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.
Brown’s death while unarmed at the hands of a white police officer who has not been charged sparked widespread protest over the treatment of minority groups by police. The “Black Lives Matter” slogan it inspired has been a uniting refrain on the streets of Madison after the killing of Robinson, 19. Brown was 18.
“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.
“What I can suggest, however, is that while I cannot castigate other shops, I can be proud of the shop that I own.”
Koval said he was proud of his department but understood why shootings like those in Madison and Ferguson “create a catalyst for people to be concerned about the policing methodologies”.
Family and friends of Robinson identified him as the victim in the shooting, which took place around 6.30pm on Friday. Koval said officer Matt Kenny, a veteran of more than 12 years with the department, shot the teenager while responding to calls about a disturbance.
Police said Kenny and Robinson engaged in a struggle inside a building, leading Kenny to fire his weapon more than once. Immediately after the shooting, Kenny administered first aid, as did other officers as they arrived on the scene. Robinson died in hospital.
“We had a 19-year-old African American man slain last night, and for his family and his friends and his community that is a loss,” Koval said.
Kenny was also connected to a 2007 officer-involved shooting, Koval said, in which Kenny was cleared of all charges by the state district attorney . Koval described the incident as a so-called “suicide by cop”.
Kenny has been placed on administrative leave without pay, pending the outcome of investigations. Koval said he was concerned for every officer in his department because of vitriolic comments they have received by email and in person since the shooting occurred.
The police chief said he had visited Robinson’s family early on Saturday morning and spoken to the victim’s grandparents for 45 minutes before praying with them. He refused to provide details of Robinson’s personal history because of the victim’s age and the circumstances of his death.
“I could, but I choose not,” said Koval. “I am not here to do a character work-up on someone who lost his life less than 24 hours ago.”
Koval asked protesters to remain calm and said the police department would continue to protect their right to assembly, “whatever [protesters’] compunction might be.”
Demonstrations that began on Saturday afternoon continued on the streets of Madison as the news conference took place. Outside the Madison police department, marchers chanted: “What’s his name?” They answered: “Tony Robinson”.
Madison’s mayor, Paul Soglin , said he had been in contact with Koval, community leaders and Robinson’s family to discuss concerns about the case and show his support for the department.
“Madisonians honor and respect the young life of Anthony Robinson,” Soglin said in a statement. “I say this without knowledge of the indispensable facts of what happened Friday night, but out of respect for the dignity of every person.”
Soglin said people must allow law enforcement time to investigate the incident. “When the answers come, we will be open and transparent in communicating them,” he said.
On Friday night, Robinson’s aunt and grandmother spoke at a rally. Lorien Carter said her nephew had been “a beautiful young man”.
“I am eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and this child will be named after my nephew,” Carter said . “I’ll never see him again.”
Michael Johnson, the Dane County Boys and Girls Club chief executive, has been working with the family. He confirmed Robinson’s identity in a Facebook post on Friday that featured the teenager wearing a bright red cap and gown. Robinson graduated from Sun Prairie high school in 2014 and was set to attend Madison College to study business, according to the post.
More than $3,200 has been raised on the website GoFundMe to help Robinson’s family pay funeral expenses.
Johnson and other community leaders were holding a community meeting early on Saturday evening involving activist groups such as Justified Anger Coalition, the Conversation Mixtape, the African American Council of Churches and the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership.
Madison’s Young, Gifted and Black Coalition held a meeting on Saturday morning. The group is calling for a walkout at a local high school, attendance at county hearings and a statewide rally on Wednesday.
Koval said he planned to attend such community meetings on Saturday and into the week.
The shooting is being investigated by the Wisconsin department of justice’s division of criminal investigation and an outside organization, in accordance with a state law adopted in April 2014 following high-profile police shootings.
“You will have not one, but two separate entities reviewing the work that was or was not done,” Koval said.
One of the two state representatives who sponsored the bipartisan bill, Chris Taylor, said in a Facebook post that she witnessed the shooting while pulling into a gas station across the street.
“I’m heartbroken for everyone involved and for my community,” she said.
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