Tony Robinson shooting elicits Madison police chief's sympathy

The police chief in Wisconsin's capital city is treading carefully to try to avoid the fierce reactions seen in other American cities following police shootings of unarmed black youth, after one of his white officers shot a teen to death on Friday.

Officer opened fire on unarmed black teen after incident in apartment

Protests erupted in Madison, Wis., over the death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, who was shot and killed by a police officer Friday night. (Facebook)

The police chief in Wisconsin's capital city is treading carefully to try to avoid the fierce reactions seen in other American cities following police shootings of unarmed black youth, after one of his white officers shot a teen to death on Friday.  

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval acknowledged people are angry and said he's sorry a young person lost his life. He said he met with shooting victim Tony Robinson's grandmother early Saturday morning to express sympathy and pray with her.

"He was unarmed. That's going to make this all the more complicated for the investigators, for the public to accept," Koval said of Robinson, 19. "Nineteen years old is too young."

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval asked people to protest peacefully. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal/Associated Press)

Peaceful protesters took to the town's streets on Saturday with chants of "Black Lives Matter," a slogan adopted by activists and protesters countrywide after recent police-involved deaths of unarmed blacks.​ 

More protests were planned for Sunday and Wednesday. 

Koval said he understood the emotions over "this tragic death," and assured demonstrators his department would defend their rights as he implored the community to act with restraint. 

"For those who do want to take to the street and protest," Koval said, his department would be there to "defend, facilitate, foster those First Amendment rights of assembly and freedom of speech."

The promise echoed as a stark contrast to demonstrations last year in Ferguson, Mo., where an aggressive police response drew worldwide attention to protests in the wake of the policeshooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.

Koval told the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper at the time that he felt confident that if his department was in a similar situation, it wouldn't repeat the missteps of Ferguson.

Officer forced his way into home

Robinson died Friday night after being shot in his apartment following a confrontation with police officer Matt Kenny, who had forced his way inside after hearing a disturbance while responding to a call, authorities and neighbours said.

I can't even compute what has happened.- Tony Robinson's mother

Chief Koval said Kenny was injured, but didn't provide details. It wasn't clear whether Robinson, who died at a hospital, was alone.

The department said Kenny would not have been wearing a body camera.

The neighbourhood appeared quiet Saturday evening, and at least one Madison police officer stood in front of the building where the shooting took place.

Family members at community meeting later read a statement prepared by Robinson's mother, Andrea Irwin.

"I can't even compute what has happened," Irwin's statement said. "I haven't even had a chance to see his body."

The shooting came days after the U.S. Justice Department said it would not issue civil rights charges against Darren Wilson, the white former Ferguson officer who fatally shot Brown after a struggle in the street last August.

Federal officials did however find patterns of racial profiling, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb, which saw spates of sometimes-violent protests in the wake of the shooting and a grand jury's decision not to charge Wilson.

Other high-profile deaths of black suspects at the hands of police officers have prompted countrywide protests, including that of Eric Garner, who died in July after New York City officers put him in a chokehold and a video showed him repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe."

A Cleveland police officer in November fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been pointing a pellet gun at a playground. A Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot Dontre Hamilton last April was found to have acted in self-defense, but was fired for ignoring department policy regarding mental illness.

2007 killing

Koval said Kenny, who had more than 12 years with the Madison department, also shot and killed a suspect in 2007, but was cleared of wrongdoing because it was a "suicide by cop-type" situation. In that shooting, Kenny responded to a 911 call of a man with a gun and shot him twice after police said he pointed the gun at officers. It turned out to be a pellet gun.

Officer Matt Kenny confronted Tony Robinson at his apartment. (Madison Police Department/Associated Press)

A short, first-person biography of Kenny on the Madison department's website says he served nine years in the U.S. Coast Guard before joining the department. He has been placed on administrative leave pending results of an investigation by the state's Division of Criminal Investigation.

A 2014 Wisconsin law requires police departments to have outside agencies investigate officer-involved deaths after three high-profile incidents within a decade — including one in Madison — didn't result in criminal charges, raising questions from the victims' families about the integrity of investigations.

Madison, about 129 kilometres west of Milwaukee, is the state capital and home to the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus. About seven per cent of the city's 243,000 residents are black. Neighbours said Robinson's apartment is in a two-story grey house on Williamson Street, known to many as Willy Street.

Koval said police responded to a call about 6:30 p.m. Friday of a person jumping into traffic. A second call to police said the man was "responsible for a battery," Koval said. Kenny went to an apartment and forced his way inside after hearing a disturbance. Koval said the officer fired after being assaulted by Robinson; Koval said he couldn't say how many shots were fired because it is part of the investigation.

Madison Police guard the home where Tony Robinson reportedly had an altercation with an officer. (Steve Apps/Associated Press)

One of Robinson's neighbors, Grant Zimmerman, said Robinson would run between his apartment and his roommate's mother's house across the street "all the time, even in the middle of traffic."

Wisconsin's online courts database shows that Robinson, a 2014 graduate of Sun Prairie High School, pleaded guilty to felony armed robbery in October and was sentenced in December to three years' probation. A police report said he was among four teenagers arrested in a home invasion in which the suspects were seen entering an apartment building with a long gun. They ran with electronics and other property and three of the four were captured. A shotgun and a "facsimile" handgun were recovered, according to the report.

Koval declined to discuss Robinson's background. "I'm not here to do a character workup on someone who lost his life less than 24 hours ago," Koval said.

A neighbour, Doris King, told the Wisconsin State Journal she asked Robinson about his involvement in the robbery, because it seemed out of character for him.

"He felt he was under a lot of pressure from the others to do what he did," she said. "He told me he would never do anything like that again."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.