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Esther J. Cepeda: Police misled the public about State Street shooting

From the Cepeda columns series
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‘Gaslighting” is a word people use when they suspect that they’ve been told something designed to make them question their reality and the validity of their thoughts.

I batted the term around as I watched 19-year-old Katoine Richardson seemingly take the heat for a police officer getting shot last Sunday morning on State Street.

Reading and watching the news coverage of the incident in which a teen was identified at the scene, I felt like it couldn’t be happening. Not in 2021, a year of focus on policing and race in the aftermath of protests across the nation and world against law enforcement’s treatment of anyone not white and male.

With watchdogs looking on and with attention on calls to defund police, there’s no way any law enforcement organization should take chances with potentially misidentifying a suspect or implying a connection between a potential suspect and a downed police officer.

In no way should the police department of a rich, white town that’s constantly talking about diversity and how to retain people of color be so quick to say, let’s just throw all the “facts” out there and let them sort themselves out.

Advocates of Richardson interpreted language in the initial police and state Department of Justice statements used to describe the young man as implying he was “heavily criminalized” and “the one who shot the officer,” which is exactly how I also read the first news reports of the State Street shooting.

A statement from Freedom Inc., the nonprofit aiding Richardson, said that the initial law enforcement statements “led to multiple news outlets framing this youth as an attempted cop killer.” Court documents were subsequently released that seemed to confirm the family’s claim that, “Katoine never even so much as fired a gun, let alone shot someone.”

Police later testified in court Thursday that Richardson did fire his gun while struggling with an officer. But Richardson did not fire his gun at an officer, one of the officers testified. The officer said both Richardson and the officer had their hands on Richardson’s gun when it went off, though Richardson’s finger was on the trigger. Richardson’s attorney said he was troubled by the officer’s testimony, and details will be fleshed out as the case proceeds.

I can hear the voices of many skeptical editors I’ve worked with in the past: “The suspect is always portrayed as an angel by their family and friends.”

No. That’s absolutely not true. It’s 2021, no one is out there trying to portray “gang bangers” as choir boys. Plus, today, we know there is high-quality, nonpartisan research showing that whether the police officers are black or white or any other racial or ethnic identity, they hold unconscious biases that make them react in ways that are unfair toward people of color, making now the time to act with the most care.

Take a look. Here is the initial statement from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, after its investigation was opened to determine how a Madison police officer, Keith Brown, came to be shot.

“At approximately 12:37 a.m., Madison police attempted to apprehend a wanted subject in the 500 block of State Street in Madison, Wis. The subject ran from police. During the arrest a round was fired and an officer was struck. That police officer was taken to a local hospital for non-life threatening injuries. Another officer sustained minor injuries during the arrest. Police took the wanted subject into custody, without injury. The subject was in possession of a handgun.”

This is standard, nondescript descriptive organization-speak. But it, by far, does not tell the whole story. These days, children of color are pulled into the justice system through school starting in kindergarten, whether for their own behavior or due to family behaviors — and their income, relative position to resources, and work opportunities can be forever altered.

Jessica Williams, a Black domestic violence advocate from Freedom, Inc., is working with Richardson. She told me via text that kids and others with few resources often get funneled into the criminal justice system and then can’t get out because of the surveillance they contend with.

“We’ve seen this happen with numerous young people,” Williams said. “It gets to the point where every school conflict, every social media post and every altercation that happens in their presence gets scrutinized. And then because that person has a ‘background,’ anything they’re accused of or affiliated with (however loosely) becomes criminal. We’ve seen kids be held by their [parole officers] because someone tried to jump them at school. So no wonder our black youth run from the police. They know what that cycle of criminalization looks like. They have friends and loved ones and community members who are caught in it. And for a young person who’s scared, yeah, they’ll probably run away to try to avoid this biased and powerful system of criminalization.”

The Madison Police Department, for its part, saw the matter differently on its website, pointing to personal responsibility — “This incident highlights the dangers posed by individuals who choose to illegally possess and use firearms, and those dangers can no longer be tolerated by our community.”

But why does the community tolerate the neighborhood disinvestment, fast-spreading gentrification and institutional abandonment of Black, brown and poor people that leads them to feel like they need a gun to stay safe on Madison’s streets?

Last year, it seemed like white people in the streets chanting that Black Lives Matter portended a new wave of pressure on the “establishment.”

But clearly, it’s time for this community — this liberal, woke Madison community that does a lot of talking about diversity and equity — to get back out into the streets. Let’s stop tolerating how low-income people of color are treated by those who are sworn to protect them.

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect the latest news from court about this case.

Cepeda, of Madison, can be reached at ejc@estherjcepeda.com and @estherjcepeda.

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