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The Madison police chief’s spine seems to be liquefying overnight. He’s quickly heading toward jellyfish territory.
Now comes word that Chief Mike Koval has issued an apology for the shooting death of Tony Robinson in Madison after high school and college students left class to descend on the Capitol in protest (apparently, their absences are being excused if their parents were OK with it).
In January, the chief had written a blog post extraordinaire, in which he ardently defended police officers from rushes to judgment. It appears it’s easier to defend your cops when the protests aren’t in your own backyard.
But now, he’s apologizing. And asking for forgiveness. It goes without saying also that this implies that the officer was in the wrong even though he previously said the cop shot Robinson after Robinson assaulted him.
"Reconciliation cannot begin without my stating 'I am sorry,' and I don't think I can say this enough," wrote Koval. "I am sorry. I hope that, with time, Tony's family and friends can search their hearts to render some measure of forgiveness."
The protesters on Monday, as they did in Ferguson, shouted things like "murder" as the mayor of Madison Paul Soglin spoke at a rally to protest the death of Robinson, who was shot by a Madison police officer a few days ago. The death is getting national attention, and people are trying to link it to Ferguson. The Madison protesters also called for the arrest of an officer over an incident that they have seen none of the evidence regarding.
If they are going to compare this shooting to Ferguson, they might go read the new U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson then. Although the DOJ report excoriated the Ferguson Police Department for a series of troubling things in how officers treated black residents, it exonerated Officer Darren Wilson of legal criminal wrongdoing in the Michael Brown shooting. The DOJ is run by Eric Holder. Do you really think if there was any possible way to charge Wilson with a crime for shooting Brown that Holder wouldn’t have found it? C’mon.
It turns out that Wilson – by the ruling of a grand jury as well as the DOJ now – was using legal self-defense when he shot Brown. That doesn’t mean it’s not unfortunate that Brown lost his life; it just means that using Brown’s death to accuse Madison police of criminally murdering Tony Robinson is an essentially flawed argument. Maybe the two cases have more in common than people think: Time will tell whether the Madison officer will also be exonerated.
Furthermore, there is no real evidence of systemic racial mistreatment by police of African-Americans in Madison as there was in Ferguson. Frankly, Madison is the bend-over-backwards-to-
In fairness to Soglin, he was trying to steer the protesters’ outrage Monday in Madison toward underlying topics like school funding decreases. But wait a minute? School funding decreases? Somehow I can see this quickly turning political. It shouldn’t be. Furthermore, using a use of force death to argue the need for systemic change implies that the police were in the wrong over the death in the first place.
I think that’s also irresponsible because, as with Koval’s apology, we just don’t know yet.
Koval’s force and the officer who shot Robinson must be trying to scrape the tire trucks from the bus off their heads right now. They deserve better. Minimally, the officer who shot Robinson deserves his due process. He deserves us all to avoid rushing to judgment until the evidence is reviewed in the proper forum. And that is not in the media. Media trials never turn out so well. The evidence doesn’t always match the hype. We have seen this in a series of national cases.
Let me be clear: We should all avoid rushes to judgment in the Robinson death in both directions, though. That goes for the protesters and the politicians and all of those commenting on them. I think it’s very wrong for people who have not reviewed any of the evidence in this death to leap to the instantaneous judgment that this was "murder" (at least in the legal sense), that the police did something wrong here and that, as a result, systemic change is needed.
It feels like these cases are fitting neatly into a kind of national parable on race, sometimes before we even know whether the facts fit.
It’s also wrong, though, for people to rush to judgment and exonerate the Madison cop, also without hearing any of the evidence. I will not do that here, because there’s too much that all of us armchair pundits just don’t know yet.
I’ve noticed that a lot on social media too. It’s interesting – and unfortunate – how police use of force deaths here and nationally have become politicized, with commentary diverging along the typical partisan fault lines in our society. Thus, you have some liberals assuming the cop is a cold-blooded killer and some conservatives assuming the cop did nothing wrong.
We just don’t know the facts of this case. None of us do outside of those investigating it (the state Department of Justice in this case).
