President Obama spoke in Selma Sunday about the past and the present, making a link between the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the contemporary movement to address the killings of unarmed African-American men by police officers in so many communities across this country. The president reminded the crowd that “citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago—the protection of the law.”
Unfortunately, the laws that are needed are not always in place; as a result, one of the first questions that arises after an officer-involved death is: “Are the police going to investigate the police?
This is a critical question—so much so that one of the chief recommendations of the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was for independent investigations of police-involved deaths.
In Madison, Wisconsin, where a 19-year-old African-American man was shot and killed Friday night by a local police officer, there’s a better answer to the question than in most places, thanks to state Representative Chris Taylor.
Taylor was on Madison’s Williamson Street Friday night when Tony Robinson, who police acknowledge was unarmed, was killed. She was getting gas as a nearby station when the shots that took Robinson’s life were fired. She has been present as activists with groups such as the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition have demanded accountability and sweeping changes in police practices with a series of demonstrations that have filled the streets and, on Monday, the rotunda of the state Capitol.
But Taylor’s connection to what the legislator refers to as an “unspeakable tragedy,” and to the policing issues that have been raised, runs deeper.
Several years ago, after the shooting in the same neighborhood of a white unarmed young man, Paul Heenan, an internal investigation by the Madison Police Department determined that the officer involved had not violated department policies or procedures. That raised a community outcry; there were protests, petitions and calls for a better system of investigating shootings by police officers.