Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny told state investigators he was most of the way up the narrow stairway of a Near East Side apartment home on the night of March 6 when 19-year-old Tony Robinson came out from his friend’s apartment and punched Kenny in the side of the head, knocking him into a nearby wall.
As Robinson continued swinging, moving toward Kenny and down the narrow stairway, Kenny said he fired at the unarmed 19-year-old, fatally wounding him. District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced Tuesday the shooting was a lawful use of deadly force for which Kenny will not face criminal charges.
Robinson’s death sparked a series of passionate, peaceful protests that started on the night of the shooting. More than two months later, Ozanne’s decision was met with tense emotions and tears from Robinson’s family, as well as demonstrations against the decision.
Protesters and the teen’s family members had called for Ozanne to file criminal charges against Kenny.
Police were called to 1125 Williamson St. around 6:30 p.m. March 6 after Robinson’s friend called 911 to report that Robinson had taken hallucinogenic mushrooms and was “acting insane.”
Kenny was the first officer to arrive, and entered the home after he heard the sounds of a disturbance coming from the upstairs apartment and believed Robinson was inside assaulting another person, Ozanne said. Officers later learned Robinson was alone in the home.
After he was punched, Kenny said, he feared Robinson could knock him unconscious or seriously injure him on the apartment stairwell, take his weapon and use it against him or the person he believed was inside the home.
Within three seconds Kenny fired seven shots, each of which struck the front of Robinson’s body at close range, Ozanne said.
Kenny fired the final shot from just outside the home’s side door, about 20 seconds after he had entered, Ozanne said.
“This tragic and unfortunate death was the result of the lawful use of deadly police force,” Ozanne said. “No charges will be brought against Officer Kenny in the death of Tony Robinson Jr.”
Personal appeal from DA
The Dane County district attorney made his announcement in a 25-minute statement to reporters at the Public Safety Building in Downtown Madison on Tuesday afternoon. He did not take questions afterward.
Ozanne began the announcement with a direct appeal to Robinson’s family, saying the 19-year-old died far too soon and that his death was a tragedy.
“I am so very sorry for your loss,” he said.
The shooting of Robinson, a black teen, by Kenny, a white officer, attracted national attention to Madison amid a string of recent controversial police killings of African-Americans across the country, as well as broader discussions about the divides between law enforcement and people of color.
Sweating visibly in a warm room crowded with reporters, Ozanne paused his statement multiple times to recount his own biracial identity, his mother’s participation in the civil rights movement and the experiences he has had with discrimination.
“I am the son of a black woman who still worries about my safety from the bias of privilege and violence that accompanies it,” he said. “I am a man who understands the pain of unjustified profiling.”
Ozanne said, however, that his decision on the case was not “based on emotion” but on the law and the facts of the case collected by state investigators, including 911 calls, officer statements, forensic evidence and dashboard camera video that captured part of the shooting.
Police officers and civilians are allowed to use deadly force when confronted with an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm.
In general, experts in law and policing have said that legal standard protects those claiming self-defense in shootings.
Robinson’s family members criticized the district attorney’s decision Tuesday, joining protesters who believed justice had not been served in the shooting. Jon Loevy, the Robinson family’s attorney, was particularly critical of the final shot Ozanne said Kenny fired at the bottom of the stairway.
“That makes no sense why the police officer would be shooting from outside the building inside the building,” Loevy said.
Soon after Ozanne’s announcement, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association issued a statement saying it believed Ozanne had made the right decision.
“The exhaustive independent and transparent investigation into this tragic incident has confirmed that Officer Kenny’s actions on the night of March 6 were lawful and in response to a deadly threat,” said Jim Palmer, the group’s executive director and an attorney for Kenny.
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said he left a voicemail for Kenny following Ozanne’s announcement and intended to reach out again Tuesday evening.
“I’m certain that an immense burden has been lifted from him as well and now he can look towards, sometime in the future, resuming a career that he has a passion for,” Koval said.
