Saturday, March 7, 2015

Madison mourns Tony Robinson as questions linger about his officer-related death

The officer-involved death raises concerns and outrage

A young black man is dead under questionable circumstances in Madison. He was shot Friday night by a police officer on Willy Street on Madison’s near-east side.

Tony Robinson, who just graduated from Sun Prairie High School and was planning to attend Madison College, was 19 years old. He was unarmed.

According to reports, the police officer in question was responding to Robinson “jumping into traffic” on Williamson Street. He followed Robinson into the home where he was allegedly assaulted by the teen. It was then that the officer chose to use his gun to defend himself.

Those details are fuzzy at best. No other information about the decision to enter the home, the extent of the alleged assault of the officer or whether lethal force was justified are being released at this time because the incident itself is being handled by an independent statewide agency designed to investigate all police-related deaths.

The law, which was passed in 2014, was spearheaded by State Rep. Chris Taylor, who coincidently was in the neighborhood of the shooting last night. She was able to hear the shots go off, just across the street from the home where the incident occurred. Witnesses described five shots being discharged.


Those are the facts we know at this time. Beyond that, not much else is definitively known. We cannot say for sure at this juncture whether the officer acted in the right or if Robinson’s life was unjustly cut short.

What we can surmise is that too many deaths are happening in this country at the hands of our police forces, especially when you look at other countries’ data: the U.S. had between 400-1,000 police-related deaths in 2013, while Britain had zero. Germany had only eight in the past two years.

In particular, black men seem to be at risk. The list of young black men whose lives were taken by officers of the law is far too long.

Police deserve to defend their lives. That is always my belief, and that will not change. We must have respect for the police force, and understand the dangers that these men and women face on a daily basis. I’m thankful for their service, and I understand when one “bad cop” does something wrong, there are dozens of other good police officers that don’t get the attention they rightly deserve.

When patterns emerge that show problems with the methods of officers of the law, however, it is up to the community to demand changes for the better, and for our leaders to implement them. The pattern we’re seeing today is unacceptable. In particular there are far too many deaths of black men who are unarmed.

I choose to reserve judgment in the specific details of this particular incident. There is not enough information known right now to make an opinionated statement on what was done and what wasn’t. That may change. For now, it doesn’t look good, and it saddens me greatly that Madison may become the latest chapter in what has become a troubling trend in America.

This case does have one thing that other incidents across the nation didn’t have: a state law passed last year requires an outside investigation of police-involved deaths. That is one recommendation that President Barack Obama gave last week:
Mr. Obama said that some of the recommendations, including requiring independent investigations when the police use lethal force, would be “controversial,” and that others would be difficult to put into effect. But he said he would push the Department of Justice to press forward on them.

“It will be good for police and it will be good for the communities involved, and as a consequence it will be good for the country,” Mr. Obama said. “Everybody wants our streets safe, and everybody wants to make sure that laws are applied fairly and equitably.”
But is it enough? Other methods, such as placing body cameras on officers, might be necessary as well. Yet ultimately, a camera or a law won’t save the lives of young men who “act odd” in the streets -- it likely will take a change in policy itself, in understanding that a shoot-to-kill mentality isn’t necessary in all cases of defense, before we start to see some positive outcomes.

Again, I stress that I don’t know everything in this particular instance. And I also believe officers deserve to defend themselves when attacked. But young men also deserve a chance to defend their actions.

Tony Robinson didn’t get that chance. He won’t be able to tell his side of the story. And a community rightly mourns his death following these tragic circumstances.

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