A black ribbon is attached to an antenna on a Yellow Cab in memory of Ben Sonnenberg during his funeral. Sonnenberg was a driver for the company. / File/Press-Gazette Media
Click the link with this story at greenbaypressgazette.com to hear Green Bay resident Brenda Spencer discuss the loss of her husband, who was fatally wounded in a confrontation with police outside a west side tavern.
Michael M. Bell, right, with son Michael E. Bell / Submitted
It took the violent death of his son, a decade-long battle against the city of Kenosha and its police department and cost nearly $1 million, but Michael Bell believes he has helped make police be more accountable when they’re involved in a fatal shooting.
However, the Kenosha man says more work must be done to guarantee the public can completely trust thorough investigations are done after an officer shoots and kills someone.
A bill signed into law in April requires a department in which an officer has killed someone must have another law-enforcement agency lead the investigation.
Provisions establishing an independent review panel and requiring officers involved in the shootings to undergo testing for intoxicants were stripped from the proposal so it would be approved by lawmakers.
“What was passed is going to make a difference, but we have to do more.” said Bell, whose 21-year-old son, also named Michael, was gunned down by Kenosha police after a 2004 traffic stop.
Police said Bell, who’d been unarmed, had resisted arrest. They cleared themselves of wrongdoing, but the city later paid a $1.75 million settlement to Bell’s family. His father estimates the campaign to hold Kenosha police accountable and get the law passed has consumed at least half of the settlement amount.
Police groups were split on the legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Garey Bies, a Sister Bay Republican who worked for the Door County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years. Supporters believe it is the first of its kind in the nation.
Green Bay and other large departments that had been investigating their own shootings maintained they were better-trained and better-staffed to conduct such investigations. They said precious time could be lost if officers had to wait for investigators from another agency. But the Wisconsin Professional Police Association supported it.
"There is a great value in having uniform standards applied across the board,"police association executive director Jim Palmer said. "This represents a positive move forward."
Several people who lost loved ones to police shootings maintain the system for investigating such incidents continues to tilt heavily in favor of the police. Officers in different departments might have worked together in the past, and the prosecutors who review the cases are relying on evidence gathered by police.
Green Bay resident Bill Sonnenberg’s son, Ben, was shot and killed by police in 2007. He said is glad that police can no longer lead an investigation into their own shooting.
But the new law doesn’t provide what Sonnenberg said he and the mother of Ben’s 6-year-old son most want: answers to what happened in the moments when four Green Bay police officers fired 33 bullets in Ben’s direction, striking him 11 times.
The investigation into the incident by Green Bay police said Ben Sonnenberg had sought to be shot and killed by police the night he needed. The Sonnenberg family, however, insists Ben had a lot to live for — he recently learned his girlfriend was pregnant with their first child.
Officers at the scene insisted Ben Sonnenberg had taken a shooting stance and fired once at them, but it was a cellphone he pointed at police.
“I don’t believe the truth has been spoken,” said Bill Sonnenberg, setting his jaw and patting the hand of Ben’s girlfriend, Shawna Schommer. “Something they’re saying is not right.”
Authorities in Milwaukee will have their first chance to see how the new law affects an investigation. A veteran officer on Wednesday shot and killed a man in a city park. A mentally ill man was shot after taking the officer’s baton and began to beat him over the head with it, causing minor injuries.
The state Department of Investigation is leading the inquiry with help from other agencies.
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