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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, October 01, 2023

New state law aims to streamline internal police investigations

Wisconsin could become the national model for legislation streamlining the investigation policies law enforcement agencies must follow after a fatal incident involving an officer if the state approves the bill State Rep. Garey Bies, R–Sturgeon Bay, introduced Thursday.

Bies said in the event of a death involving an officer, his legislation would require that police departments across the state assemble a minimum three person investigative team as well as a separate board to review the finalized report the investigation team draws up.

Bies’s bill specifies at least two members of the investigative team be from outside agencies to ensure the public’s confidence that “things were done correctly,” especially if the department declares the officer in question acted appropriately.

Bies said a phone call from the father of Michael Bell, an unarmed man who was killed by a Kenosha police officer in 2004, inspired the state lawmaker to start working on the bill last November.

“It piqued my interest as we moved forward to find that nobody’s really got a matching procedure,” Bies said. “Everybody has different ways of handling it.”

Around the same time Bies began looking into the issue, Madison Police officer Stephen Heimsness shot and fatally wounded 30-year-old Paul Heenan on the 500 block of South Baldwin Street while responding to a burglary call, according to Madison Police Department records. The suspected robber turned out to be Heenan who, while intoxicated, accidentally entered his neighbor’s home.

Both Heimsness and the Kenosha officer involved in the Bell case were exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing after internal investigations into each incident by the officers’ respective departments.

During the almost year-long process of formulating the legislation, Bies said he and Rep. Chris Taylor, D–Madison, looked at larger police departments across the country and found that none had set up a standardized procedure to deal with officer-involved deaths.

“We are sort of a pioneer in this area for trying to establish a state-wide policy,” he said.

The bill will now go through a hearing before an Assembly committee reviews it and sends it to the entire Assembly for a vote. If the Assembly votes to pass, the state Senate will vote on the bill as well before sending it to Gov. Scott Walker for final approval.

“We want to step something forward, hopefully it never has to be used, but in reality incidents will happen again, and we want them handled correctly and as open as possible,” Bies said.

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