Something to Ponder

Following the shooting of Tony Robinson, the community and especially the clergy, have been asking questions about how we take this moment in time to change systems, to keep these kinds of events from happening again. We clearly know there are racial disparities in Dane County. All institutional systems must take a look at whether they are adding to or are part of the problem, or if they can make adjustments to squash or eliminate inequality due to race or poverty. Rev. Jerry Hancock asks one of these questions in an opinion editorial he recently wrote. It is indeed, something to ponder. ~ Eldonna Hazen


What if Madison police officers on patrol were unarmed? I ask this question as a “thought experiment,” not necessarily as a public policy recommendation. Would being unarmed make a difference in the decision-making by police officers? How would it affect relationships between the police and the minority community? Would it put police officers at greater risk? How would it affect the way Madison police officers are trained? And, most importantly, would it make our city safer or more dangerous?

These questions occurred to me after listening to District Attorney Ismael Ozanne’s decision not to charge officer Matt Kenny. As a former Deputy District Attorney for Dane County, I think the decision is legally correct. Now Officer Kenny faces an ongoing internal review by the Madison Police Department. As the former Administrator of Law Enforcement Services in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, I think the review will most likely find that Officer Kenny’s actions were consistent with the excellent training he received from the Madison Police Department, a department that is widely respected, not only for its training but for its community involvement.

 The fatal shooting of Tony Robinson was lawful and most likely consistent with the thoughtful policies and practices of the Madison Police Department. Officer Kenny reacted as he was authorized and trained to do. But Tony Robinson is dead, and all of Madison—including Matt Kenny, Chief Koval and the entire Madison Police Department—regret what happened. Two years ago, we all regretted the fatal shooting of Paul Heenan under similar circumstances in almost exactly the same location. But now, even good law and good training have once again combined to produce a tragic result.

If we truly regret the legal and procedurally justified fatal shooting of unarmed civilians, then we must think seriously about changing the decision-making process of police officers. If guns were only available after an officer called for backup, would that allow for a more creative and less lethal outcome? In retrospect, that would seem to be the case in the deaths of both Paul Heenan and Tony Robinson. I was particularly struck by Officer Kenny’s explanation that he fired the fatal shots out of well-founded fear that Tony Robinson might get control of the officer's gun. If Officer Kenny’s gun is taken out of the decision-making equation, then there is at least the possibility of a different result. Of course, I realize that the different result might have been serious injury to Officer Kenny or to other people in the Williamson Street neighborhood before armed back up arrived. But those injuries may not have been fatal.

Many other developed countries have long traditions of unarmed officers on patrol. In Britain, officers themselves much prefer to be unarmed, feeling that not having a gun makes them more approachable and discourages an “arms race” with criminals. In a gun-crazy country like ours, I honestly don’t know if we can safely disarm our patrol officers. I do know that unless we change when it is legal and appropriate for the police to use deadly force, we will all continue to regret the predictable outcome and mourn the dead.

Let’s think about it.


Posted on May 26, 2015 at 10:49 am in Featured Content.

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