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Discussion On Law Enforcement And Race In Madison

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Premiere Date: 
March 13, 2015

Discussion On Law Enforcement And Race In Madison

Community leaders discuss race and policing in a special edition of Here and Now following the death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg: 

Anger spills out into the streets of Madison this week following the shooting death of Tony Robinson. One week ago, Matt Kenny, a white police officer, says he was assaulted by Robinson, and as a result shot and killed the unarmed black teenager, who was a suspect in a disturbance.

There was a similar incident last year in Milwaukee when a white officer shot and killed a mentally-ill African American man. That officer fired his weapon 14 times. And it comes in the wake of the highly charged shooting by a white officer of an African American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, and numerous other incidents across the country, prior to that. 

Hello, and welcome to a special edition of "Here & Now." I'm Frederica Freyberg.

This week, we break from our traditional format to shed light and understanding on the issues that play between police officers and minority communities. What can be done moving forward to build trust, cooperation, and community, not only here in Madison, but across our state? That's one of the questions we hope to answer. 

Joining us is Madison police Chief Mike Koval who is a Madison native. He first joined the force in 1983 before becoming Chief less than a year ago. Michael Johnson, CEO for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County has been proactive in his work with the community in reaction to this recent shooting. We also have Reverend Everett Mitchell, pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church. He is also an attorney and an elder member of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. Finally, Rachel Krinsky, CEO, YWCA Madison, who has been outspoken about race equity and justice.

Thanks to all of you tonight for joining us. 

Panel Members: 

Thank you for having us. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Reverend Mitchell, I wanted to go first to you. You said, "What they said couldn't happen in Madison has happened in Madison." That sounds like it didn't surprise you. Why not?

Michael Johnson: 

Well, there's two reasons why it didn't surprise me. One, I think since the Supreme Court decision Graham versus Connor in 1989, what we are seeing is an erosion of the necessity for police training as it relates to deadly force. I think what we are seeing even in today's training kind of paradigm, we're seeing that police unions and seeing police who are not always trained to use the minimum amount of force as it relates to interactions with violence. 

Frederica Freyberg: 

Let me go ahead and let the Chief respond to that.

Mike Koval: 

Well, at the end of the day, you are right. That is the benchmark by which law enforcement is judged across this country, but in terms of the inflection and the emphasis of where that training is, I won't come to complete terms with that because actually I think a lot of our firearms training and looking at deadly force has been more than ever incorporating things like more movement, distance and cover, in order to prevent that sort of escalation abuse.

Frederica Freyberg: 

I'm going to get to that issue a little bit more, but I wanted to go around the table and ask the panel whether or not what happened a week ago today came as a surprise in this city. Michael Johnson, to you.

Michael Johnson:

I wouldn't say I was surprised. I think an incident like this can happen in any city in the United States. It's how you respond to these kinds of issues. And I was actually sad and hurt that it happened right here in our backyards.

Frederica Freyberg: 

Rachel Krinsky?

Rachel Krinsky: 

I was certainly shocked. I think everyone was and should be shocked by an event such as this. I don't know that I was surprised. I think it's interesting to see that all issues related to race tend to be much more surprising in general to white Madisonians than they are to people of color who live with these issues and  in fear of these issues. The other thing that I just want to add is that people keep talking about the reactions as being an expression of anger. And, yes, there's anger, but there's also grief and fear and vulnerability and I think it's really important that we talk about it, and many of us have been, with that breadth of description.

Michael Johnson: 

I think that's a great point she brings up. I didn't see anger out there. I saw people expressing their emotion. So in this city, you don't see people flipping over cars and looting. You saw kids out there, you saw their families out there expressing their feelings. And I think it's very, very therapeutic for this community.

Frederica Freyberg: 

So even to use the word "angry," is that something that borders on kind of this, you know, majority whiteness that is this city?

Michael Johnson: 

Yeah. I think when people utilize that term, particularly when it's African American and people of color, that term gets thrown out a lot:, angry black man, angry community. And I think we have to be careful with the words that we use when we describe groups of people or individuals that are expressing their emotion.