Kenny remains on paid leave from the department, pending an internal investigation into whether he violated MPD policies during the incident. That investigation is expected to be finished within the next two weeks.
Robinson: ‘I’m freaking out’
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The Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation led the inquiry into the Robinson shooting to comply with a state law requiring an outside agency lead the investigation into all officer-involved deaths.
Hours after Ozanne announced his decision, the state Department of Justice released more than 1,000 pages of documents from the investigation.
The first 911 call on the night of the shooting came from Robinson’s friend, identified by the teen’s supporters as Javier Limon, who said Robinson was “tweaking” and scaring his friends.
“Tony is going crazy, he took ’shrooms or some type of drugs,” Ozanne said Robinson’s friend told a dispatcher. “Tony is acting insane right now.”
According to the state investigation, friends told authorities that Robinson had taken a large dose of hallucinogenic mushrooms and had also smoked marijuana and taken Xanax on the day of the shooting.
A toxicology test confirmed those three substances were in Robinson’s system, Ozanne said.
Robinson went to Limon’s home, where several people were hanging out, that evening. Some of his friends tried to calm him down, but they said he appeared to be hallucinating and tried to fight someone in the apartment for no apparent reason.
“I’m freaking out,” Robinson said, according to a friend. “I shouldn’t have done this.”
Limon eventually got Robinson to leave the apartment. As he left the area in a car, friends say, Limon saw Robinson running in the street and called 911 at 6:28 p.m.
Officer heard disturbance
Kenny was the primary officer dispatched for Limon’s call and responded to the 1100 block of Williamson Street from the police department’s Central District office in the City-County Building.
As Kenny drove toward the scene, dispatchers relayed more information about the call. After Limon’s report, they also received calls from people who said Robinson had gone back into 1125 Williamson St. after punching one man and trying to strangle another outside.
In an interview with state authorities three days after the shooting, Kenny said he learned about the alleged assaults and that Robinson had taken drugs from dispatchers. The interview is included in the state reports.
Robinson’s family members have said Kenny should have approached the situation differently once he knew the teen had taken a mind-altering substance.
When he arrived at the home, Kenny said, he heard a disturbance coming from the upstairs apartment, including noises that sounded “like a fist hitting something” and a person yelling, “What are you going to do now, bitch?”
Critics of the shooting have questioned Kenny’s decision to enter the home without backup, saying it may have escalated the encounter with Robinson.
But Kenny told investigators he believed Robinson “was upstairs and was violently assaulting” someone, and that he did not believe he had time to wait for backup before going inside.
Shots on stairway
Kenny entered the side door at 1125 Williamson St., which opens onto a dozen stairs to the second unit. He continued to hear the disturbance as he climbed eight of the steps to the unit’s doorway, then called out that he was a police officer.
Before he could see Robinson, Kenny said he heard the teen respond by saying, “Well, the police are here.”
According to Kenny’s account of the shooting, that was when Robinson rounded the corner of the doorway and struck Kenny in the side of the head with a closed fist. State investigators later noted dents in the drywall above the eighth step of the stairway.
Kenny said Robinson continued to move toward him and throw punches at him from “closer than arms’ length distance.”
Kenny told investigators he feared that he could be knocked unconscious by another blow from Robinson or incapacitated if he was knocked down the steps, and that Robinson could take his gun.
Kenny then shot Robinson as the two of them moved down the apartment steps.
Ozanne said an audio recording that captured the shooting indicated Kenny fired two groupings of three shots, then one final shot.
A dashboard camera in Kenny’s squad car captured video of the final shot, Ozanne said — the first time officials have referenced video evidence of the shooting.
The video shows Kenny entering the side door to 1125 Williamson St. and moving backward as he emerges and fires the final shot, Ozanne said. Robinson’s feet can be seen in the doorway.
Another Madison police officer and a sergeant who had also been sent to the home arrived as the shots were being fired.
State Journal reporters Jeff Glaze and Dan Simmons contributed to this report.