This story is not new.
On March 6, Matthew Kenny, a police officer in Madison, Wis., shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old black man named Anthony Robinson Jr., who, he said, had attacked him. The shooting triggered days of peaceful protests. An autopsy found a cocktail of illicit drugs in Robinson’s system. Earlier this month, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who is black, cleared Kenny of wrongdoing.
Though the story isn’t new, what is new is the response from Madison Police Chief Michael C. Koval. In his blog, he anticipated civil disturbances and offered those who might “make a principled decision to get arrested” a helpful menu of charges so they could distinguish between acts that would get them fined and those that would get them jailed and stick them with criminal records.
Impressively, he acknowledged the systemic bias plaguing people of color and the fact that police have been part of the problem. “I am not going to absolve law enforcement for whatever role we have played in being complicit in the calculus of racial disparities.”
One never hears a top cop say such things. I wanted to hear more. Specifically, I wanted Koval to address the question a reader named Tracy posed to me a few weeks back. “What can I do?” she asked, to combat the scourge of police violence against unarmed African-American men.
Koval said she should volunteer to help police develop programs to identify and combat their own unconscious biases. “A lot of academies, like my own, welcome citizen input and advisories … as people that are willing to come in and serve on panels, to have community oversight.”
It seemed a stretch to say that “a lot” of police academies would welcome this input. When I noted this, Koval sighed. “I think a lot of my colleagues, quite frankly, are very traditional,” he admitted. “I’ll be honest with you. I think the profession … tends to be very reactionary and behind the learning curve. What do cops respond to best? Well, a) lawsuits, which compel change, and b) sometimes there are legislative mandates that put our feet to the fire.”
In other words, if your department does not welcome public input, pressure it to do so. Police, said Koval, have to realize that responding to the public’s concerns is not optional. “If you think it’s business as usual and you can’t incorporate citizen input, then … you’re living on an island.”
Koval said he has worked to make his department a model of progressive policing “in terms of casting, or recasting ourselves, reinventing ourselves into a mold more of a community activist and a guardian, and much less emphasis on traditional law enforcement warrior mindset.” He said he has emphasized community policing where cops don’t just catch bad guys but also connect citizens with city services and job training, steer the homeless to shelter, and help resolve disputes with landlords.
“I’ve been accused, or indicted – I actually embrace it – as ‘Kumbaya Koval,’ because I want to create this guardian image in which I’m trying to cultivate a workforce that are more like social workers with a badge and, oh, yeah, there is this law enforcement element that has to take place.”
It will not surprise you that Koval is fond of a quote attributed to Sir Robert Peel, the British statesman who founded London’s police department: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” But that sentiment is only as valid as the trust between the two, and that trust frays more with every controversial shooting.
While Matthew Kenny will not – probably should not – face charges for shooting Anthony Robinson, Koval knows that death has nevertheless caused a breach of faith between his department and some of those it is sworn to serve.
“Those are trust gaps,” he said, “that I will be laboring the rest of my life to try to mend.”
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.