The family of Tony Robinson, who sued the city of Madison after he was killed by Officer Matt Kenny in 2015, has settled a federal civil rights lawsuit with the city’s insurer for $3.35 million.
Robinson’s grandmother, Sharon Irwin, called the settlement “bittersweet.” But city and police union leaders decried the settlement, which they said was a business decision made by the city’s insurance company, which will pay the claim.
The settlement was made over Kenny’s strong objections, said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association and one of Kenny’s attorneys.
“Matt was prepared to go to trial and have a forum in which he could confront the wild accusations the Robinson family has been making for quite some time,” Palmer said. “Nothing about this agreement, which includes no admission of wrongdoing, changes the fact that he has been fully and repeatedly exonerated.”
The settlement is the largest in state history for a police shooting, surpassing the previous record of $2.3 million the city agreed to pay the family of Paul Heenan in 2015 to settle a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the former police officer who shot and killed him.
“I understand there was tremendous pressure on the remaining parties to the lawsuit to settle the case rather than have this matter continue with no end in sight,” Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said in a statement, adding that the city — which had been dismissed as a defendant in the case last week — was not involved in the settlement and had “no ability to influence the court or the parties” in approving it.
“Unfortunately, the way the case was concluded leaves the public and all local governments still struggling to understand how police officers are to proceed in dangerous situations when confronted by individuals who are impaired by substance abuse or mental health issues,” Soglin’s statement said. The mayor and City Attorney Michael May did not make themselves available for interviews.
Kenny shot the unarmed Robinson after the teen, who had taken hallucinogenic mushrooms, punched Kenny in the head and knocked him into a wall during an altercation in the narrow stairway of a Williamson Street apartment home on the night of March 6, 2015. Police had been called to the area after reports that the 19-year-old Robinson had been running in traffic and battering people.
In May of that year, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne determined the shooting was a lawful use of deadly force and declined to bring criminal charges. A state review and an internal investigation also found Kenny acted appropriately.
Both sides had motive to settle
Irwin and family attorneys David Owens and Anand Swaminathan said the city’s insurer, Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance Co., settled because it knew Kenny’s story wouldn’t hold up in court.
“Their attorneys came to us Monday night with an offer,” said Andrea Irwin, Robinson’s mother.
Efforts to reach WMMIC for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
Irwin and Robinson’s father, Tony Robinson Sr., said they agreed to settle because they wanted to spare the family from having to go through a trial. “And my son deserves some sort of peace,” Irwin said.
Owens said police opposition to the settlement is misplaced, contending that forensic experts hired by the family would have disputed Kenny’s claim to investigators that all of the seven shots were fired in close range while Robinson was “aggressing” toward him.
“If they had known what happened that day, they would not want Kenny in their department,” Owens said.
The family also had been prepared to dispute Kenny’s description of the altercation in the stairwell and that he suffered a concussion after Robinson punched him in the head, Owens said. He said the only head injury suffered by Kenny was a minor cut and that it wasn’t caused by a punch. He also maintained there was no objective evidence that Kenny suffered a concussion, although Palmer produced medical documents that showed a diagnosis of a concussion on two return visits to doctors after the incident.
Impact on taxpayers unclear
The lawsuit, brought by the family against the city on Aug. 12, 2015, was due to go to trial on Feb. 27. The city was removed as a defendant by U.S. District Judge James Peterson last week after he found no evidence to suggest that city practices or procedures led to Robinson’s death. The city’s insurance company remained involved, however, because Kenny, who was also named in the lawsuit, is insured under the city’s policy with WMMIC, May said in an email responding to a series of questions by reporters.
The insurance company has the authority to make settlements under its policy with the city, May said, adding that the city does not need to approve any settlements “and cannot tell WMMIC not to settle.”
The city pays a retention fee, similar to a deductible, of $350,000 a year, which “was used up long ago in this case,” May said. It was unclear how the settlement would affect the city’s premiums, which have ranged from $364,000 to $436,000 a year over the last seven years.
Attorneys for the Robinson family sharply disputed Soglin’s assertion that the city had no involvement in reaching the settlement.
“Under state law, the city is responsible for paying any verdict or judgment against Officer Kenny,” they said in a statement late Thursday. “The city had to approve the settlement; and the city had to contribute financially to the settlement.”
The attorneys said they will continue to push the city to fire Kenny, who was placed on paid leave while the shooting was being investigated and has since been assigned to the department’s training section and mounted patrol.
Police: Kenny was thrown under bus
The family has also asked federal authorities to investigate how Madison police investigated the shooting. U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil confirmed Thursday that his office and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division have been reviewing the case since it obtained investigators’ files more than a year ago.
Swaminathan, who grew up in Madison, said he hopes, at a minimum, that Madison police will reopen its investigation. Soglin “should demand the internal investigation that was never done,” Swaminathan said.
Police Chief Mike Koval said the settlement helps neither side.
“No amount of money is ever going to equate with or compensate adequately the loss, the pain and the grief the Robinson family has to contend with,” Koval said. “But similarly, this is an officer who has basically had his career marooned and placed on a desert island for the past two years, subject to the court of public opinion.”
The Madison police union also expressed opposition to the settlement.
The settlement is “tantamount to throwing him under the bus,” said Dan Frei, president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association. “Frankly, given how the plaintiffs in this case (the Robinson family) have publicly demanded justice, I’m actually shocked they would settle it short of having their day in court.”
State Journal reporters Molly Beck and Bill Novak contributed to this report.