Frederica Freyberg: 

I wanted to go back to this use of force issue and direct this to Chief Koval. We know that the dangers of being a police officer are very real every day, but so many people have been asking why can't someone something less than deadly force be used, especially if someone is unarmed.

Mike Koval: 

Well, again, each set of facts is unique onto itself and you have to look at the totality of those circumstances that are in front of the officer as it occurs. Hopefully when DCI completes their investigation we'll all get a window on the world on what in fact were those unique circumstances in this instance. But to your question, we always want to train to only use that minimal amount of non-deadly force necessary to effectuate control over the subject. And to that extent, it's always helpful and healthy to explore what are the alternatives to deadly force. And I think that's a constructive dialogue that we can continue to have, and I hope we do.

Frederica Freyberg: 

Everett Mitchell, was that something on that score that you wanted to add? Because that's where you started.

Everett Mitchell: 

I think for me that's the piece that I think is most important for me, is because if we are using an objective reasonable standard of at the time of the officer, everything becomes in the mind of the officer. Like I've said, dead people don't talk. So we'll never know what Tony's side of the event will be, but we will hear the officer's side. That's been played out already in our news media as they've tried to reshape Tony into something, looking into his background, how big he was, how small the officer was, trying to set up a narrative to try to say that in many ways the officer was justified in his actions when he used deadly force. Those things concern me because it's not a paradigm for Madison.  This is something that has happened across the nation in many different cases. And, so, for my constituents we're very concerned about the shaping of this narrative already.

Frederica Freyberg: 

Countering this a little bit comes this question that came to us via 'Facebook'. Andrea asked, "Where is the responsibility for the choices that Tony Robinson made?" No one clearly wants to see this young man dead, right. But the question seems to be shouldn't everyone be taught that an altercation with a police officer, who is armed, could be very dangerous or deadly?

Everett Mitchell: 

When I was a prosecutor, there were numbers of young white men and women who were intoxicated, doing all kinds of things on State Street that they didn't end up dead. The officer handled the situation, put them down, did something and they went back home to their mothers and fathers at the end of the night. They were creating criminal acts. So you cannot say or try to put the blame on Tony that maybe he should have been better and then he'd still be alive. No, that's not the case. It's inconsistent to what we see every day happening on the streets of Madison.

Michael Johnson:

On the other side, people have to be able to show empathy. Right? So, you go on social media and you hear people use these inflammatory words. Here's a family that's grieving. And we don't know what all the facts are. So people are jumping to conclusions and saying, "Well, this young man did this and did that." Let's wait and see what the facts are before we draw our conclusions. Let's just show a little bit of empathy for both sides of the issue.

Frederica Freyberg: 

Rachel Krinsky, I saw you nodding your head as well.

Rachel Krinsky:

I find those kinds of questions pretty offensive, both for the reasons that Everett explained, but also because so many situations are more complicated than that. We don't know what happened in this circumstance, but when a person is intoxicated, when a person has mental illness, which doesn't seem to be a fact in this case, there are many factors, lots of factors, many layers of complex factors, in which someone might not make the decision that we all prefer. So there's that. And I know the Chief would agree with that, that we're not saying, "If somebody makes a misstep they should end up dead." But the other piece-- 

Panel Members:

No.

Frederica Freyberg: 

I have to jump in and say I don't think that's what this Andrea on Facebook was saying.

Rachel Krinsky:

I don't either, but that's what it leads to. If you follow that line of logic, then you're saying that this young man is responsible for his own death, and that's incredibly problematic. The other piece is there are all of these trust issues, and if you are someone who doesn't trust the police, is young, is afraid of the police, sees the police as a really negative, controlling force... 19-year olds like to buck authority. I'm not sure that it's reasonable to expect that young people, particularly if they are in some kind of altered mental state, are always just going to do what a police officer tells them to do, much as that would be really smart.

Frederica Freyberg: 

Chief, you're nodding your head again.

Mike Koval: 

Well, again, we have tried, at least from the outset from my start, have not tried to objectify, quantify, or create any illusion that there was any predicate that we can infer or assume, that somehow or another that that was wrongful misconduct. As a matter of fact, I've tried to say to everybody and I've been baited several times by national media. I am not going to lend any deference or credibility to people who are trying to create these side bar narratives on a young man who is now dead. I've asked everybody, every threshold, "Give this family and this community some time to be reverential and respectful to their grief." We don't need to go there. At some point, DCI will release facts. Let's just all settle down and be deferential to the privacy of their family.

