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To argue against the cop in the Tony Robinson shooting – unless you think DA Ismael Ozanne just made everything up – one must argue that cops don’t have a right to protect themselves or other members of society from imminent attack. Ever.
Which would completely alter the power balance between cops and lawbreakers. And would fundamentally change the calculus of what it means to be a cop. And would just not work in a society that is not anarchic.
The Madison decision ended up being a moment of absolute clarity, as it turns out. That moment of clarity was this: The protests, nationally and here, are not about the police, not really. They can’t be. Because the facts here didn’t end up matching the rhetoric. Not before and not now. So, then, the rhetoric was minimally woefully premature or completely misleading. As was the case in other cases across the country (not all) in which cops were found to have used lawful force but were nonetheless utterly vilified.
The police are the target, but the vitriol is missing the bullseye. They’re the vessels of anger and despair, but it’s misplaced. The narrative has trumped the evidence. The narrative has nothing to do with the facts. The anger is directed at the wrong people.
It’s a parable, a morality play – but it’s displaced from the actual reality of what happened that day and on other days. And that’s happened in other situations across America (once again, not all. I strongly believe all police use of force cases are case specific and should be assessed that way. One of the biggest problems I have with all of this is the lumping of all police use of force cases into some giant whole. Similarly, it’s wrong to argue cops are never wrong).
What I am arguing, though, is that the central narrative of the last year is flawed. We’re constantly being told, by the media and otherwise, that we are supposed to draw all of these macro lessons from all of these localized use of force cases. We are supposed to have deep explorations about the problems they unearth.
I’ll go along with that, but the lesson of Madison is this: The police are not the problem. They are not the enemy in American society. As a group.
Enough is enough. The police are not the bad guys. As a group. Lighten up on them, as a profession. It wasn’t that long ago that we were applauding their courage as they ran into Twin Towers while others ran out. Now they are being criticized for not running away from danger? Give me a break.
And they don’t deserve – as a group, as a profession – the vitriol heaped upon them, the second-guessing and name-calling. They deserve our support. They also deserve our scrutiny, because use of force is an awesome power, and in this case they got it.
But they deserve us all to wait until the facts are in. And in cases in which they were acting to protect themselves or someone else, because they were being ATTACKED, they deserve our support.
Quite frankly, it’s hard to see how Ozanne could have come to any other conclusion than the one he made Tuesday, which was to determine Officer Matt Kenny won’t face criminal charges in the death of Robinson. But I am glad he didn’t "pull a Mosby" by charging Kenny for other stuff even if he couldn’t prove wrongdoing in causing the actual death. I am troubled by Madison Police Chief Koval’s hedging on his blog after the exoneration; he refused to say whether Kenny would return to his job. Why shouldn’t he? According to Ozanne, Kenny was being attacked when he lawfully fired.
That didn’t stop some people from protesting anyway. One pastor actually argued to Madison media that the officer should have backed off and shown more restraint when dealing with someone on drugs.
Are you kidding me? It’s exactly the duty of a cop TO intervene when someone, as Robinson was, is attacking strangers on the street and breaking into an apartment. Can you imagine how dangerous it would be for cops to just run away when confronted with danger? Or potentially imminent danger to citizens?
As Ozanne eloquently detailed, Kenny was called to the scene because Robinson – who had ingested drugs – was, according to 911 callers, assaulting pedestrians on the street, had tried to choke one of the callers and had jumped into traffic. Then he broke into a stranger’s apartment and, when Kenny entered it, he heard sounds that indicated Robinson might be attacking the homeowner. Then, Robinson attacked Kenny, punching him and causing the officer to lose his balance.
One could argue it was very dangerous – frankly, to Kenny – that he approached on his own. But, frankly, he heard sounds indicating a homeowner might be being attacked by a guy who had just attacked a bunch of other strangers. I’d say it was courageous of Kenny to not wait but to move in to help. In technical terms, it’s called "exigent circumstances." What would people say if he’d waited and a homeowner was killed or taken hostage? Cops can’t win.
The police in this situation are definitively not the bad guys. The officer placed himself in danger to protect the citizenry and then he acted to protect himself. This isn’t even a close legal call. That part’s obvious.
I was left wondering: What are people even protesting after hearing all of that? Did they not listen to the state’s only district attorney of color EVER (he pointed that out, not me) as he carefully laid out the evidence pointing indisputably toward this officer’s legal use of force? I will say that it is appalling that Wisconsin has had only one DA of color ever. That’s not OK. And that does point to the fact that there remains very troubling disparities in society. I don’t deny that. I condemn them.
I just don’t think the police caused those things, and I don’t understand how or why they have become the bogeyman, and I think focusing on them obscures the real problems. And I think the Robinson case is that moment of clarity that reinforces that point.
But see it’s not about the facts, clearly. Again, it’s about a storyline. An emotional narrative. The question is what’s driving it. The motives are probably mixed. For the family, it’s legitimate grief. They knew Tony Robinson in all his human complexity, they lost someone dear to them and I don’t begrudge them this grief. It’s sad his life was so misdirected. I am sure he had potential that is now lost. And yes, there’s disparity in society.
But the police didn’t cause poverty. They’re not responsible for failing schools. They implement the laws, but they don’t make them.
And they have a right to want to go home at night when attacked.
Lay off the cops. They have hard enough jobs as it is. Scrutinize them, yes. But do it with fairness. Don’t paint them with a broad brush. Don’t blame them for stuff outside their control. Wait until the evidence comes in. Don’t attack them. And recognize they have a right to defend themselves if attacked. Arguing anything else creates a very dangerous narrative for the next cop who has to make a split-second judgment in a fast-moving situation of peril.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.