How many times can we as a country watch the same heart-wrenching narrative play out: police officer shoots an unarmed black man; video depictions and eyewitness accounts horrify and enrage us; we watch, screaming aloud what is so obvious from the videos and witness descriptions – that they didn’t have to kill him; and the District Attorney’s Office nevertheless refuses to indict the trigger-happy police officer for any crime. It is beyond tragic to watch that same plot repeated in Madison, Wisconsin, following the shooting of 19 year old Tony Robinson. On May 11, 2015, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced that Madison Police Officer Matthew Kenny would not be charged for the fatal shooting of Mr. Robinson that occurred back in March.
Considering what is known about the shooting and the officer’s utter lack of justification for using fatal force, the decision not to indict is infuriating. What occurred before the shooting is not an uncommon story heard on college campuses: 911 callers claimed that Mr. Robinson had taken “shrooms” and was having a bad reaction. According to witness reports, Mr. Robinson was unarmed, had tried to hit his friends, and had chased a friend’s car out into traffic. When the police arrived, Mr. Robinson was alone in the home and was not threatening anyone. After Madison Police Officer Kenny burst into the home, he claims that Mr. Robinson punched him, “a struggle ensued,” and Kenny shot, fearing that Mr. Robinson would hit him again, take his gun, and use it to shoot him and others.
But as with so many of the unjustified police shooting cases rocking the nation, the video recording tells a different story. A deeply disturbing dash-cam video contrasts sharply with Kenny’s account of the shooting, showing us what happened and allowing us to see for ourselves whether Mr. Robinson was actually an imminent threat or just a young man needing help. The video shows a police officer go into the home – where, by all accounts, Mr. Robinson was unarmed – and quickly exit the house while firing off seven shots, before warning, “Stop right there. Don’t move.” The shots are mostly fired while the officer stands several feet outside the door of the house, and Mr. Robinson is alone inside. How can that possibly be a justifiable police shooting? Mr. Robinson was inside the house, unarmed and alone, and Officer Kenny made it outside the house, where his fellow officers supported him. Whatever happened during the few seconds Kenny was inside the house could not possibly have warranted the barrage of bullets that followed, gunning down a troubled, unarmed man.
The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police has been dramatically on the rise, even as the nation’s overall homicide rate continues to drop. Moreover, the problem of police shooting is likely worse than we know: It’s impossible to discern just how prevalent police shooting of suspects has become because the FBI statistics on the subject undercount them, as they are reliant on voluntary reports to the FBI as the only measure. But whatever the figure – 461 in 2013 according to police departments’ self-reporting – it’s clear that police shooting is a problem that is getting exponentially worse. The correlation is obvious: until we start holding police officers accountable when they gun down unarmed suspects, particularly black men, the police will continue to feel emboldened to shoot first and ask questions later.
The law firm Loevy & Loevy represents Mr. Robinson’s estate as it seeks justice through the civil courts. But the district attorney’s refusal to even let a jury consider whether this shooting was criminal is deeply disappointing. The risk, of course, is that as long as police officers are treated as immune from criminal penalties, they will continue to act above the law.