Twenty seconds passed from the time Madison Police Department officer Matthew Kenny arrived at the scene and became involved in an altercation that resulted in the death of 19-year-old Tony “Terrell” Robinson on March 6, 2015.
Those 20 seconds transformed the city, inciting a fire of outcry from Madison activists who called for an end to the systemic racism and gaping racial disparities that, for them, Robinson’s death made even more real.
One year later, Robinson’s family and friends are still coping with the pain of loss. Robinson’s friends, like Jerome Flowers, hope his legacy does not become forever attached to the amount of time it took for his life to end. Flowers served as the Robinson family’s spokesperson in the months after Tony’s death.
No indictment for officer who fatally shot Tony RobinsonMadison police officer Matthew Kenny will not be indicted for fatally shooting 19-year-old Tony Robinson, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Read…
“The people in the community that love him will continue to fight and bring the issues forward, to make sure that people know his life was more than 20 seconds,” Flowers said. “It’s worth more than … a moment. When somebody loses their life, it’s a movement. People are committed to that movement.”
“The people in the community that love him will continue to fight and bring the issues forward, to make sure that people know his life was more than 20 seconds … It’s worth more than … a moment. When somebody loses their life, it’s a movement. People are committed to that movement.”Jerome Flowers
The movement for “Justice for Tony” was spearheaded by local activist groups like Black Lives Matter and the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. It was built upon a foundation of frustration toward systemic racism underscored by the high-profile, police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York.
The officer-involved shooting of Robinson led local activists to demand broad reforms among the Madison police force, the judicial system and city and county government. For those close to Robinson, his life became critical in a broader movement for justice.
“Tony’s life sacrifice was the fight for humanity of people of color,” Flowers said.
But as he achingly recounted the pain felt by Robinson’s mother, Andrea Irwin, Flowers said Robinson’s legacy is one that will help spread knowledge of policies and procedures that govern police interactions with its community.
Robinson family sues city, Madison Police Officer Matthew KennyThe family of Tony Robinson, an unarmed black teenager killed in an officer-involved-shooting in March, filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the Read…
For Flowers, the night of March 6, 2015 showed a world unwilling to condone the missteps of a young person of color — an idea that, for him, is what “Justice For Tony” is all about.
Robinson’s autopsy found that on the night of his death, he was under the influence of marijuana, mushrooms and prescription medication.
“Justice for Tony is a symbol of state violence and the vulnerability of not being able to make a mistake, and have time to even correct it,” Flowers said. “[Justice For Tony] is about creating an environment where young males of color can make mistakes.”
Tony Robinson’s death: a portrait of a life ended, a life halted, a community unitedSaturday morning, a team of three Madison police officers stood outside the house at 1125 Williamson Street on the Near Read…
Toward more responsible policing
Despite its national reputation as a progressive and forward-thinking police department, Robinson’s death led local activists to seriously call into question the integrity of MPD in its interactions with minority communities.
Before Robinson’s death, leaders from the YGB Coalition had called for MPD to leave communities of color to establish control over their own neighborhoods. They called for this despite recognizing MPD’s efforts toward building community trust. Mayor Paul Soglin, however, contends community policing is effective.
“The evidence of community policing is so overwhelming that the demand to remove police officers from patrols and neighborhoods is a non-starter,” Soglin said.
For MPD Chief Michael Koval, Robinson’s death was regrettable — a young man of color was killed by the police. But the incident, he said, should not overshadow MPD’s extensive efforts at keeping instances like Robinson’s to a minimum.
“You cannot say the narrative of what happened on one day in March is emblematic of a police department out of control,” Koval said. “We’re very professional and very much concerned with building trust.”
Koval said for years his department has met and exceeded industry standards for responsible policing, and added radical change for change’s sake is likely not in the department’s cards. Still, Koval said his police force continues to assess and compare itself with national departments.
“MPD will never remain status quo,” Koval said. “We’re constantly evaluating what’s being done nationally.”
What the incident did highlight, Koval said, was MPD’s need to have a greater sense of outreach and understanding of police practices in the community.
Part of this outreach, Koval said, is relaying knowledge to community members that MPD has long included a number of de-escalation and disengagement initiatives to prevent police use of force.
He said MPD, in its focus on transparency, has even brought this training into neighborhoods to show residents how their de-escalation, cultural competency and anti-bias training works.
MPD employs unconscious bias training to combat racism in forceIn the wake of the tragedy of Tony Robinson, community members have increasingly expressed frustration at institutional racism in the Read…
But MPD’s emphasis on community policing does not sit well with Flowers. He said the idea of police officers doubling as social workers is a good idea, but given MPD’s track record, the practice has not aligned with the theory.
