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No charges for the Wisconsin police officer who killed unarmed teen Tony Robinson

Tony Robinson was shot dead by a Madison, Wisconsin, police officer.
Tony Robinson was shot dead by a Madison, Wisconsin, police officer.
  1. The Dane County district attorney has announced that Madison, Wisconsin, police officer Matt Kenny will not face charges for killing Tony Robinson.
  2. Kenny, who is white, shot Robinson, an unarmed biracial 19-year-old, on March 6.
  3. Police allege that Robinson assaulted Kenny before the shooting occurred. The Wisconsin Department of Justice has released dash cam video from the evening, but it only captures the scene outside the house, and doesn't shed much light on their encounter.
  4. The shooting sparked a weekend of protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter, the rallying call for protests against racial disparities in police use of force that began in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown.
  5. Madison police said this week that they were preparing for the possibility of similar protests after the district attorney's announcement. Residents were given a two-day notice that the decision was coming.
  6. A Wisconsin law mandating that police-involved deaths be investigated by the Wisconsin Department of Justice applied in this case. Because the district attorney has declined to prosecute Kenny, the law requires the investigators to release the report.

Police say Robinson assaulted an officer, but Robinson was unarmed

Police responded to a call about a man jumping around traffic at about 6:30 pm on Friday, March 6, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval told the Associated Press. A second call suggested the man was "responsible for a battery."

Kenny 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.

Dash cam video released by the Wisconsin Department of Justice does not capture the encounter — it only shows Kenny entering the home, and then backing out about 20 seconds later while firing seven shots into the open door.

Robinson was unarmed. It's unclear why Kenny used his firearm instead of a Taser or baton.

An investigation by the Guardian found Robinson had taken magic mushrooms hours before the shooting, and at least one of the 911 calls was made by a friend who was concerned about Robinson's erratic behavior.

Kenny has more than 12 years of experience in law enforcement. In 2007, he shot and killed a man who pointed a gun, which turned out to be a pellet gun, at police, but Kenny was cleared of wrongdoing because it was deemed a suicide by cop, Koval told the Guardian. Kenny's family stood by him, telling local news outlets he is "an exemplary officer who operates with the highest level of integrity, judgment and restraint."

Robinson was sentenced to three years' probation in December 2014 for an armed robbery, according to court documents reported by the AP. A group of five, including Robinson, allegedly broke into an apartment in April 2014 in hopes of finding marijuana and money. Robinson told investigators he carried a BB gun during the robbery, and stole a TV and Xbox 360.

The court documents also said Robinson was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and depression, and was prone to boredom and anger.

Wisconsin law requires outside investigations of police shootings

Wisconsin State Capitol

The Wisconsin State Capitol. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News)

The Wisconsin Department of Justice  investigated the Robinson shooting, as part of a requirement in Wisconsin law.

The AP reported that the state passed a law in 2014 to require outside probes of police shootings. The law passed after three high-profile cases within a decade, including one in Madison, resulted in no criminal charges and raised concerns about the integrity of the investigations.

There are huge racial disparities in Madison law enforcement

Various reports have found that Madison has some of the worst racial disparities in the country when it comes to law enforcement.

A 2013 report from Race to Equity, a nonprofit initiative, found that local black youths make up nearly 80 percent of local children sentenced to the state's juvenile correctional facility, even though they're only 9 percent of the county's youth population. The report also found that black adults in Dane County, where Madison is located, were eight times more likely to be arrested than 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).

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

Madison's mayor, Democrat Paul Soglin, acknowledged his city's startling disparities to the Guardian. He said the city is trying to make changes so black youth are diverted out of the criminal justice system, to give them a better opportunity to avoid getting caught up in a cycle of crime. "The mathematics are real simple," Soglin said. "You're going to get arrested again and again and again, and you're not going to have that divergence that the white youth has."

Police are much more likely to shoot and kill black suspects

FBI data shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates, although the data is incomplete since it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country.

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."

There were several high-profile police killings in 2014 involving black men and boys. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in a highly contentious shooting that sparked nationwide protests. In Ohio, police killed 22-year-old John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in separate shootings after mistaking toy guns for actual weapons. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

Cops can legally shoot when they reasonably perceive a threat

Two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s, Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor, set the legal framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri–St. Louis professor who studies law enforcement officers' use of force, said in August. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — referred to as the "defense-of-life" standard by police departments. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger explained, comes from Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But as Klinger said, "They basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."

what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat

The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and stopping a fleeing violent felon — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who survived his encounter with police officers but was treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broke his foot — all while suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' actions had been justified, but said police couldn't justify their conduct solely based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared with what other police officers might do.

What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said in August.

In the case of Robinson, the legal questions are whether he actually assaulted officer Kenny, and whether Kenny still had good reason to believe Robinson posed a physical threat to him or others when the officer fired the final shots.