COMMUNITY MEETING

Community members listen at a meeting Saturday at the YWCA Empowerment Center regarding the police killing of 19-year-old Tony Robinson. PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

It will be asserted that Madison, Wis., is not at all like Ferguson, Mo.

It will be asserted that Madison is all too much like Ferguson.

But, in a moment such as this, our concern ought not be with how Madison compares to other communities when it comes to race relations in general and to policing in particular. Our concern should be with how Madison compares to the city that we all know it should be.

And the fact is that Madison is not the city it should be.

Amid great prosperity, there is income inequality. Amid great talk of innovative policies, there is mass incarceration. Amid great hope for harmony, there is inequality and injustice.

Madison’s civil rights and social justice groups have been working to open a dialogue about these concerns. There was never any denying the seriousness of the issues. But there was, on the part of too many Madisonians, a lack of urgency.

Now, there is a fierce urgency. A Madison police officer has shot and killed a 19-year-old unarmed African-American man, Tony Robinson. The killing has brought protests and an aching sense that Madison is at a critical juncture.

The state Division of Criminal Investigation’s independent examination of the shooting is ongoing. But Police Chief Mike Koval says, “We have to be clear about this: He was unarmed. That's going to make this all the more complicated for the investigators, the public, to accept, to understand ... why deadly force had to be used."

This should be difficult to accept, difficult to understand.

The killing of an unnamed individual by a police officer should alarm us.

There can be extenuating circumstances; there will be more to the story. For better and worse, we will hear a great deal about the backgrounds of Tony Robinson and Officer Matt Kenny, who shot Robinson. There will be wise cautions from many quarters to avoid a rush to judgment.

What matters most is that, as state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, says: An “unspeakable tragedy” has taken place in Madison. Taylor, who represents the Williamson Street neighborhood where the shooting took place, and who was at a nearby gas station when the shots were fired, says, “I’m heartbroken for everyone involved and for my community.”

Agreed.

Beyond the heartbreak, however, there must be space for expressing frustration and justified anger. Too many African-American men and women have been shot and killed by law enforcement officers in too many circumstances where there should have been alternatives to the taking of lives. These killings have unsettled communities across this country.

Madisonians were horrified by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee. But not everyone shared the sense of urgency expressed by the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, the Madison Urban League, and senior figures in the African-American community and the broader social-justice camp when they warned that the concerns raised by these killings are not distant from our city.

Now, there can be no question.

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Madison’s policing issues are distinct from those highlighted last week in the damning report by the U.S. Department of Justice on the mess that has been made of law enforcement in Ferguson. Chief Koval is an engaged law enforcement leader who carries on a tradition of training officers in best practices for dialing down tensions and avoiding violence. He is calm and quick to consult with community leaders. He has the respect of the force he leads. He also has a reputation for setting a high standard when it comes to community policing and service.

This standard demands that Koval and his department must — even as the DCI inquiry proceeds — review protocols and training guidelines. They must assure themselves and the community that reasonable alternatives to lethal force are consistently and effectively employed. There must be shared recognition that officers who fail in this duty will be held to account.

This is not the end of engagement. This is the beginning. The Young Gifted and Black Coalition, the Urban League and concerned citizens of all races have been calling for a comprehensive response that addresses mass incarceration, embraces alternative models for policing, and recognizes the root causes of crime. Madison’s leaders must respond in serious and systematic ways to those calls.

Madison is a great city. It has engaged law enforcement officers and thoughtful elected officials. It has active citizens who have raised legitimate concerns about policing and broader criminal justice issues. There is tension. But it can and should be seen as creative tension. From this tension can come new approaches not just to policing but to social and economic challenges that cannot be neglected. It is not enough to recognize that a tragedy has occurred in our midst. We must resolve to do all we can to guard against more tragedies.

President Obama was not speaking specifically of Madison on Saturday, when he spoke in Selma, Ala., to commemorate Bloody Sunday. But Madisonians would do well to recognize that the president defined our responsibility when he said that "we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on — the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect.”

Obama said “citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago — the protection of the law.” Let us add the name of Madison to the list and agree with him: “Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors.”

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