something does happen, at least now we know and the general public knows how we intend to go about it."

Stevens Point police chief Kevin Ruder says he's happy to see the bill signed. "I think it is exactly what should be done to alleviate any thoughts that there might be some impropriety that would be done during an investigation of that magnitude." A number of communities in central Wisconsin have been taking part in this program for some time under mutual aid agreements, and Ruder says it's not just officer involved incidents that get the attention. "Quite a few years ago we had a fatality that involved one of our dispatchers, and we had the state patrol come do the investigation. They took it over from the very beginning."

The bill was prompted by the deaths of Paul Heenan, fatally shot by a Madison police officer outside his home last year, Derek Williams, who died after begging for help and gasping for breath in the back of a Milwaukee police squad car in 2011, and Michael Bell, shot in the head at close range by Kenosha police in his family’s driveway in 2004. All three men were unarmed.

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