Police chief: Teen shot dead by officer was unarmed

Last Updated Mar 7, 2015 8:15 PM EST

MADISON, Wis. -- The 19-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a veteran white officer was unarmed, Madison's police chief said Saturday.

Tony Robinson Jr. was shot Friday night after an altercation in which Officer Matt Kenny, 45, was knocked down by a blow to the head, Chief Mike Koval said. He added it wasn't clear whether Robinson, who died at a hospital, was alone in the apartment where the shooting happened, which neighbors said was where Robinson lived.

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An undated photo of Tony Robinson Jr., 19, who was shot and killed Friday, March 6, 2015, by a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin.
WISC-TV

"He was unarmed. That's going to make this all the more complicated for the investigators, for the public to accept," Koval said.

Kenny was injured, according to Koval, who didn't provide details. Police department spokesman Joel DeSpain said Kenny would not have been wearing a body camera.

Several dozen protesters gathered outside the Dane County Public Safety Building on Saturday before starting to walk toward the scene of the shooting, holding signs that read, "Black Lives Matter" -- a slogan adopted by activists and protesters around the nation after recent officer-involved deaths of unarmed black men. Protesters also shouted the slogan Friday night after the shooting.

"My son has never been a violent person. And to die in such a violent, violent way, it baffles me," Robinson's mother, Andrea Irwin, told WKOW-TV on Friday night.

A packed crowd filled the Fountain of Life Covenant Church for a community meeting late Saturday afternoon, one of several events held during the day. Family members took the stage and read a statement prepared by Irwin.

"I can't even compute what has happened," her statement said. "I haven't even had a chance to see his body."

Irwin was not present, and the statement said she was taking time to grieve with her children. Robinson's grandmother, Sharon Irwin, was on the stage as the statement was read, but left immediately after.

Koval expressed his sympathy during Saturday's news conference, saying he went to the mother's house overnight and spoke with Robinson's grandparents. He said he asked if he could speak with Robinson's mother, but that they "thought that based on the dynamics of what was occurring it would not be an appropriate time."

He then added, "19 years old is too young."

"In light of so much things that have happened to not just across this country but in our own community, it's understandable that the reaction at the scene amidst some of our citizens is extremely volatile, emotional and upsetting," Koval said. "And we understand that. That is absolutely appropriate under these circumstances."

Koval said his department would be there to "defend, facilitate, foster those first amendment rights of assembly and freedom of speech" for any demonstrations, but asked protesters to follow what he said was the lead of Robinson's family and "do so with a sense of responsibility and restraint."

The Dane County NAACP issued a statement Saturday also calling for "calm and vigilant monitoring of events as they unfold." The Urban League of Greater Madison said in a statement that it "is deeply disturbed and saddened" by the shooting, according to CBS Madison affiliate WISC-TV.

Kenny is on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation by the state's Division of Criminal Investigation and the Dane County District Attorney's decision on whether to press charges, Koval said.

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Madison police officer Matt Kenny is shown in an undated photo.
WISC-TV

A 2014 Wisconsin law requires police departments to have outside agencies probe officer-involved deaths. State Attorney General Brad Schimel said the department will not share details of the investigation until it is finished.

"We are resolved that the result of that investigation will be one in which the public can have confidence," he added.

Wisconsin Professional Police Association Executive Director Jim Palmer told WISC-TV that he had no immediate comment on the case, but said he "hoped the public would reserve judgment until more facts are known."

Kenny joined the Madison police in 2002 and was cleared of any wrongdoing after a deadly shooting in 2007, WISC-TV reported.

In that case, 48-year-old Robert Brandon was shot and killed after he pointed a gun at officers and refused to drop his weapon. Brandon's weapon turned out to be a replica pellet gun that resembled a 38-caliber handgun.

Investigators and the police chief at the time, Noble Wray, classified the case as "suicide by cop." After an investigation, Former Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said that the officers were presented with a life-and-death choice and they acted within the law. Kenny was honored by the police department with a medal of valor.

Friday's shooting came days after the U.S. Justice Department cleared Darren Wilson, the white former Ferguson, Missouri, officer who shot Michael Brown, of federal civil rights charges in the death of the 18-year-old, who was black and unarmed. A second report found patterns of racial profiling, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement and court practices in the St. Louis suburb.

Madison, about 80 miles west of Milwaukee, is the state capital and home to the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus. About 7 percent of the city's 243,000 residents are black.

Koval said police were called about 6:30 p.m. Friday because Robinson was jumping into traffic. A second call to police said the man was "responsible for a battery," Koval said.

Kenny went to an apartment and forced his way inside after hearing a disturbance. Koval said the officer was assaulted by Robinson, and then fired at him. Koval said Saturday afternoon that he couldn't say how many shots were fired because it is part of the investigation.

Neighbors said Robinson's apartment is in a two-story gray house on the block of Williamson Street, known to many as Willy Street. Many walked to nearby restaurants and cafés on Saturday.

Grant Zimmerman said Robinson would run between his apartment and his roommate's mother's house across the street: "He runs back and forth across the street all the time, even in the middle of traffic."

Olga Ennis, a neighbor and family friend, said Robinson was well-liked.

"He was a beautiful kid," Ennis said. "He wouldn't hurt a fly."

She said many in the community don't trust police officers. "We're afraid of the cops," she said. "Who do you call for help now?"

Mayor Paul Soglin called the shooting "a tragedy beyond description" in a statement.

"I hope as the pain eases that something constructive will come of this," he told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Robinson graduated in 2014 from Sun Prairie High School, Superintendent Tim Culver said in a statement.

Culver offered condolences to Robinson's family and friends and said the school district is reaching out to teachers and staff members who had a relationship with the teen, according to WISC-TV. Culver said school social workers and counselors would be available Monday for anyone that needs support.