On a September day in 2005, a crash on Madison’s Southeast Side left a critically injured driver pinned in a destroyed Chevy.
Madison police officer Matt Kenny, alone and first on the scene, used skills honed as a medic in the U.S. Coast Guard to treat the driver until paramedics arrived. Later in the same shift, he helped the Wisconsin State Patrol pursue an armed suspect eluding capture at 110 mph on the Beltline.
In some ways, it was just another day in the life of a cop. But a supervisor found Kenny’s work that day emblematic of his value.
“I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize how much I rely on his steady competence in keeping our team functional out in the field,” Sgt. Sue Armagost wrote in a commendation letter. “He is quiet, always competent and carries on without complaint through day after day of constant challenges.”
The letter is one of 46 accolades in Kenny’s personnel file. The thick folder documents his 13 years with the Madison Police Department, from green recruit in 2002 through the later years as he became increasingly relied upon to train new officers and his peers in first-aid and firearms.
He now is on paid leave pending an investigation by the state Division of Criminal Investigation. On March 6, Kenny shot and killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson following a struggle inside a Williamson Street apartment building.
Robinson was black; Kenny, 45, is white. Within hours, Robinson’s death became a rallying cry — locally and nationally — by people infuriated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system and elsewhere. Some protesters say race inevitably played a role in the shooting, calling it murder.
Kenny had responded that evening to a disturbance following reports of Robinson running in traffic and battering people. Madison police officials have said Robinson punched Kenny in the head and knocked him off balance before Kenny fatally shot him.
A Robinson family member has since said Robinson took hallucinogenic mushrooms earlier on March 6, lending credence to statements by friends that his behavior was out of character.
The Wisconsin State Journal initially sought Kenny’s personnel file through an open-records request with the police department, a process that can take weeks.
Kenny chose to bypass the process, authorizing the release of the file directly to the State Journal through the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
“He believes in full transparency,” said Jim Palmer, the association’s executive director.
Kenny declined an interview request through Palmer. Palmer said the file is complete and unabridged.
The file is almost entirely positive, containing no citizen complaints and nothing that would indicate Kenny has a problem with a diverse citizenry. This aligns with what Armagost knows of him, she said.
“I honestly don’t think he sees race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” said Armagost, who is retired and lives out of state.
The file contains one disciplinary action. While off-duty in 2007, Kenny left his loaded firearm in a bathroom at Manna Cafe in Maple Bluff.
He realized his mistake after taking his dogs for a walk and self-reported the lapse, according to an internal investigation. A customer found the gun and turned it in.
Kenny was “extremely embarrassed,” the report said. The incident resulted in a letter of reprimand.
The 46 accolades are mostly from superiors lauding Kenny’s work either alone or as part of a team. The average officer may get one or two of these per year, said Dan Frei, a Madison patrol officer and president of the department’s police union.
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“It’s reflective of above-average performance and above-average contribution to the department and the community,” Frei said.
Range of honors
Among the commendations, Kenny was praised for helping to apprehend a dangerous fugitive wanted by the FBI, quell a riot at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, solve a complex series of property crimes, and make numerous high-risk traffic stops and arrests.
In 2005, he and officer Jamar Gary helped save the life of a man who’d gone into cardiac arrest.
“Police chiefs usually come into contact with officers for two reasons — disciplinary actions or commendations,” said Noble Wray, who led the department for nine years until his retirement in 2013. “Matt never came in front of me for any conduct that was irregular. The city has a lot of wonderful human beings who work for that department. He fits that mold.”
One commendation praises Kenny and another officer for dealing compassionately with a violent 7-year-old boy who was so out of control it was like a scene from “The Exorcist,” the supervisor wrote. Kenny, who’d been injured by a kick to the groin from the boy, later assisted the boy in using the bathroom and patiently talked him through the fingerprinting process.
Ten of the commendations relate to Kenny’s work helping to train recruits and his fellow officers. Sgt. Tim Patton, the department’s lead recruiter, said Kenny is a certified instructor in three disciplines: firearms instruction, rifle use, and defense and arrest tactics.
“It’s absolutely fair to say he’s received additional training beyond the typical officer at MPD,” Patton said. “He’s in that upper echelon of commitment to keeping his own skills sharp and helping others do the same.”
Koval praised Kenny in a blog post last week as a “consummate professional” and “a caring and conscientious individual.” And in a statement last week, Kenny’s family described him as a conscientious officer who “operates with the highest level of integrity, judgment and restraint.”
The attention being paid to Kenny’s attributes follows a typical if disappointing pattern by the media, said Brandi Grayson, a leader of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, the group at the forefront of the protests. She said such reports are designed to prepare the community for what she thinks will be Kenny’s exoneration.
“The media always presents the police officer in terms of what he’s accomplished, and the reverse happens to the person killed,” she said.
In 2008, Kenny received the department’s Medal of Valor for shooting and killing a man in what investigators concluded was a case of “suicide by cop.”
Ronald Brandon, 48, brandished a realistic-looking pellet gun at Kenny and another officer as he stood on the porch of his home. He had been drinking and made a 911 call about a man with a gun — himself — in an apparent attempt to provoke police and end his life, authorities said.
At a ceremony at Monona Terrace, Kenny’s peers gave him a standing ovation. In a letter to the editor four days later, Brandon’s daughter, Jessica Brandon, said she did not blame Kenny for his actions but found the ceremony “in very bad taste.”
Armagost was Kenny’s supervisor in 2008.
“It was a tough situation for him,” she said. “Here’s a guy who spent his whole life training to save other people’s lives, and then he becomes the instrument of death.”
In his application to the department, Kenny wrote that “the times in my life that I have felt the most personal satisfaction have been when I was helping people.” He was 32 at the time and just finishing a degree in criminal justice at Edgewood College in Madison after eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Born in Connecticut, he moved frequently with his family as a child and came to Madison as a teenager, graduating from Madison West High School in 1987. His mother, Andrea Kenny, is a retired Edgewood College library staff member. His father, Dr. John Kenny, is the former medical director of the infant intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital.
An animal lover, officer Kenny has been involved in K-9 search-and-rescue efforts over the years and the department’s horse patrol. He and his wife, Lisa, own a horse, friends say.
Armagost said meditation helped Kenny recover from his role in the 2008 shooting. She assumes it is part of his coping tools now.
“I can hear the stress in his voice,” said Armagost, who remains in contact with him. “I know he’s exhausted, but I think he’s doing remarkably well.”
She calls him “a perpetual caretaker,” someone always quick to comfort a colleague. That support is now being returned to him, she said.