Lawmakers hear testimony on bill to create review board for in-custody deaths

MADISON (WITI) -- Wisconsin lawmakers on Thursday, December 12th listened to more than three hours of testimony surrounding a controversial bill. The Criminal Justice Committee heard numerous arguments for and against Assembly Bill 409 -- a bill that would create a statewide review board to investigate any police-involved death.

Michael Bell was the first to testify on Thursday about a bill that supporters say would add integrity to the investigation of police-involved deaths.

Bell said he believes the system is broken.

His son was killed by Kenosha police in 2004. The shooting has been ruled justified, but Bell contends the investigation was anything but independent.

"Almost all of us agree that self-investigation is fundamentally wrong, yet what about hand-picking your own review board? Right now the current practice is 'I have an officer who shot somebody. I will go out in the community and find a police department I can work with and they'll review us,'" Bell said.

Joining hands with Bell's family on Thursday was Sonya Moore -- the mother of Derek Williams, who died in Milwaukee police custody in 2011.

Together, they watched John Heenan testify. His son, Paul was shot dead by Madison police in 2012.

"I don't mean to bring a lot of emotion to this committee. I just want you to understand how we feel. We feel there was not a good investigation done. We feel things were covered up," Heenan said.

The director of the state's largest police union testified Thursday that he supports some elements of the bill, but Jim Palmer says a five-member review board is unnecessary.

"So many layers of review -- whether it's citizen review through a Fire and Police Commission, an internal review the department does to maintain its independent polices have been followed, a D.A. can file a criminal inquest or file charges, a judge can file charges even if the D.A. doesn't want to," Palmer said.

Opponents of the bill say between the state's District Attorneys and their John Doe powers, the state can hold police accountable with measures already on the books.

"The board that would be created doesn't have the power to find probable cause, doesn't have the power to issue criminal charges, doesn't have the power to offer witnesses immunity, doesn't have the power to do really anything constructive to get at the root of what might have been a bad investigation," Ozaukee County D.A. Adam Gerol said.

The Milwaukee Police Department, the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office and the Fire and Police Commission sent a joint letter to the committee outlining how the Milwaukee Police Department currently handle critical incidents and why it's independent and reliable. However, the letter does not directly say whether or not they support AB 409.