In reflecting on the events following the death of Tony Robinson, my eyes absently wander to the TV in my home reporting on yet another CNN update from Ferguson. While watching, I cannot refrain from reciting a quick prayer of thanksgiving; though we share a common past with Ferguson, I believe we have a uniquely different and brighter future. In the midst of such pain, how could I possibly cling to such hopes?
The table was set by the Robinson family. In each and every forum, we witnessed lessons of responsibility and restraint in the midst of despair and grief. This set the tone for respectful dissent and demonstrations. But urging peaceful protest is one thing, pulling it off is another feat. How was this accomplished where it failed in other cities?
This is where the women and men of the Madison Police Department showed incredible poise and professionalism at a time when emotions were running understandably high and any encounter between police and those protesting could have been amplified and used as a tipping point for confrontation.
Using the "Madison Method" (often copied but seldom carried out with the same conviction and aplomb that we have achieved), our response could not have been better. I am proud of the fact that my officers, themselves grieving the loss of a young man and worried about one of our own colleagues, comported themselves with distinction. Despite extended shifts, exposed to the elements for protracted periods of time, and contending with a barrage of offensive language and threats by fringe elements that are a part of any assembled group, these officers managed each and every protest without incident. My officers walked with demonstrators, shut down traffic for them, rerouted traffic around them, dialogued with those marching and managed to avoid making any arrests despite the antics of a few who were doing their level best to draw an antagonistic response. To borrow a phrase from protestors we have worked with in the past, "This is what democracy looks like!" Officers stayed true to honoring constitutional rights and individual liberties when facilitating First Amendment tenets of assembly and speech. And lest anyone forget, you cannot deny a certain feeling of vulnerability when working with crowds where we are significantly outnumbered; then juxtapose this with the knowledge that two officers in Ferguson had been shot while working at a protest last week.
While all of my officers did their part to shoulder the responsibilities assigned to them, I felt particularly concerned for my officers of color standing on the lines for some of the protests. There were some vile and disrespectful missives hurled towards my African American officers. While the actions of a few do not define the overall crowd demeanor, it does take a toll. While we are trained to develop a certain "teflon" quality in order to deflect some of the venom, it still hurts. (Ironically, at a time when both the community and the Department wants a more diversified work force, particularly culled from within our own City, what a difficult "sell" when trying to recruit . . . and prospective candidates will learn about these events as I tell my officers of color to speak candidly to those who aspire to work for us. Complete transparency applies to talking about the negative elements as well as the positive when working in this community).
Peaceful protest was also achieved owing to the many behind-the-scenes initiatives of several individuals and groups in the community who worked tirelessly to ensure that the narrative written in Madison would be different than what we have seen played out elsewhere. The leadership and collaboration of faith-based communities, not-for-profits, and government, coupled with motivated individuals inspired to help in any way possible, created a climate of positive engagement as we strive to move forward from a tragic set of circumstances.
As an example of across-the-board collaboration, I was invited to a venue hosted by the African American Council of Churches for Greater Madison, facilitated and hosted by Bishop Harold Rayford. It was profoundly moving. I saw remarkable caring in action; clergy encouraging us to remain faithful and faith-filled and then introducing various not-for-profits and other organizations. All those that gathered pledged to re-double their efforts in bridging the gaps of trust and to work towards eliminating racial disparities. I arrived with a melancholy and apprehensive mindset; I left with a sense of hope and renewal. (I also felt better knowing that there are prayers being offered for EVERYONE involved).
And now we all wait. Predictably, we will probably be subjected to continued speculation and theories. There will be inevitable storylines crafting simplistic characterizations of Tony Robinson and Officer Matt Kenny. Just as I have decried those attempts to smear Robinson and his past, the same outrage must be expressed for those who are judging Officer Kenny on the basis of little more than headlines about the number of rounds, shot placement, and the fact that he has used deadly force in the past (for which he was fully exonerated and recognized for his ability to place himself in harm's way). Discussions of this variety serve no useful purpose and disrespect the reputations of both. As it was pointed out that Robinson was a young man who had overcome much and was striving to pursue an education and the dream of a happier tomorrow, fairness dictates that I lend my voice to offset some of the innuendos that have been cast on the career of Officer Kenny.
I have known Officer Kenny for over twelve years, having served as one of the training staff when he was first commissioned. Officer Kenny is a caring, conscientious individual who has a Bachelors Degree from Edgewood College and had a robust career as a Medic in the Coast Guard. Among his many interests and talents, Matt is a member of our Mounted Horse Patrol and has been instrumental in teaching both recruits and veteran officers first aid techniques. In fact, as Matt made it a practice to carry a separate trauma bag on calls (and this has led to saving lives); others have followed suit and we now routinely see officers ordering tourniquets and fast-application dressings for a host of significant injuries including their use on stabbings and gunshot wounds. As a side note, Officer Kenny has received 45 commendations/recognitions during his tenure at MPD, four of which involved rendering critical first aid to a citizen. He is a consummate professional and committed to selfless service. In short, there is much to be said for the character of Officer Matt Kenny's content than what has been said or printed to date.
As we await the decision in this case, I challenge all of those who have already formed a conclusion--one way or another--to suspend judgments that are not predicated on fact(s). No one--including me and the members of MPD--know what findings or conclusions will be submitted to the District Attorney. And we certainly have no idea as to what the D.A's decision will be. That said, I wonder what "justice" will look like or mean to people?
While walking alongside a demonstrator this past week, we struck up a conversation and I asked him what would serve as "justice" in the case before us. He replied that justice would only be served if the officer were charged with a crime. Really? I was hoping for something along the lines that "justice" is predicated by looking at all the facts before rendering a decision. Justice involves using benchmarks of honesty, fairness, impartiality, and ultimately transparency before it can be attained. I still hope that this will be the case......