MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The story has played out the same way in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Milwaukee. A white police officer kills an unarmed black man, sparking waves of protests before a white prosecutor ultimately decides not to file charges or hands the case off to a grand jury.
That narrative looks different in Wisconsin’s capital city, where a liberal biracial prosecutor will decide whether to charge a white officer in an unarmed biracial man’s death.
Black protesters have likened last month’s fatal shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson by police officer Matt Kenny to the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City and Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee. Grand juries in Ferguson and New York, convened by white prosecutors, chose not to charge the officers in those cases. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who is white, declined to file charges in the Hamilton shooting.
The decision to press charges in the Madison case will be made by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a biracial Democrat who identifies as black.
Ozanne, whose mother was an activist in the South during the Freedom Summer of 1964, got his start as an assistant Dane County district attorney in 1998. Ten years later, then-Gov. Jim Doyle chose Ozanne to help lead the state Department of Corrections, where he helped implement Doyle’s early release program.
Doyle appointed Ozanne as Dane County district attorney two years later, and Ozanne was elected to the position in 2012, running on promises to reduce racial disparities. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general, vowing to expand programs that allow young adult offenders to clear their records by completing their sentences and connect violent offenders to mentors.
Doyle said he thinks more African-Americans should serve as prosecutors and judges, a view that factored into his decision to appoint Ozanne to his position.
“Not to say they should make decisions (based) on race, but it brings a greater sense of fairness to the system,” said Doyle, a Democrat who served as Wisconsin attorney general before he was elected governor in 2002.
He said he’s confident that Ozanne will weigh the facts in the Robinson case impartially.
“His decision isn’t to see whether all of justice is done in the world or all the wrongs have been righted or whether police behavior is appropriate or inappropriate,” Doyle said. “His decision will determine whether he thinks there’s probable cause (to support charges). You just really have to go back to the basics.”
Ozanne has cleared police in a number of officer-involved shootings since 2012, but none of those cases generated to as much scrutiny as the Robinson case.
Police said Kenny shot Robinson in an apartment house near the state Capitol building on March 6. They said Robinson attacked Kenny, who was responding to calls that Robinson had attacked two other people and was running in traffic. Investigators have released no other details.
The Young, Gifted and Black Coalition staged daily peaceful protests in the week after the shooting. Demonstrators demanded that Kenny be fired and charged with homicide.
Kenny has not responded publicly.
The state Justice Department investigated the shooting and handed its findings over to Ozanne at the end of March. Ozanne has said he has no timeline for a charging decision. He didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Brandi Grayson, a spokeswoman for Young, Gifted and Black, told the city council that the city will “erupt” when the full facts emerge. Decisions not to file charges in the deaths of Brown, Garner and Hamilton all led to protests, including violent demonstrations in Ferguson.
The group said in a statement that it doesn’t expect Ozanne to charge Kenny. Grayson said in an interview that Ozanne’s racial identity doesn’t matter because he’s part of a criminal justice system that works against blacks.
“We expect him to proceed and investigate as if he was white or Asian,” Grayson said. “It doesn’t matter. He’s a representative of the system and the system is fixed. The laws are written in a way to ensure Matt Kenny won’t be indicted.”
Michael Scott, a former Madison police officer and law professor who heads the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing Inc., which advises police agencies on crime fighting techniques, said officer-involved shootings rarely result in charges against the officer.
“In highly emotional and controversial events, it’s not uncommon that the facts get lost in the emotion,” Scott said. “I don’t know what happened in that apartment. (But) as a general matter of course, it’s just a very rare case where the facts support the allegation that a police officer intentionally murdered somebody with no legal justification whatsoever.”