Frederica Freyberg: 

Tony Robinson's uncle says that the shooting raises issues that go beyond what happened one week ago. The issue, he says, of "systematic targeting of young black males." Is that what you all believe we see here in the city of Madison? I'll go first to you again, Everett Mitchell.

Everett Mitchell: 

I won't say that, at least in this particular instance, that I see a systemic targeting of black males. I've not met one officer that has ever done that. But what we continue to say we're concerned about is this continued systems where you have low-income African Americans who are not seen in a way that I think this community should see them. I think they do see them afraid. I think they're afraid of them. They don't understand them. I think they judge them. I think they prejudge them. And if you allow that consciousness to exist without challenging that idea and that identity, you leave the objective, reasonable standard in people's minds. And what do they see when they see a young African American man with a hoodie and his pants hanging down a little bit? Do they think he's going to be the next Cornell West? Or do they think he's selling drugs? In this community, I think they think the latter, rather than the former.

Michael Johnson: 

When we look at the data, you know, Boys & Girls Clubs, I have hundreds and hundreds of African American boys in my care. But when you look at the data right here in Madison, we truly have a school-to-prison pipeline. I was just at the Dane County Jail last week. African Americans make up 5% of the city population here, yet, 44% of the folks who are in jail are people who look like me. And so we have to make sure how do we keep our kids in school? How do we make sure they have great futures? And how do we stop this from happening? As a community, we have to figure that piece out.

Frederica Freyberg:

In fact, the Race to Equity Report--err, no. It was the UWM Report said that Dane County has the highest rate in the nation of juveniles incarcerated. So, it's not then that these juveniles are committing the crimes and then ending up incarcerated? It's that they're being profiled?

Michael Johnson: 

So part of the issue there, I was talking to some law enforcement officials. I was talking to some of my white friends about this last night. Sometimes low income people of color don't have representation, so they go to court and if you're a family that have the means, you can pay for an attorney, right? If you don't have that, you got a public defender. They're understaffed--that's my understanding-- and so they don't get adequate representation and they end up being in the System and not getting the support that they need.

Rachel Krinsky: 

The other piece is that there are a lot of national studies that show youth of color and white youth use drugs at almost identical rates. But because of patterns of policing--and I can't give you statistics for this community, but in general--patterns of policing, all kinds of other factors, it's not that the African American kids didn't do something wrong and they got put in jail. It's that the white kids did do something wrong and they didn't get put in jail. That happens over and over again with drugs, with the kind of behavior you're talking about on State Street, with all kinds of things. It's not that people are being wrongly charged or convicted necessarily. It's that the kids who look like me aren't falling in the same place.

Michael Johnson:

And to piggyback on Rachel's point, the national-- right after Ferguson happened, you know, they put out a report that showed, you know, younger white individuals use weed at a higher rate, but African American youth were 3.7 higher to be arrested and put in some kind of juvenile because of their use of that. To Michael's point, when they are arrested, because they have the resources, the system allows for them to go find help in ways that others are not able to do it. So their mothers and fathers could afford insurance or inpatient treatment. That may go well to mitigate the kind of consequence they will have versus someone who have no resources, maybe moved here from Chicago, and don't understand those resources and they will end up in that system.

Frederica Freyberg:

Chief Koval, what would you say to the idea that, potentially, officers under your leadership are engaged in some profiling?

Mike Koval: 

Well, I've said that I don't believe I have any rogues among us. I think our climate, if you will, our environment, is that there are enough good people that are going to root these folks out and bring them to our attention. But it goes to some of the systems issues that others here at this panel have alluded to. We have to continually examine what it is that we're doing that, on its face doesn't look like it's objectionable, but it might have an insidious or sort of unintended consequence? I think those are the issues of greater depth. And to everyone's position here, whoever thought that justice is blind, obviously, I'd rather have Lady Justice that had money because money will always mitigate for those who don't have money.

