May 22, 2015
It was time enough for Officer Matt Kenny to enter the residence of Tony Robinson. Time enough to get involved in a fight. Time enough to get his head banged against a wall. Time enough to shoot Tony seven times. Time enough to get back outside of the residence. TWENTY SECONDS! And while firing his final shot, back-up officers arrived.
So, what might have happened had Kenny, a police officer who was previously commended for killing a man for holding a pellet gun, decided to wait for 30 seconds or even for one minute for backup to arrive? In a previous article, before Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne’s press conference, I asked why Kenny didn’t wait for backup based on the assumption that doing so would “expand the decision-making time and space.”
Had Kenny waited, the group of officers surely would have collaborated on ways to surround and subdue unarmed Tony with little harm done. Instead, machismo ruled and young Tony was slain. The city’s reputation as America’s best place to live has been damaged and the collective angst has yet to lessen.
Let’s suppose instead of running to his apartment that Tony had run into a UW dorm. Would Kenny have deployed the same Dirty Harry tactic or would he have waited on more support and more information? We know the answer!
I like District Attorney Ozanne. I supported his bid for attorney general, yet his decision in this case is a major disappointment. The preamble to his decision statement was heartfelt, but when he began it, it became clear, if we didn’t intuitively know it before, that Kenny would walk away uncharged.
Sorting through the array of evidence that justified a two month delay is the same justification to warrant charges – allowing a judge, jury and attorneys opportunities to make sense of a jumble of information – and serving notice that we expect officers to follow the lead of the vast majority of their colleagues who manage to retire without shooting anyone.
Imagine if the table had been reversed: imagine that the only person left alive to say what happened was Tony Robinson. And what if Tony’s story was that Kenny had entered the apartment without notice and had threatened to kill Tony? A stretch? Theoretically, individuals have the right to defend themselves from unlawful search and seizures, even from unlawful police officers. So, how long would a charging decision have taken had Tony been the only person to survive?
The maxim goes that a district attorney can charge a ham sandwich – or not. In his book, Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System, Jerome Miller cites the arrest warrants issued in one day from one police department. Among those charges were: dog at large, dog running loose without a leash, failure to transfer title/registration, fishing without a license, loitering, molestation of nesting birds, registration not properly displayed, trespassing, no inoculation, and a violation for city tags (dog). The criminal justice system is a tar baby – touch it, you’re stuck.
Michelle Alexander, in her landmark book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness wrote “… no one has more power in the criminal justice system than prosecutors … they are free to dismiss a case for any reason … and free to file more charges … sometimes life-and-death decisions … are totally discretionary and virtually unreviewable.”
Alexander cites multiple examples of Black people who have been sentenced to decades and even to life in prison for doing next to nothing while others walk for killing unarmed kids.
There is nothing new about this evil double standard. In the 1800s, orator and former slave Frederick Douglass wrote:
“It is a real calamity in this country for any man, guilty or not guilty, to be accused of crime. But it is an incomprehensible calamity for any Black man to be so accused. Justice is often painted as having bandaged eyes. But a mask of iron, however thick, would never blind American justice when a Black man is on trial. Here he will find all presumptions of law and evidence against him. It is not so much the business of his enemies to find him guilty as it is the business of himself to prove his innocence. Indeed, color is a far greater protection to the white criminal than anything.”
Kenny should have been charged. He would have enjoyed the presumption of innocence yet, after killing 2 people, he also needed to develop empathy for those who have experienced the stress, expense and anxiety of preparing and waiting for trial.
Absent exoneration by a jury, Matt Kenny should not be allowed to return to the streets of Madison to practice his personal version of “protect and serve.” In addition, rebarbative circumnavigatory syntactic obfuscation from the city’s chief of police will exacerbate, not ameliorate these concerns.