The 24 Billboards Outside Kenosha, Wisconsin Tell A Father’s Real Story
Michael Bell's son was shot point-blank by police. Nothing happened, so he started posting ads. Then, people began to notice.
Michael Bell, Sr. is a man on a mission. In November 2004, the retired Air Force Colonel’s 21-year-old son, Michael Bell Jr., was shot point-blank by a police officer. The incident happened after his son was pulled over on suspicion of driving while under the influence near their home of Kenosha, Wisconsin. After stopping his vehicle, Bell Jr. was removed from the car and handcuffed. Then, after a police officer shouted that he had grabbed at one of the officer’s guns, he was shot in the head.
Well, that’s at least what the Kenosha Police Department claims happened. After being handcuffed, Bell Jr. was pulled off to the side so the scene wasn’t caught on the police cruiser’s dashboard cam. Bell Jr.’s mother and sister were standing 10 feet away. A total of five eyewitnesses watched the shooting and have different recollections of what took place. The medical examiner’s report contradicts that of the police investigation, but a brief internal investigation exonerated the officers involved, concluding that they acted lawfully. Bell Sr. didn’t buy it. He hired professionals and investigators to look into both the department and their story and find out why and how his son died. He’s worked tirelessly to find answers — and change the way departments handle internal investigations of such matters — ever since.
In his search for answers — and to keep his case in the public eye — Bell utilized billboards. In 2012, inspired by the wrongful death of a Vietnam veteran, he took out a billboard that read “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” He’s done this several times since, including this past November. Near the 13th anniversary of his son’s death, he leased 24 billboards in and around Kenosha that call for the investigation into his son’s case to be opened. Most recently, he took out a $60,000 dollar ad in the Washington Post that appeared the day of the State of the Union. That ad — and the now 43 billboards he’s posted around Wisconsin — have generated attention, and, most likely the eye of writer/director Martin McDonagh, who wrote this year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbings Missouri. But what Michael really desires is action.
Fatherly spoke to Michael about his recent attempts to keep the case in the public’s mind, the loss of his son, and why he’s using his privilege to fight for accountability in police departments.
Did you ever think about police violence or police accountability before Michael’s death happened?
After having my son killed by a police officer, while his mother and sister stood 10 feet away, I recognized there were problems with the investigation into the shooting. I made complaints to people that I expected to be able to handle those complaints — the U.S. Attorney, the governor, the Attorney General. Nobody responded. If it happened to me, as a military officer who served in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Desert Storm, then I knew that there was a problem for other people as well. If they didn’t have the resources, or were Asian, or Hispanic, or African American, then I knew they were being blocked.
I would say the average public person out there is the ignorant, white professional. If it doesn’t happen to them, they don’t think it’s a problem. They believe that law enforcement must be correct, so they don’t pay attention to it. There’s more pushback from them, but if anything they’re the group that can handle this.
You did a lot of work before your big Washington Post ad, including a few controversial billboards, is that correct?
In 2012, I took a number of billboards in the state of Wisconsin. The billboards said, “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” I really think that is the inspiration for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbings, Missouri. I wanted to quit. I just felt, in my heart, that I could not make a difference.
But in August of 2012, there was a police shooting in Appleton, Wisconsin. A Vietnam veteran was blowing off some bottle rockets and an officer killed him. He laid in the street for eight hours before they could get a coroner out there. I remember it was a Sunday in August and my son came to me in a dream. He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “Dad, can you believe it? I’m here early for my birthday party.” He hugged me and I woke up. I said, “I’m going to give this one last chance.” So I called up a billboard advertising representative that I knew and I said, “Do you have anything near that college in Appleton, where that Vietnam vet got killed?” He said, “I have one billboard on College Avenue. You can have it.” We put it up there and it generated seven media reports.
What did you hope to accomplish by renting out the billboards?
I recognized that by going into a community where there was a questionable shooting and putting up a billboard, that I could raise awareness. In Milwaukee, there was a young man who suffocated in the backseat of a squad car. He begged officers to help. They ignored and ridiculed him. You could see his last breath on camera. His name was Derek Williams. I put up 17 billboards in Milwaukee. And then the police union went after me.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, and then you win.” I knew I was getting closer. After the complaints I added about 26 more billboards. I had 43 billboards in total, and 12 and a half million people looking at them.
Did your public pressure on the police and Kenosha help re-open an investigation into your son’s death?
I kept asking for an investigation into my son’s death. Two years later, the U.S. Attorney said, “No, we’re not going to do anything about it.”
At that point, I couldn’t do it anymore. Then, in October of 2015, the police officers in Dallas were killed. Politico re-ran an article that I wrote, and the next thing I know, I’m on national news with Chris Cuomo, and I’m talking with the director of the NAACP of Minneapolis about the Philando Castile shooting. But I could never get my son’s case opened. Then, in August of 2017, a very conservative judge issued a ruling on the Kenosha Police Department and the Kenosha County District Attorney, showing that they were involved in a coverup, and that officers planted a driver’s license and a bullet on the scene in a homicide case.
That’s pretty damning. What are some changes that you think need to happen in Wisconsin regarding law enforcement?
When I was a military pilot, the first thing that would happen if I was involved in any instance of fatality, is I would go to the flight surgeon and they would draw my blood and do an analysis. That doesn’t happen in law enforcement.
We’ve been pushing for a National Transportation Safety Board type of learning system for law enforcement. Any accident that happens in transportation gets looked at. They issue a recommendation to help prevent it from happening again. About 80 percent of those recommendations are implemented. Law enforcement doesn’t have a system like that. They don’t have learning models to issue recommendations. They don’t even have a data set or storage system to see if reforms are improving the problems. If they can learn a different way of doing something, after they recognize that somebody died accidentally, they don’t even share those lessons among each other. That’s another reason why I placed the ad in the Washington Post. If I continue to place awareness that there’s a problem but there are also solutions, I can kick the ball forward.
In other words, you keep telling and telling until something happens.
I go back to the Bernie Madoff story. There’s a guy named Harry Markopoulos, who for nine years, kept telling the SEC that there was a problem. This is the same type of thing. If you take a look at the Larry Nassar case, nobody would listen. If you take a look at Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky, nobody would listen. Right now, nobody is listening. But by keeping an awareness on it, I’m getting people to listen.
Even though I’m entitled by the law to open an investigation into my son’s death, state, local, and federal officials aren’t allowing that to happen. So I put an ad in the Washington Post because it is the nation’s premiere newspaper. I knew if I tried to get it in front of the right people at the right time, I would have it. So we put it in on the day the President was going to be giving the State of the Union address, knowing that all of the congressmen from around the nation would be in D.C. The senior correspondents from news agencies would also be there because they’d cover Trump. It was a gamble.
Before the Washington Post ad, we had put out trailer for the film we made about my son’s death. We added the contacts for the Attorney General, the Sheriff, and our county District Attorney asking for a re-investigation to it. When I made the decision to turn the video into a DVD and send it to 10,000 residents, that’s when the Attorney General finally came out with the supportive statement saying there was a problem with the case. So I think there’s been movement.
Would you say to Michael about this if you could?
I think Michael knows that I have done everything for him. I do this for my son. I assure you that there’s nothing worse than losing a child. The best way I can describe it is getting under a car that’s been jacked up, and having that jack taken out, and taking the full weight of that car on your chest. This was not just a police shooting. A gun was placed directly to my son’s temple. It was a police execution.