Here’s what we know. We know that Koval told the media that the officer, Matt Kenny, shot Robinson after Robinson "assaulted" him. It’s tempting to say well maybe Chief Koval apologized because he knows more about this case than the rest of us; but then he should explain why he said Kenny shot Robinson after Robinson assaulted him, and he hasn’t.
If it turns out that Kenny shot Robinson in lawful self-defense because Robinson had attacked him – if the evidence bears that out – then what is the chief doing asking for forgiveness? Now even if that is the scenario that ultimately unfolds, I would say that it is tragic when any young person dies. It’s frankly sad, then, that Robinson’s life didn’t take another path. And maybe that leads us to the exploration of some systemic issues (who knows? Poverty, and so on. Again, we don’t know enough to say right now). And I think the chief was right to acknowledge that family is grieving here and that grief is legitimate (although at least one family member has been posting some pretty incendiary comments on Facebook).
However, a police chief shouldn’t apologize for his officer wanting to go home at night and defending himself against someone who had done what all people should know not to do: attack a cop – again, if that’s what the evidence holds, and right now, we just don’t know.
Minimally, though, the chief should not join the rush to judgment. That’s why I say his spine is liquefying. Minimally, his apology is woefully premature. He’s also not the arbiter of legal judgment and fact here. That’s the state Department of Justice investigators. He should let them do their job before jumping to apologies and begging for forgiveness from the family of a guy who might have attacked his cop.
We also know from police scanner traffic that police went to the scene after a report that Robinson was yelling and jumping in front of cars, and had "apparently hit" one of his friends, no weapons seen. Then police got a call that the same suspect had gone into a residence and tried to "strangle" someone else. Then the officer went into the home and very quickly radios that shots were fired and asks for an ambulance, the scanner traffic showed.
As for Robinson’s background, his family and friends have basically said he was a gentle giant who wouldn’t hurt a fly, whereas other sites like thesmokinggun.com pointed out he had a criminal record. I doubt that any human being is the sum total of one portrayal; all human beings have many facets. But, at any rate, Robinson’s background is frankly not very relevant.
What is relevant is what happened in the seconds before Kenny shot Robinson. The protesters and some media sites have been hyping dramatically the fact that Robinson was "unarmed." But the fact of the matter is that this is not a relevant legal fact.
Unarmed people can be very dangerous. For example, in the 1980s in Waukesha, an unarmed defendant grabbed a bailiff’s gun and murdered two deputies with it, before taking a hostage.
What matters under the law is this: Did Officer Kenny reasonably believe that his life was in danger or that he was in danger of great bodily harm (or that someone else was) at the time he fired? The belief doesn’t even have to be right under the law. It has to be reasonable.
Imagine being this officer. You are responding to a call of a man reported to be violent, according to scanner traffic. You also want to go home at night. And you deserve, in my opinion, the community to back you up if it turns out that you were defending yourself in accordance with the law. Instead, your boss is apologizing before the facts are determined.
Furthermore, police are the punching bags right now for the deeper systemic issues that they sometimes influence but did not cause – such as disparities in poverty, in crime, in unemployment. That’s not right. All police don’t get it right all the time. But police have difficult jobs, and most of them are valiantly serving our communities. They are not, as a group, the bad guys. We should all care about those disparities, but that doesn’t get you to the leap that all police are bad guys and that this singular officer is a murderer who deserves to be trashed.
This is what Koval had to say in January, by the way, when it wasn’t HIS department in the crosshairs. Maybe the chief should go reread his own blog: "I will not buy into the naive supposition that our community's disparity issues are largely owing to a pervasive pattern of systemic racism by MPD. In fact, I'm fed up with my department being blamed for everything from male pattern baldness to global warming. It is time for Young, Gifted, and Black to look a lot deeper at the issues besetting our people of color and stop pandering to the 'blame game' of throwing my department to the wolves. I'm done with allowing this kind of rhetoric to go unchallenged. Perhaps others in Madison are afraid to violate the rules of political correctness and say what I am saying (including the media). I cannot control the public debate, but I will not stay silent. I am 56 years old, this is my last job, and I am calling you out as a group (I guess it's a good thing that I don't run for public office and can say what I mean and mean what I say)."
Everyone – on either side – should immediately stop the rushes to judgment and let the evidence come in.
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.