In a moment that would have challenged even the most capable person, he shined under intense pressure with humanity and grace. And in the process, Dane County’s district attorney helped our community begin to understand the facts it so desperately sought for two months in the fatal police shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson.
Ismael Ozanne made us think as much as he made us listen Tuesday.
We all can learn something from his determined effort in the glaring national spotlight. What a fine example he provided, especially for our young people, of how to handle the tough stuff that too often life delivers.
Ozanne, noticeably understanding the gravity of the moment, wiped his brow of sweat repeatedly. Then he methodically began, telling Tony Robinson’s family, “I am so very sorry for your loss.”
Ozanne wasn’t just another district attorney thrust into the national debate over fatal police shootings of black men. Born into a civil rights family, Ozanne is Wisconsin’s first black district attorney.
“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.”
But Ozanne had a job to do, and he did it well, having poured over more than 1,100 pages of evidence, witness accounts and statements.
Ozanne did not rely on emotion, which has driven a lot of the difficult conversation over police shootings so far. He took an oath to uphold the law, and he followed through. He relied on an independent investigation and his professional, legal judgment.
So in a clear voice, between uncomfortable pauses, Ozanne deliberately communicated the facts that supported his decision.
Robinson had been using drugs. He was behaving so erratically his best friends feared not just for Robinson’s safety but their own. Robinson, shirtless and running through traffic, had struck a passerby and tried to choke another. Three 911 calls prompted Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny to quickly respond. Kenny thought a commotion in the apartment meant someone needed help.
When Kenny entered, the district attorney said, Robinson struck and knocked Kenny in the head and partially down a staircase, causing a concussion. Robinson refused to stop advancing, so Kenny fired his gun seven times in 3 seconds.
“I conclude that his tragic and unfortunate death was the result of a lawful use of deadly police force, and that no charges will be brought,” Ozanne firmly, slowly said.
Of all the telling moments in this tragedy, Ozanne’s words and demeanor stand out. The man did his job. He had to. He didn’t showboat. He described the evidence in detail. He urged the community to voice its views without violence. He acknowledged the justice system’s failings.
As uncomfortable as the past two months have been for our community, the days ahead will remain uncomfortable until our community addresses racial disparities in a meaningful way with collaborative actions. Who will be involved? How will issues be addressed? What compromises will need to be made? What new processes will need to be developed? What priorities must be set? What diverse voices need to be heard?
Ozanne’s decision need not be an ending, but a beginning of a dialogue that will honor those willing to have the uncomfortable conversations required to answer these questions and more.