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Billboards Across Milwaukee Call Attention to the Derek Williams Case

Marti Mikkelson

You may soon notice billboards across Milwaukee, calling for justice for Derek Williams. Williams is the Milwaukee man who died in the back of a squad car in July of 2011, after officers arrested him as a robbery suspect. 

A newly released dash cam video shows Williams struggling to breathe and asking for help, with officers not responding. While community activists continue pressuring the city to fire Police Chief Edward Flynn, WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports on the dad paying for the billboards.

Just over Michael Bell’s shoulder, a billboard reads, “When Police Kill, Where is the Mayor?” Traffic whizzing over nearby I-94 can read it.

Bell lost his 21-year-old son Michael E. Bell in 2004. Kenosha police, including an officer who had a previous confrontation with the young man, had pulled him over on suspicion of speeding and drunken driving.

“A police officer had actually taken a gun and stuck it right to Michael’s head, with not even leaving any distance between the muzzle and head he put it right to his temple, he killed him right on the spot, and he did that in front of his mother and sister who were standing just ten feet away,” Bell says.

The Kenosha District Attorney investigated and did not charge the officer. He said Bell appeared to be reaching for a gun once arriving in his driveway. In the end, it was learned that the 21-year-old was not armed, but was legally intoxicated.

A civil jury later awarded the Bell family $2 million from the City of Kenosha. The older Bell is now using some of that money to purchase 43 digital billboards running throughout Milwaukee.

“The President of the United States is the elected official in charge of our armed forces and if our armed forces go around the world and do anything inappropriate, we have an elected official we can point to and say hey this is inappropriate and you shouldn’t be doing that. Realistically the mayor is that person but he’s dodging this. He’s dodging this and he’s not accepting responsibility for it,” Bell says.

Since his son’s death, Bell has been demanding that independent parties investigate police shootings. He says, too often, local law enforcement conducts its own reviews and ends up clearing officers.

In Milwaukee, a former judge has agreed to conduct an inquest into Williams’ death. So what impact could the billboards have? Tyra Scruggs lives near 25th and Wisconsin where one is running. She hopes it encourages city leaders to act.

“This was not the first incident where the police chief has come up with misconduct. We need to do something about that. When you don’t discipline the chief, the rest of the police officers do what they want to do. There’s no discipline anywhere with the police department. I like Tom Barrett but, do your job. Do what we ask you to do and that is protect the citizens of Milwaukee,” Scruggs says.

Yet another neighbor, Aaron Rogers, does not foresee the billboards being effective.

“It’s not going to do any good putting a billboard up. If I hadn’t seen it on TV I probably wouldn’t even notice it. What can the mayor do? I think Flynn is a pretty good police chief, he could do better but Milwaukee’s been like that. I don’t know why they want him to step down,” Rogers says.

Rogers recommends that Chief Flynn order better training for officers.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.