clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A police shooting in Madison, WI, highlighted the city's alarming racial disparities

Tony Robinson was shot dead by a Madison, Wisconsin, police officer.
Tony Robinson was shot dead by a Madison, Wisconsin, police officer.

Madison, Wisconsin, is widely seen as a liberal haven and one of the best places in the nation to live.

But the police shooting of Tony Robinson, an unarmed biracial 19-year-old, has awakened fears that the supposedly progressive city of 240,000 is far from immune to racial disparities in law enforcement. Data from the city and state shows that both have struggled with racially biased policing and incarceration for years.

Reports found bigger racial disparities in Madison, and Wisconsin, than in the rest of the country

A 2013 report from nonprofit initiative Race to Equity found that local black youth make up nearly 80 percent of children sentenced to the state's juvenile correctional facility, even though they're only 9 percent of the county's youth population. Black youth in Dane County, where Madison is located, were more than six times as likely to be arrested as white youth in 2010 — a higher black-white disparity than the entire state (3-to-1) and country (2-to-1).

The Race to Equity report also found that black adults in Dane County were more than eight times as likely to be arrested as white adults in 2012, which was higher than the black-white arrest disparity in Wisconsin (4-to-1) and the entire nation (2.5-to-1) in 2010. While black men made up only 4.8 percent of the county's total adult male population in 2012, they comprised more than 43 percent of all new adult prison placements that year.

Updated numbers for only Madison may be even worse: Erica Nelson, who authored the Race to Equity report, told PolitiFact Wisconsin that black adults are 10.9 times as likely as white adults to be arrested in the city, based on a preliminary analysis of the Madison Police Department's 2013 annual report.

Another report, released in 2007 by the Justice Policy Institute, found that black residents in Dane County were 97 times as likely to be admitted for a drug crime as their white counterparts — the third-largest disparity out of 198 counties analyzed in the report. (Nationwide, black and white people use and sell drugs, including marijuana, at similar rates.)

Statewide analyses show big racial disparities across Wisconsin. In 2014, 24/7 Wall Street ranked Wisconsin as the worst state for African Americans based on an analysis of 12 socioeconomic, health, and criminal justice measures. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found black people are six times as likely to be arrested for pot, which is far higher than the national average of 3.7. A 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found Wisconsin incarcerated working-age black men at the highest rate of any state in 2010: 12.8 percent, compared with the US average of 6.7 percent.

These findings are particularly worrying for Madison, which is known for its liberal politics. The city has made a concerted effort to hire minority cops: its police force is 18 percent black, Asian, or Latino, which is fairly close to the city's overall rate of 24 percent. Matt Kenny, the police officer who shot Robinson, was one of the cops who came up with the idea to bring wedding cakes to same-sex couples when marriage equality came to Wisconsin. Madison's mayor, Democrat Paul Soglin, openly acknowledged his city's startling racial disparities to the Guardian.

The shooting has become part of a bigger movement

Ferguson hands up protest6

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson/Getty Images News)

Kenny shot and killed Robinson on Friday, leading to protests in Madison over police use of force.

Police said Kenny was investigating calls about a man who jumped around traffic and was allegedly involved in a battery. Kenny reportedly followed the suspect to an apartment, heard a disturbance, and forced his way inside. In the apartment, Robinson allegedly assaulted Kenny, and the officer shot and killed the 19-year-old, claiming self-defense.

Robinson's death is one of the latest to draw the attention of the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests against racial disparities in police use of force. At least three unarmed black men were killed by police in four days over the past week, ThinkProgress reported. And several police killings of black men in 2014 drew national media attention, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York City; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; John Crawford near Dayton, Ohio; and Darrien Hunt in Saratoga Springs, Utah.

Further reading: What we know about the police shooting of unarmed 19-year-old Tony Robinson in Madison, WI.