Michael Johnson: 

The reality is we all profile each other. Somebody look at me and say, "I don't see that you're black." Well, you got glaucoma. I can see that you're white and you're female, and you can see that I'm black and a heavy set man. So when people say that... To me, that's offensive. See people for who they are and have the real conversations. But we profile each other all the time.

Rachel Krinsky: 

And I'd like to add to that, that these kinds of disparities can happen without anyone doing it on purpose. There can be police officers who disproportionately stop people of color, or arrest people of color, and have no idea that they're doing so. Because we all have these unconscious biases. And the Department's been doing training on that. I want to come to the point that Chief Koval has been making that the police are the community and the community are the police and just say to some of my fellow white people who are currently really angry at the police, that the rest of us white people in town have the same issues; we just don't happen to be in law enforcement. And I think it's really important that we all stop short of looking for whose fault this is. I think there's responsibility. The Police Department has to take responsibility. But so do I in my own sphere of influence and so does everybody else. I think that piece gets lost.

Mike Koval: 

Can I just respond? I appreciate what you're saying. We have taken the unconscious bias training to a very significant level, both in-service and pre-service. But I have anecdotes from people that are on the circuit that speak with me, and they say, "I've gone into this store, a person of color, and I'm profiled by the clerks, and the clerks are watching me go down every aisle, and then I'm getting called in for retail theft. So what you see happening vicariously then is now the cops have inherited someone else's biases, and now we sort of vicariously have to own that, and that only agitates everybody more so. So that's the thing. It starts with us having unconscious bias because we're sort of the tip of government. But others have to be cognizant of that as well.

Frederica Freyberg: 

It's insidious. And, Rachel Krinsky, you write about white people becoming "authentic partners in the struggle for racial justice." Why is it so hard even in progressive Madison?

Rachel Krinsky:

So I grew up in Madison. I'm a product of this environment. One of my favorite jokes, which some of you at the table have heard, is that because of that my first language is white Madison. And I joke about that, but what I mean by that is when I was growing up, I couldn't talk about race because I felt that it was not polite, and offensive. I couldn't address these issues. We have a long history in this community of pretending everything is fine, not talking about it, and being defensive, and covering our bases. To be an authentic partner as a white person in Madison means you have to step out of being comfortable, you have to get called. I frequently end up tripping in public and end up getting called out. I prefer to be called in. That's a term that we use at the YWCA which means people care enough to correct me and still engage with me. And I will say, Everett and Michael are two of many people of color in this community who have done that for me. But we have to own that we have biases, that we have tapes playing in our heads that we benefit from these inequities. My children benefit from being white children in this community. And if I can't acknowledge that, then how can I be part of the solution to this?

Frederica Freyberg: 

On racial disparity and these numbers again, which are startling and grim, according to the Race to Equity Report, 75% of black children live in poverty in Dane County and 50% don't graduate from high school. These are not numbers that you don't know and that are new to you. But I think it is startling to people who live in Dane County to understand those kinds of disparities. Another of our 'Facebook' viewers asks this: Melissa wants to know what we as citizens of Madison can do to help address racial inequities in our city. She says, "I know a lot of people who want to take action, but don't know where to start." Everett Mitchell?

Everett Mitchell: 

Well, I always tell people that, especially my white friends who are trying to do this work, I say you have to be intentional. And you have to be intentional about who you allow yourself to be around and who you are familiarizing yourself with. We kind of joke about it, but if you can count the number of people of color on your hand, then you've already done a disservice to yourself. But we also have to make sure that this is not just about racial diversity, but this is also about economic, too. Socioeconomic, gender, LGBT status. There's a need for that across the spectrum. And I also want to make clear that it's not just a white issue. It's people of color as well. We have to be challenged to make sure that we are open to these ideas of having conversations with our brothers and sisters. That's why it was important for me that immediately after this happened, you know, I called together a group of pastors from throughout Dane County to come to the church so we could begin to figure out ways to model how people of faith can work together. We're talking about rabbis and Christian leaders and professors and lay leaders who were able to come together and a commitment to say, "You know what? We don't have all the answers, but we have to make a bold commitment to moving forward." And that's what I think we have to demonstrate to the community.

