On November 9, 2004, Officer Erich R. Strausbaugh of the Kenosha (Wisc.) Police Department made a vehicle contact that some would say “went south.” The driver quickly exited and shoved his hands in his pockets and ignored Strausbaugh’s commands to get back into the vehicle. There was a rigorous struggle and the TASER was used without success. The driver was taken to the ground, but Bell was able to push himself back up to his feet and drive Strausbaugh, who now was being assisted by another officer, backward, slamming him into a vehicle. Bell grabbed Strausbaugh’s duty weapon and attempted to wrest it from its holster. Strausbaugh struggled to retain his weapon, but shouted to the other officers at the scene, “He’s got my gun!”
A backup officer saw the struggle taking place over the weapon and perceived his fellow officer’s life was in danger. He shot Bell, ending the fight. The officers survived, but in law enforcement there are many challenges to be overcome.
The shooting was investigated and ruled justified by District Attorney Robert Jambois. Among Wisconsin Law Enforcement Trainers, the incident became a guide on how to respond when a suspect was attempting to disarm their partner.
Michael Bell’s family was not to be consoled. They led a relentless campaign in the courts, in the legislature, on the Internet. They placed large billboards asking, “When Police Kill, Should They Judge Themselves?”
The campaign was negative, accusatory and Strausbaugh and the other officers involved found themselves under siege, for nearly six years. All media accounts on the incident, reported that the suspect was “unarmed.” Every officer, who has been in a fight over their weapon on the street and who has survived, knows this is a misrepresentation of the reality of the moment. When the struggle over the weapon is undecided the suspect is either arming himself, or armed. Many officers can’t come forward to correct the record on this point, because their assailants have shot and killed them.
A Politician Joins the Fray
Even though the investigation ruled the shooting justified and the department prepared for the case to go to Federal Court, the insurance company for the City of Kenosha settled out of court giving the family $1.75 million.
The Chief of Police John Morrissey released this statement on the decision to settle:
“It is a sad day in this country when insurance companies are allowed to settle a case based on dollars, rather than what is just and right. It is disappointing and regrettable that the officers and the city of Kenosha were not afforded the opportunity to have the case heard by a jury, as I am confident the jury would have ruled the use of deadly force was justified.”
Politician Gets Involved
Last week, Wisconsin State Legislator Peter Barca sent a letter dated October 26, 2010, to Bell’s Father. In it Barca declared he has asked the state legislative council to research the law surrounding the issue of police fatal shootings.
Officer Eric Strausbaugh struggled to hold onto his weapon on November 9, 2004, when his life was in the balance and he was rescued by the back-up officer who he called to the scene for assistance. In the early morning hours of October 31, 2010 Officer Eric Strausbaugh’s life hung in the balance once again. This time he decided to not call for back-up. It is a struggle that he lost.
He killed himself.
Police Officers must survive physically, legally, and emotionally each call and the accumulative affects of all calls. Never forget, whether your lonely struggle is taking place physically in a dark alley at 0300 hours, or emotionally at 0300 hours in your den at home, you can call for backup. To every police officer reading this who is struggling with the aftermath of a critical incident, you surely understand the pressures that wore down Eric, but you must know that you can’t ever give up the fight.
Illegitimi Non Carborundum!
There is a story of a young officer emotionally dealing with the aftermath of a serious incident. An old salt saw the young officer was in distress as he sat staring blankly into his open locker. The veteran stood beside the young officer and related, “In this career there are times that you have to do difficult things that are necessary to protect the public, but will neither be understood nor appreciated by the public. So remember these words always, “Illegitimi Non Carborundum!”
The younger officer looked up and asked, “What does that mean?”
The older officer patted the shoulder of the young officer and answered, “Don’t let the bastards get you down!”
God Bless Officer Strausbaugh. May he rest in peace.
For all the rest of you still hitting the streets every day, remember the words of the old veteran: “Illegitimi Non Carborundum!”