The Capital Times recently printed a column from Amelia Royko Maurer and Greg Gelembuik that excoriated the Madison Police Department’s response to multiple public records requests concerning the shooting death of Tony Robinson. The writers assume that MPD sought to release those records that were harmful to Tony Robinson’s reputation while shielding any records of Officer Matt Kenny. The writers’ opinion is full of misstatements of fact coupled with a lack of comprehension of the Wisconsin public records laws requirements.
The writers reference an earlier blog of mine in which I lamented the breadth of disclosures mandated by the public records laws. What they conveniently forgot to mention is that, although I believed that the records I was blogging about should not be released to the public, I nonetheless complied with my duties under the law and the records at issue were released.
The writers seem to miscomprehend my duties under the public records laws. Wisconsin’s public records laws provide that all records are presumed open to public inspection, and may only be withheld from public inspection under very limited circumstances: when a statute or clearly established case law holds the records confidential, or when a clearly established public interest will be harmed by inspection to such a degree that such harm outweighs the presumed benefits of public inspection. In making this latter determination, records custodians can only weigh the public interests at stake and cannot consider the harm or the benefit to individuals named or implicated by the records. It is, in my opinion, a harsh rule, dependent upon the discretion and decency of those making public records requests to avoid injury to private interests.
Make no mistake about it, I would much prefer if the current records requesters had been more restrained as to Robinson and his family, Ronald Brandon and his family, and Kenny and his family. While I understand and support the public’s need to know what happened on the night of Robinson’s death, some of these records requests went well beyond any reasonable measure of relevancy to those events. For example, the writers object to the release of records detailing a domestic dispute between Robinson’s parents that occurred when Robinson was a toddler. I agree that such a record does little to inform the public about recent events. However, it was directly responsive to a request for all MPD records of Tony Robinson. If there is one point in which I agree with Royko Maurer and Gelembuik, it is that some of these records requests showed little or no respect for the people involved in or affected by these tragic events. I cannot control what is requested and the law compels how I must respond to such requests. In releasing these reports I was fully cognizant of the pain they may cause for all involved. Therefore, my officers reached out to Robinson’s family, Brandon’s family and Kenny’s family to forewarn them of the release of these records.
The writers make many errors of law in their letter regarding what was and what was not released. For example, they say I withheld confidential juvenile records and I did. The law compels me to withhold any records where a juvenile is taken into the care of the state under Chapter 48 of the Wisconsin Statutes or where a juvenile is prosecuted for an offense under Chapter 938 of the Wisconsin Statutes. However, I have no such authority to withhold records where juveniles are simply identified or named as a witness in a police report. In deciding when to release records, I followed the law. So when they observed that some juvenile records were withheld but others concerning Robinson were released, they fail to comprehend the legal framework under which records custodians must operate.
The writers make a factual error in stating that I withheld the dash cam video of Brandon. That record was released and it has even been shown on a local news broadcast. I did not put the video on the MPD website because I was concerned about intricacies of posting such a video to our website, specifically, the volume of web traffic such a posting would generate, particularly given recent hacking attempts on the city’s IT infrastructure.
There are several other factual inaccuracies in the column. I am tempted to provide a line by line dissection of their work; however, it is probably more productive to direct the reader’s attention to the letter we posted online (with the records) explaining our responses to the multitude of records requests we had received. The reader can judge whether MPD performed its due diligence in answering these public records requests. We worked closely with the Office of the City Attorney in processing these requests. We were guided not by personal preferences but by the law. And that’s the way it should be.
Mike Koval is Madison's police chief. This piece was also published on the chief's blog.
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