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Two months before the fatal police shooting of an African-American man in Madison, an activist group called the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition decried what it called "the violence of heavy policing and arrest-rate disparities in Madison."
In an open letter issued Jan. 9, 2015, the Madison-based group called on Police Chief Mike Koval to "dramatically reduce the number of police contacts with black people and poor people," and it made this claim:
"Given that the arrest rate shows that black people are eight times more likely to be arrested than white people, we demand that disparity cut in half by the end of 2015."
In the wake of the March 6, 2015 shooting death of 19-year-old Tony T. Robinson Jr., we thought we would take a look at the claim, which was repeated by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) three days after the shooting.
Madison police were called shortly before 6:30 p.m. when Robinson started jumping in front of cars on Williamson Street on Madison’s east side. Then in swift succession, Robinson apparently hit a friend and, after entering a house, tried to strangle someone else.
A police officer entered the home, got into a struggle with Robinson and shot him. Robinson was not armed. The officer was injured, but did not need to be hospitalized.
The shooting quickly drew comparisons by some with other recent high-profile killings by police of black men across the country: Dontre Hamilton at Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York City. Protests followed Robinson’s death. One protest, three days after the shooting, drew more than 1,000 people to the State Capitol.
Nearly a year before he was killed, on April 25, 2014, Robinson, then 18, was arrested with three other people in connection with an armed home invasion at a Madison apartment. He pleaded guilty to felony armed robbery and received three years of probation.
The officer who shot Robinson, Matt Kenny, who is white, shot and killed a 48-year-old white man in the line of duty on July 15, 2007, after the man pointed what turned out to be a pellet gun at Kenny. The officer did not know the weapon was a pellet gun, and the district attorney cleared Kenny.
The Young, Gifted and Black Coalition based its claim on an October 2013 report on racial disparities in Dane County.
So, although the claim was about Madison, the report examined the larger surrounding area.
The report was done by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a Madison-based liberal advocacy group whose research is respected. The report said that in 2012, African-American adults were arrested in Dane County at a rate more than eight times that of whites.
Here are the adult arrest rates per 1,000 adults in 2012:
Ratio of black to white
Erica Nelson, the author of the report, told us the figures were developed from an unpublished report of the state Office of Justice Assistance. She said she is working on developing figures strictly for Madison, rather than Dane County, but wouldn’t speculate on how the Madison rate might differ from the county rate.
When the coalition first made its claim in the open letter, the police chief responded in a blog post, saying:
"I have always agreed that the harmful impacts of racial disparity in Dane County are not in dispute. An education system that has underserved people of color, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, a lack of suitable guardians or mentors for our youth (leading to greater gang involvement), challenged neighborhoods and a criminal justice system that is fraught with inadequacies are but a few of the drivers that contribute to the malaise we face as a community."
But, he added: "Based on the diversity and the strength of character personified in our workforce, the training which is second to none and ever-striving for best practices, coupled with checks-and-balances that serve to bring rogue cops or practices to the light of day, I will not buy into the naive supposition that our community's disparity issues are largely owing to a pervasive pattern of systemic racism by MPD."
When we asked Koval about the eight times higher claim, he responded by email through a spokesman, saying that in his initial response to the open letter "I was not disputing the fact that there are racial disparities; I dispute the fact that I have ‘rogue’ cops or policies/procedures which are intrinsically racist. There is no doubt but that the police should be mindful of our role as the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, and therefore ‘own’ part of this problem."
The chief also noted that the figures from the report are for all of Dane County, not just Madison, which "includes big bedroom communities" such as Fitchburg and Sun Prairie. Koval said he has not seen any figures for only Madison.
The Young, Gifted and Black Coalition said "black people are eight times more likely to be arrested than white people" in Madison.
A report the coalition relies on says that in 2012, the arrest rate for black adults was eight times higher than for white adults. However, the figures were for all of Dane County, not merely for Madison, the county’s largest city.
For a statement that is partially accurate, our rating is Half True.
To comment on this item, go to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s web page.
Note: After we published this item, the author of the research report cited above said she generated new figures strictly for the City of Madison, rather than Dane County, and provided them to PolitiFact Wisconsin. Erica Nelson said that based on a preliminary review of the Madison Police Department’s 2013 annual report, black adults are 10.9 times more likely than white adults to be arrested in Madison.
WMTV.com, "Madison police chief tired of blame for racial disparities," Jan. 12, 2015
Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, "Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County,"
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Man dead in Madison police shooting had been subject of violence complaints," March 8, 2015
Interview, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families Race to Equity Project director Erica Nelson, March 9, 2015
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