“His friends actually called under that mindset, thinking they would get a social worker who would help,” Flowers said. “Then they saw the result, and a lot of people see [community policing] as a way to punish more so than to help. Communities of color feel officers are there to build a case, not to help.”
Various task forces on police policy at the city, county and national levels have been formed to further evaluate best practices and relay findings back to departments.
The groups include a 2015 city task force on body cameras, a United Way sponsored task force that released 60 recommendations for Dane County police forces Feb. 20 and a December 2015 committee initiated by Soglin and City Council to evaluate police force policies.
MPD has either already met or is working toward meeting the general recommendations these groups are calling for, Koval said, but he still welcomes the community dialogue they help foster.
An exception, however, is MPD’s use of body cameras. The body camera advisory committee in September voted 4-2 against their use.
In a measure of self-evaluation, MPD responded in a report on Jan. 20 to recommendations in the Obama administration’s March 2015 “President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.”
In response to the report, MPD will implement a variety of new measures. Beginning in 2016, MPD will begin posting arrests on their website on a quarterly basis, including those that involved use of force, and will break them down by race, gender and charge.
MPD will also mandate the chief or highest ranking officer available to provide a press conference within four hours of a case where officer actions result in the great bodily harm or death of a community member.
To better gauge trust of MPD, the department, in addition to its annual trust survey, will administer a survey on a monthly basis to a random sample of individuals who were contacted by MPD officers.
And while MPD generally reflects Madison’s ethnic makeup and has the highest percentage of women officers in the U.S., Koval said they still need to work on hiring greater numbers of Latino and Hmong officers.
MPD’s use of force policies are based upon employing force in the manner most reasonable given the totality of the circumstances. For MPD officers, this means only using deadly force when defending themselves or another person from death or great bodily harm, or preventing a suspect from escaping and causing bodily harm or death. Their standards remain consistent with the State of Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards.
One of the Obama recommendations calls for police training that emphasizes de-escalation techniques. While MPD currently does emphasize de-escalation and alternatives to arrest in training and practice, MPD plans to call for more emphasis to the instructional methodology in the sphere of de-escalation.
MPD additionally received a grant to hire a use of force coordinator, who will review all use of force reports, identify training needs for individuals and respond to community inquiries about use of force.
Since last year, MPD has focused new efforts on dealing with mental health. MPD in 2015 initiated a mental health officer who will work alongside field personnel in each district.
MPD also just finished administering another round of its unconscious bias in-service training to all officers.
University of Wisconsin Police Department has also implemented changes since Robinson’s death.
UWPD Chief Susan Riseling said they’ve emphasized the importance of the 21-foot rule, fair and impartial police training and will begin reporting police use of force beyond handcuffing on their website.
UWPD also started using body cameras in October 2015, which Riseling said has been successful.
“For the most part, it’s been a pretty flawless rollout,” Riseling said.
Focus on the courts
Soglin, however, thinks the court system is in greater need of reform than the police force.
One of the chief causes of disparities in arrest rates and recidivism among young people of color in Dane County is not MPD, but the criminal justice system in how it deals with youth cases, Soglin said.
First offenses rarely end in incarceration, but this is where the paths of white youth and their counterparts of color diverge, Soglin said. After a first offense, white youth usually receive attention and treatment to prevent recidivism, but youth of color rarely receive such attention, upping their chances of eventually becoming incarcerated.
The Dane County District Attorney’s Office, Soglin said, has nearly the same size staff as it did 20 years ago, leading it to deal with petty crime among 14 to 19-year-olds through plea deals.
“What we have is a significant number of young people, who in their first minor offenses, slip in and out of the system without any consequences, and more importantly, without any treatment,” Soglin said.
He said the recent establishment of peer courts on Madison’s south side can help reduce rates of recidivism by addressing offenses before they become far more serious.
Continuing his legacy
A year since Robinson’s death and the overwhelming community response that followed, Flowers said he doesn’t worry Robinson’s legacy will fade among those who he touched.
The real challenge, Flowers said, is making sure the community’s political response continues.
“Madison likes its advocacy to be from a distance,” Flowers said. “In the political sphere in Madison, it’s one of those things that people have looked to move past.”
Bridging the conversation between the campus and community, Flowers added, can provide the leverage to reiterate Robinson’s legacy.
As Flowers prepares to take part in the upcoming week’s Awareness March for Tony, he looked to a recent demonstration — Day Without Latinos — for inspiration.
“I want to make sure that action is what speaks louder than words,” Flowers said. “People need to know in sheer numbers what they’re up against, just like Day Without Latinos — 20,000 people came together. People got that message.”
YGB Coalition did not respond to requests for comment.
Emma Palasz contributed reporting to this article.