Just a few days before an unarmed, 19-year-old black man was shot and killed by a Madison police officer, Wisconsin's attorney general had asked lawmakers to fund more positions to investigate officer-involved deaths.
Tony Robinson was fatally shot during a struggle with Madison police officer Matt Kenny in a Williamson Street apartment on Friday evening. Kenny was investigating a call that Robinson had assaulted someone and was jumping in and out of traffic.
Details surrounding the shooting are still unclear, but Robinson's death sparked protests on the streets of Madison and inside the Capitol in the days that followed. The shooting, with similarities to the deaths of other unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers elsewhere, touched a raw nerve among black community members already frustrated by racial disparities in Madison and throughout the country.
Gov. Scott Walker last April signed into law a bill requiring outside agencies to investigate officer-involved shootings. The legislation was championed by Reps. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and Gary Bies, R-Sister Bay, in response to three high-profile officer-involved deaths in the last decade. Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to pass such a law.
In order to implement the law, the state Department of Justice under then-Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen requested $352,600 in 2015-16 and $386,000 in 2016-17, and 5 full-time positions annually, to investigate officer-involved deaths and review public records associated with those investigations.
Walker did not fund the request in his biennial budget, introduced in February.
Attorney General Brad Schimel, elected in November 2014, appealed to the Legislature's budget committee on March 2 to reconsider the agency's request.
"As a result of the new legislation, the DOJ has become the go-to investigative resource when there is an officer-involved critical incident in Wisconsin," Schimel told members of the Joint Finance Committee.
"Officer-involved death cases are very time-consuming. It is critical to public confidence in law enforcement that the investigations be conducted expeditiously and capably," Schimel said in his testimony. "In addition to the intensive work involved in conducting the investigations following an officer-involved death, the DOJ typically receives public records requests from parties. These requests require the careful review of reports, photographs, crime scene diagrams, audio and visual recordings and other multimedia prior to release."
Schimel noted that Walker had not included the request in his budget, and asked the committee to reinstate it.
Taylor is one of four Democratic lawmakers on the committee. She began her week hearing Schimel's testimony, and ended it at the scene of Robinson's death, just a few blocks from her home.
Taylor said she'll advocate for the committee to fund the request. But she said passing that law and funding those positions is only the first step.
"The law, the independent investigation was just a first step. It really was," Taylor said. "It was never going to be a panacea. It wasn't going to solve all the problems around these issues. It was a first step. We have a lot more work to do."
That includes working on a bill to require an independent review of the investigation, to ensure no questions are left unanswered, Taylor said. She hopes to find a Republican co-sponsor as she did for the 2014 legislation.
The issue is one that Taylor feels has come directly to her. She lives near the east side neighborhood where 30-year-old Paul Heenan, a white man, was shot and killed by a Madison police officer in Nov. 2012. Heenan was drunk and walked into the wrong house, leading police to believe he was committing a burglary.
And on Friday night, she happened to stop at the gas station across the street from where Robinson was shot.
"This is my neighborhood. This is my community," Taylor said. "It's a very close-knit community. It's a community that knows how to peacefully protest, and it's a community that is very, very engaged."
"They are going to want to see the issues of officer-involved shootings continue to be addressed — and the underlying issue of the racial disparities that we have in our criminal justice system, which are some of the worst in the nation," she said. "We have got to address these issues."
Schimel promised in a statement following the shooting that the DOJ's Division of Criminal Investigation will "conduct a thorough, professional and transparent investigation into this incident."
"To preserve the integrity of our investigation, it is our practice not to share details while that investigation is in process," Schimel said in the statement. "DOJ will produce a report for release to the public upon its completion. We are resolved that the result of that investigation will be one in which the public can have confidence."
Walker released a statement Monday morning in response to the shooting.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with all those involved. An overwhelming majority of police officers follow procedures and do a good job of protecting and serving the public," Walker said in the statement. "Last spring, Gov. Walker signed legislation that adds another layer of transparency in the investigation process by requiring an independent review of officer-involved deaths. The Wisconsin Department of Justice will conduct the independent investigation."
Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email Monday that the DOJ did not anticipate a fiscal impact when the bill was passed. Patrick said DOJ received an average of less than two requests for independent review per month, and it was the belief of the governor's office that those duties could be addressed with existing resources.
"If DOJ feels as though additional funding is necessary to address these cases, we are willing to work with them and the state Legislature to ensure adequate funding," Patrick said. "They also have the ability to request additional staff and funding through a supplemental request to the Joint Committee on Finance."
Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, (no relation to Chris Taylor) also sits on the Joint Finance Committee. She said the DOJ was right to request the additional positions, and criticized Walker for not including them in his budget.
"It is irresponsible to create the process for the investigations and then not adequately fund the work. We owe it to Milwaukee’s Michael Bell Jr., Derek Williams, and now Madison’s Tony Robinson, to ensure that officer involved deaths are investigated fairly. I owe it to my son," Taylor said in a statement.