The killing of Tony Robinson shows need to drastically reduce police interactions

By Anand Swaminathan
Reprinted from the Wisconsin State Journal

Tony Robinson was an unarmed, 19-year-old African American shot and killed by a Madison police officer on March 6, 2015. Because of overwhelming evidence that Robinson’s shooting was not justified, the city agreed to a record settlement. Robinson died more than five years ago, but his case is as relevant as ever.

When the police were called, Robinson needed help. He was having a bad trip. He took drugs — yes, illegal drugs — used recreationally, including by many students at the UW-Madison campus not far from the Williamson Street address where Robinson was shot. For those students, a bad trip ends with bruised knuckles, or a friend helping them stagger home, or maybe even a night in the “drunk tank” and a court date. For Robinson, it ended with a casket. The truth is that Robinson suffered a different fate for one reason alone: because he was black.

Like George Floyd, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Laquan McDonald, and countless others, he died because he was black and because of an encounter with police. Officers are trained to perceive, identify and “stop” threats. They are trained to be prepared for the worst, and to assume the worst. In the streets, this means escalation instead of deescalation: a small threat becomes a big threat, and no threat becomes a perceived threat. The solution is singular: force. If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

In Robinson’s case, the officer justified the shooting first by saying he thought he heard Robinson attacking a young woman. There was no woman. He then justified the shooting by saying Robinson was a threat to him, claiming they were in a physical altercation. The forensic evidence showed that was a lie.

But the officer’s latter defense is worth considering. Purportedly, the threat that justified the shooting was the threat to the officer. This is overwhelmingly the justification for police shootings — the officer’s life (not a civilian’s) was in danger, so he had to shoot. The officer’s intervention and escalation created the circumstances that allegedly justified the shooting. It is simple logic, then, that if you remove the officer, you remove the justification for force.

Indeed, we need to drastically reduce police interactions. The statistics in Madison are shocking: Blacks are 7% of the population, but in 2018 they made up 43% of arrests. Systemic racism is built into who we patrol, stop, arrest and charge.

We should start by drastically reducing the police budget and the number of officers in the street. Protesters in Madison and around the country are making the case that we must defund the police and invest the money instead in creating opportunity. They could not be more right. And there is fat to cut. The Madison police budget has increased by 35% over the last 10 years, from $60.5 million to $85 million, now making up a whopping 25% of the city’s operating budget. By contrast, the Community Development Division, responsible for expanding access to affordable housing, economic opportunity and quality childcare, gets $14 million.

Why are Madisonians spending a quarter of their money policing their own community? Nothing is progressive about that. The answer is a lack of imagination. For years, we’ve been taught to believe that technocratic solutions will work: tweaks to policies, implicit bias training, better weapons, body cams, civilian review boards. And of course, more police. These things have bloated budgets, but the problems are as bad as ever.

The Black Lives Matter movement is telling us that we need to think bigger and to reimagine our world. Mariame Kaba, a dynamic organizer and activist against criminalization, recently wrote that when people think about defunding police departments, “they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder” because “we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.”

She teaches that this is merely a failure to see the possible: “People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all?”

It would look less violent and cruel, more decent, and it would come closer to fulfilling its promise of equal justice and equal opportunity. Now more than ever, in the midst of a global pandemic, we must be able to see our shared destiny and our need for community and cooperation. Yes, we need bold reform of police departments and city budgets, and sweeping new laws aimed at curbing police power and police violence. But to get there, we also need to reform our way of thinking.

Robinson was a young man with big dreams. We need to dream big, too.

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