An officer-involved shooting of an unarmed young black man in Madison has made headlines across the globe. “Madison police chief says shooting of unarmed man has similarities to Ferguson,” the headline from The Guardian just hours ago says it all.
Madison’s police chief on Saturday acknowledged similarities between the fatal police shooting of Tony Terrell Robinson Jr, an unarmed black teenager, in Wisconsin’s capital on Friday night and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year.
“To the extent that you have, again, a person of color, unarmed who subsequently loses his life at the hands of the police, I can’t very well distance myself from that brutal reality,” Madison police chief Mike Koval told reporters on Saturday.
There have been two fatal shootings of unarmed men - one black, one white - in my former neighborhood in fewer than three years. I am profoundly saddened by the deep wound ripped back open for my old neighbors last night. Both men were far too young. Tony Robinson and Paul Heenan should both be alive and walking around Williamson-Marquette today.
Some anecdotal context:
I have criticized the Madison Police Department in the recent past. I have heard Chief Koval speak to the community at my neighborhood police station, interactions with the public he clearly does because he feels it’s important. After one community forum I had a personal — and very personable — in-person conversation with him about the column I wrote. I hope he’ll exhibit the same sort of principled character I’ve observed in each situation. Chief Koval and I don’t agree on some of his department’s policies, and I definitely don’t appreciate the way he’s responded to Young, Gifted and Black in the past.
But Mike Koval has also said some really valuable, powerful things about the city’s desperate need for more mental health/crisis intervention services and his own determination to continue making his department more representative of the community it serves. In a 2009 Isthmus profile, then-Sergeant Koval laid out the policing philosophy he followed as head of MPD’s academy. Koval’s comments then reveal that he believes arrests are only a small part of good police work:
“The law-enforcement part is undoubtedly a lot sexier than going to a neighborhood meeting and talking about quality of life,” he says. “That’s not sexy. And yet the ‘social work’ component is our lifeblood and vital to our success. You’re not going to build trust and partnerships if the only mode of operation you know is law enforcement.”
I ride the bus by the place Paul Heenan was killed every day on my way to work and again on the way home. I maintain high expectations of the way Koval’s department conducts itself, but I know there are good people working at all levels of the MPD, too. I hope our communities and the MPD can have a constructive conversation about disparities in our city and our need to reassess the use of force. I just wish it didn’t take senseless deaths for us to finally make this a top priority in Madison.