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Thursday, October 27, 2016

This story is not new.

On March 6, Matthew Kenny, a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, 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, 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 in this space 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, 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: “[T]he 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 is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Florida, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected]

Photo: Light Brigading via Flickr

  • Godzilla

    Trust is a two way street.

  • itsfun

    Take a look at the killing stats in New York, and Baltimore now that the “leaders” of those 2 cities have crapped on the police in those cities.

    • mike

      You are right on. Far left politicians have brought this on at the expense of the rest living in these communities. Arrests down, less safe, I don’t blame the police. Why take the chance.

      • itsfun

        They don’t want to spend their lives in jail.

        • A_Real_Einstein

          These police officers are no longer protecting and serving. They will be fired and their union disbanded.

          • itsfun

            What happens when no one wants to be a cop because they get crapped on by mayors, attorneys, and even the President of the US. Cops aren’t going to risk their lives, just to get arrested and have mobs throwing bricks, rocks, etc at them.

  • Insinnergy

    It’s true that the US police forces, as a gross generalisation, appear to have adopted more of the Judge Dredd/Robocop-style enforcer of the law approach… especially in areas where there is a higher level of violence, and hence a greater fear for your life.
    This has the benefit of making everything black and white, somewhat military (“brothers at war”), and very simple, but it will not solve the policing problems overall… as the community (as noted above) becomes either the no-man’s land where the police go to do combat, or actively part of the “other side” that they cannot trust.

    I like the direction this Police Chief is going. “Protect and Serve” has been forgotten in many of the more strife-torn areas and it recognises that no-one likes crime, especially the communities that are the victims of it. Bridges need to be built that slowly allow the Police to assist the community (and vice versa) in rejecting the criminals and the crimes.

    I’d also venture to guess that the act of becoming someone serving the community in this way, helping people, being trusted with difficult situations and acting as focal point for positive change is something that would be a great lift to the heart of any cop. (As opposed to the “mean streets/everyone is a potential threat/criminal” feeling).

    I realise that many cops already take this approach and I’m glad.
    For the ones that don’t: I think the return and rise of the ideal of the Protector and Server is a good thing to push for. It’ll take time and persistence, but I think it will bring much better results than “The Enforcer”.