MADISON, Wisconsin — By the time a veteran police officer forced his way through an apartment door and drew his gun on 19-year-old Tony Robinson, Wisconsin was already in the midst of a reckoning over how police used excessive force throughout the state. A string of high-profile, police-involved shootings over the course of the last decade leveled scrutiny into how departments investigated incidents and how justice was carried out.
Already, there have been signs of change. Not long before the identities of nationwide victims — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice — became household names, Wisconsin was instituting statewide police reforms. Last April, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law that would require outside investigations when people die while in police custody. It was the first state in the nation to take such steps toward accountability, while acknowledging the sometimes inherent conflicts of interest when police officers investigate their own force.
But Robinson’s death Friday, paired with another startling incident from just days after Walker signed the reform bill when a Milwaukee police officer fired 14 shots at a homeless man, is leaving the community restless for a more dramatic change. Many are left asking the question: How do you bridge the chasm between when deadly police force is justified — and when it isn’t?
A makeshift memorial stands outside the apartment where Madison police officer Matt Kenny shot and killed Robinson. Hand-drawn signs, etched out in crayon and in a young child’s script “Black Lives Matter,” fill out a pile of balloons and candles. For three days, members of the community have gathered at the site and outside the police department in protest of the 19-year-old’s death.
Police say Kenny responded to a call Friday night that a young man was jumping into traffic and may have assaulted someone. According to police, Kenny responded to a disturbance and had forced his way through an apartment when he got in an altercation with Robinson. The officer then opened fire. Robinson was taken to the hospital, where he later died.
In a press conference on Saturday, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval struck a conciliatory tone with a community shocked and outraged by the shooting. He acknowledged the delicate tension in how the public would react to the shooting and how investigators would determine whether the deadly force was justified.
“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.
It will likely be days — if not weeks — before the public learns of the investigation’s final conclusions. Kenny, a 12-year police veteran, was immediately put on administrative leave. But Wisconsin is now a unique test case in seeing what happens when states remove internal conflicts of interests within police departments. Thanks to some hard-fought lobbying, the state’s Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal will be conducting the investigation, a product of Wisconsin’s new law on police-involved deaths.
For years after his son was shot in the head by police officer at a point-blank range, Michael Bell Sr. made it his mission to bring an extra layer of legitimacy to investigations into deaths of people in police custody.
In 2004, Bell’s son by the same name got in an altercation with a police officer outside the home he shared in Kenosha, Wis., with his mom and sister. After apparent confusion over whether Bell was trying to grab the officer’s gun, an officer on the scene opened fire. Within 48-hours of Bell’s death, an internal police investigation cleared the officers involved of all wrong-doing.
In disbelief, Bell’s family hired a private investigator to look into the case and filed a wrongful death suit against the city and it’s police department. Ultimately they settled the federal suit for $1.75 million. But they weren’t done. The family fought for nearly a decade, buying out billboards and newspaper ads with slogans like: “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” And in April of 2014, a decade after Bell’s death, the family won reforms to leave investigations of such deadly cases out of a police department’s hands.
Bell told MSNBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart Monday that he was alarmed by the Madison shooting. “Civil rights isn’t just about African-Americans and Hispanics, it includes civil rights for people like myself and my son,” he said. “I’m a retired air force officer. I was a pilot. I knew the way that we kept our pilots alive was by independent review and external investigation and when we looked at what law enforcement was doing they were doing self-review and self-investigation.”
The first case to test the new law, however, is complicated in the eyes of the public. Dontre Hamilton was asleep in a park in Milwaukee when a police officer awoke and searched him. A physical struggle ensued, with Hamilton gaining control of the officer’s baton, at which point the officer reached for his gun and pulled the trigger 14 times.
After months of external investigations, the Milwaukee County district attorney announced in December that there would not be charges brought on officer Christopher Manney, and that in light of the confrontation before the shooting, the officer’s use of force was justified.
Like most police-involved shootings, the circumstances in these cases were messy and complicated. All men were unarmed before police officers fired off the fatal shots. But Bell had also been drinking before he got behind the wheel of a car. According to police reports, Hamilton grabbed the officer’s police baton and struck him with it. In Robinson’s case, Kenny was responding to a call after an alleged battery.
But in the court of public opinion, many in recent months have said the bar must be higher in justifying deadly force. Minister Darren Townsend, who has lived in Madison for 22 years, said he wished the officer who shot Robinson had instead reached for a taser or baton before pulling out his deadly weapon.
“Police have other options to use before reaching for their service pistol,” Townsend said. “It’s never a justified shooting when a man is unarmed.”
Editor’s note: This piece originally stated that the homeless man shot by Milwaukee police was unarmed. It has since been corrected.