The balance test for releasing records did not start at zero with the Madison Police Department's recent inauspicious decision to release up to 15-year-old records on Tony Robinson Sr., the father and namesake of the teenager, Tony Jr., who was killed by MPD Officer Matt Kenny March 6.
It's easy to imagine how the public might confuse father and son and how some might enjoy confusing father and son. It's insulting to the brain trust of MPD to assume they didn't see the potential for harmful confusion.
Chief Mike Koval should be alarmed by the fact that these records passed his own balance test. Wasn't it he who blogged in opposition to the public's request for certain information about his officers who were involved in the Londrell Johnson killing last year?
To borrow heavily from his argument in that blog post to the point of almost quoting him, we concur. This is what Chief Koval's most recent blog post might have looked like had he extended equitable empathy to civilians experiencing police-involved tragedy and if he truly saw us all as part of the same team.
While it is the duty of the press to provide the public with important information relative to a major incident occurring in our city, I find it odd that there is little discussion about the attempts to provide Tony Jr.'s family with sufficient time and resources to begin the arduous process of healing in the wake of losing their child to an officer who was called to help him. Is it truly fair (or relevant) that we drag toddler Tony Jr., who is now dead, and Tony's parents through the dirt?
How has the public been served by reading records about Tony Jr. the toddler? This family has not yet even had the benefit of seeing the investigative record of what happened to their son. Under the best of circumstances, a family who has been victimized by an officer killing their child is going through a difficult journey. Imagine then when you go out shopping and people point to you and say cruel things to you and your family. Couple this with the fact that there is compelling evidence that family members enduring the irreversible loss of a loved one who was killed by an officer have a difficult time returning to work and leading normal lives after their loss. I was merely trying to cut down, in any way I can, those odds.
Koval instead attempted to justify the release of the records, reminding us that his protection of those living through officer-involved fatalities is conditional; if you wear a badge you get it, if you don't, you don't.
In some of these records, Tony Jr. is a toddler and his parents are vulnerable, experiencing crises for which they needed help. Little did they know that years later, while in the throes of their worst nightmare, they'd be punished by the police for having previously called them for help. The irony is nauseating.
The damage and confusion caused by releasing those insignificant records far outweigh any public benefit gained, with the exception of to those Cheeto-dust-covered misanthropes who spend their daylight in the basement trolling the Internet in search for people to kick while they’re down. Topping it off is the easy conflation by the public of 19-year-old Tony Jr. with his father, Tony Sr. Yes, the MPD spoke to some hearts with that document release and boy, did those hearts shine with the opportunity they took to pummel Tony Robinson's grieving mother with racist, sexist slurs, unfounded suppositions and cheers for her tears while chanting the ever-so-popular warrior cry, "Fight with a cop and you die!" You can tell a lot about people by the fires they fan.
What MPD released reflects arbitrary judgment calls. They redacted use-of-force information for the majority of Kenny's tenure at MPD on the grounds that this would be "overly broad" and "unduly burdensome." They also redacted some of Kenny's records on the grounds that "confidential juvenile records" are involved and "one of those records involves an incident where Police Officer Kenny deployed but did not fire a Taser (Madison Police Department Case #2011-116864)." They argued that any incident report they label "purely a juvenile matter" cannot be released at all, yet they released those that are "purely a juvenile matter" where Tony Jr. and several other juveniles are involved. They also chose not to release a record that involved "unproven accusations against several individuals identified therein." But they released other records that involved unproven accusations where Tony Jr. is involved.
MPD also decided to withhold the squad cam video of Officer Kenny's shooting of Ronald Brandon in 2007, on the grounds of protecting the privacy of surviving family members. But no family member was present in that video at the point when the shooting of Brandon occurred (and moreover, family members have expressed the belief that the killing was avoidable and that cops covered for their actions. As further justification they also claimed they're protecting the rights of crime victims — even though, if there was a victim, it was Brandon. So the Madison Police Department is playing a game, since release of video showing Kenny shooting and killing someone with an unloaded pellet gun, which is what Brandon held, would be unfavorable PR for Kenny.
MPD is completely withholding the video of the killing itself. They further shielded all audio and video related to the killing of Brandon by claiming that posting audio/video files to a website would be too difficult. So what they are releasing can only be accessed via a CD (which means that most likely few will see it). But MPD is perfectly happy posting video of Chief Koval press conferences to their website.
So what can we do to end this abusive pattern of bias and falsehoods? We the public sanction this Police Department. They're in charge because we say so. It is unnecessary for us to rely so heavily on faith in this department when we have the power to build one that we know we can trust. It's up to us to zero balance the scale and set the record straight: Everyone makes mistakes, everyone fails and everyone should be accountable for their actions — the public, our police department and its chief.
Amelia Royko Maurer and Greg Gelembuik are Madison residents.
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