A newly released video that captured part of the controversial police shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson led to vastly different interpretations of the incident on Wednesday, with an attorney for the teen’s family saying it showed Robinson wasn’t posing a threat when he was killed, while others said it showed the officer acted appropriately.
State officials released the video, which was taken from a dashboard camera inside Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny’s squad car, after Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced Tuesday that Kenny will not face criminal charges for fatally shooting Robinson. Robinson was black; Kenny is white.
Ozanne ruled that Kenny had legally used deadly force against Robinson, who was unarmed, after the teen, who had taken hallucinogenic mushrooms, punched Kenny in the head and knocked him into a wall during an altercation in the narrow stairway of a Williamson Street apartment home on the night of March 6.
Kenny told investigators that Robinson continued to swing at him, making him fear he could be knocked unconscious by another blow or by a fall down the steps, and that Robinson could then take his gun. The 12-year MPD veteran had entered the home after hearing what he described as the sounds of a struggle, and said he believed Robinson was been upstairs attacking someone. Police later found no one else was in the apartment.
The district attorney’s decision touched off renewed protests against the shooting in Downtown Madison on Tuesday and again Wednesday.
Robinson’s alleged assault of Kenny happened out of the view of the camera, as the officer’s car was parked outside the home in a driveway. Kenny comes into view as he fires a first string of three shots at Robinson. The officer is on his feet and retreating backward through the doorway onto a small, low porch.
Kenny appears to lose his balance momentarily on the outside step, leaning forward with one leg extended behind him as he fires a second burst of three shots. He continues to move backward and shoots one more time as he reaches the edge of the porch and steps to the ground.
In all, Ozanne said, Kenny fired seven shots at Robinson within 3 seconds. Each round hit the front of the 19-year-old’s body at close range, Ozanne said.
Robinson’s feet appear in the doorway during the shooting, but the rest of his body is inside the home and cannot be seen.
Statement vs. video
Robinson family attorney Jon Loevy said Kenny’s account of the shooting is not consistent with the video.
Kenny told the state Division of Criminal Investigation that he fired the first three shots “when we were still fairly close to the top of the stairs,” reports released Tuesday state. Ozanne said Kenny was assaulted while he stood on the stairway’s eighth step.
Loevy pointed out that the video shows each of the shots were delivered with Kenny near or at the bottom of the steps.
Kenny also told investigators he did not remember how he and Robinson made it from the top of the stairway to the landing below.
Jim Palmer, the executive director of the state’s police union and Kenny’s attorney, has said the officer was diagnosed with a concussion after the incident.
Robinson’s family members have also criticized Kenny’s final shot, saying he was not in danger once he was outside the home, and that he did not have authority to use deadly force when he did.
“By the time the officer started shooting, there was no threat,” Loevy said.
But Palmer said the video shows Kenny acted appropriately, and that the officer stopped firing once he believed Robinson no longer posed a threat to him.
“Nothing about (the video) indicates anything improper from our point of view or the legal point of view … and certainly from the district attorney’s point of view,” Palmer said.
University of South Carolina professor Seth Stoughton, an expert in law and policing who has called for changes to officer training and law enforcement culture, said Robinson was close enough to Kenny that it’s possible he could have posed a threat. But, Stoughton said, it’s impossible to tell from the video’s angle whether that was the case.
Decision to enter
Family members and other critics of the shooting have also questioned Kenny’s decision to enter the residence, saying it escalated the situation and led to a potentially avoidable confrontation between the two men.
Stoughton said it’s important for the public to consider whether a shooting was avoidable, beyond whether a prosecutor deems an officer’s actions criminal.
Entering a home alone is generally more dangerous for an officer than going inside with backup, Stoughton said, and having more officers could reduce the amount of force necessary to control a situation. Going in alone, he said, “puts the officer at a higher risk, and higher risk calls for a more severe use of force to overcome that threat.”
But waiting might not be appropriate if the officer believes someone is being attacked and could be killed or badly injured before backup arrives, he said.
Lou Hayes, a policing instructor and officer in suburban Chicago, said Kenny had to balance the risk of going inside with the need to take action to save what he thought was a person in imminent danger.
Kenny told authorities that as he stood outside the home he could hear what sounded “like a fist hitting something,” and Robinson yelling, “What are you going to do now?” The officer said he believed Robinson “was upstairs and was violently assaulting” someone.
Hayes said the video showed Kenny approached the call correctly, gathering information from dispatch as he drove to the home that Robinson had used hallucinogenic mushrooms and had reportedly battered and tried to strangle people on Williamson Street minutes earlier. When he got to the home, Kenny walked up the driveway and listened to what was happening inside, rather than charging into the home in a way that might “push a confrontation,” Hayes said. “He puts himself in a position to help somebody upstairs. To not go in is, I think, being neglectful of your duty.”
Hayes also praised how Kenny handled the incident after the shots were fired. The video shows Kenny directing a sergeant who arrived almost immediately after the shooting to go upstairs and check on the person he thought was inside, then working with another officer to render first aid to Robinson.
A Madison police internal investigation into whether Kenny’s actions violated department policies at any point during the incident is ongoing.
Stairway limited options
Once Kenny was inside, Hayes and Stoughton said, the stairway where the altercation between him and Robinson took place may have limited the officer’s options for less-lethal force.
Protesters and Robinson’s relatives contend that instead of a firearm, Kenny should have used other kinds of force, such as a Taser.
Given the differences between Kenny’s statement and the video, Loevy said family members also question the officer’s account of the altercation with Robinson.
Stoughton said that in an open space, an officer could have the room to get distance from a suspect and use a Taser or a baton. In his statement, Kenny said he could have used other types of force if he had more space.
A diagram of the home, released along with more than 1,000 pages of investigative documents on Tuesday, showed the staircase where the shooting took place measured just 4 feet wide. Kenny said he felt his only way to move was either forward or backward on the steps.
In that space, Stoughton said, “There’s not a whole lot of room ... for the officer to consider or use alternative tactics.”
A baton or Taser likely would not have been effective in such close quarters, Hayes said. Under attack and fearing for his life, according to Kenny’s statements, Hayes said the officer used the only tool that would have been effective: his gun.
Hayes contended Kenny handled the call appropriately from “start to finish,” but that a mix of factors — from the challenging confines of the stairway to Robinson’s drug use to the quickly unfolding alleged assault — led to a tragic outcome.
State Journal reporter Steve Verburg contributed to this report.