Frederica Freyberg:

Michael Johnson, your thoughts?

Michael Johnson:

Yeah. I would say that it's about relationships, you know. I think Everett brings up a good point, that if you don't know other people of color, you're not fellowshipping with them, if you're not breaking bread at their houses, you're not going to be able to change the systemic issues unless you really care about those issues. And so I think that's very, very critical. We live in a very segregated society, and sometimes we're segregated by economic status, by zip codes, by school districts. And we have to figure out a way to build better relationships and fellowship with each other's cultures.

Frederica Freyberg: 

Chief Koval, what role do you think the Police Department has in this?

Mike Koval: 

Well I think we have to continue to show things like... I frankly think we need to do better at legal literacy and telling people, "Here are your rights. These are the limitations that the police have to abide by. And teaching people what those rights are, I think that will be empowering. I also think, quite frankly, I don't know if it's something the police can do. I know we're starting, but I'm impressed by initiatives by 100 Black Men that show so many corollaries to what people who have literacy have versus those who don't have literacy. So to your last person, even if you can get to the point where you're mentoring and helping children to read, literacy becomes such an important broker in sharing of information and understanding your opportunities for developing economically.

Frederica Freyberg:

Rachel Krinsky, I'll let you weigh in on that question about people wanting to take action, but not knowing where to start.

Rachel Krinsky:  I guess I'll say two things: One is I keep talking about working your own sphere of influence. Where do you work? What's happening in your neighborhood? If you have children, what's happening at their school? Who are the real people in your real world? If people are interested, I did a TEDx Talk last summer. If you Google 'Rachel Krinsky TEDx', I talk about this for 16 minutes. The other thing I want to say is I agree relationships are important. But in this city, where we have a relatively low number of African Americans, please do not go out and try to recruit yourself a black friend. And do not make people of color--Black, Latino, Hmong, anybody else-- responsible for your education. I keep seeing people do this, where they pull on all the people they know who are people of color and ask them to come over. That is not authentic. It's exhausting for people of color and it's not a way to be part of the solution.

Frederica Freyberg: 

It is.

Rachel Krinsky: 

So it's your neighbors, it's the people in your schools. It's not the famous people in the newspaper that you need to get to know.

Everett Mitchell: 

I'll actually invite my white colleagues to come to the Church, because there are very few opportunities where the majority of people can be the minority. And I'll say, "Practice the ministry of just being quiet and being present. Because you will be there." That way you're not pulling on one or two people. You have to sit there and feel what it feels, and feel that uncomfortable space. But, I'll tell you, the people who take up my challenge-- there's very few people who take up that challenge. They have been given the gift of authentic relationships and seeing it being transformed from not a place of power, but a place of humanity. And I think the more that we can educate around spaces where we congregate, I think we will find great changes in this community.

Frederica Freyberg:  

I see a lot of nodding heads and we appreciate that. You know, we remarked earlier that in the more than ten years that we've been doing this program, never once have we had four such busy important people all agree so quickly to appear together on a program. And maybe I'll just send it to you, Michael Johnson, briefly as we close, why were you so ready and available to do this for us?

Michael Johnson: 

This is important for our city. It's important for our kids. It's important for our economy. Our different races and cultures make up the fabric of this great region. And if we don't address these disparities, our city and kids will suffer because of it.

Frederica Freyberg:

We leave it there. Thanks very much all of you.

We do want to thank our guests:  Reverend Everett Mitchell, pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church; and Madison Police Chief Michael Koval; Michael Johnson, CEO for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County; and Rachel Krinsky, CEO with the YWCA of Madison.

Now, this topic has and will continue to be an ongoing discussion on “Here & Now” and on Wisconsin Public Radio, across all of our platforms.

If you want to join the conversation, we invite you to participate in one of the community discussions organized around the new Wisconsin Public Television documentary about Milwaukee civil rights pioneer, Vel Phillips. These discussions are being held in communities across Wisconsin. For a schedule of events, visit wpt.org/hereandnow and look for "Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams" to find out more. 

I'm Frederica Freyberg. Have a great weekend.

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