MADISON, Wis. » Within hours of a white officer shooting an unarmed black man, the police chief of Wisconsin’s capital city was praying with the man’s grandmother, hoping to strike a conciliatory tone and avoid the riots that last year rocked Ferguson, Missouri.
Chief Mike Koval said he knows Madison is being watched across the nation since 19-year-old Tony Robinson’s death Friday evening, and he has gone out of his way to avoid what he once called Ferguson’s "missteps."
"Folks are angry, resentful, mistrustful, disappointed, shocked, chagrined. I get that," Koval said Saturday. "People need to tell me squarely how upset they are with the Madison Police Department."
The contrasts with Ferguson are many.
While Ferguson police initially gave little information about the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed black man, Koval rushed to the home of Robinson’s mother. She didn’t want to meet with him, he said, but he talked and prayed with Robinson’s grandmother in the driveway for 45 minutes.
It took a week for Ferguson to release the name of the officer who shot Brown. Koval announced the name of the officer involved in Madison, Matt Kenny, the day after the shooting. He volunteered to reporters that the officer had been in a previous fatal shooting in 2007, and that he had been cleared of wrongdoing.
On the day that Ferguson police named the officer who shot Brown, they also released video showing what they said was Brown robbing a store. When Koval was asked about Robinson’s past criminal record Saturday, he declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to do so a day after the man died.
"We have a police chief who genuinely feels for a family’s loss. It should be abundantly clear to anyone following this incident that Madison, Wisconsin, is not Ferguson, Missouri," said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union.
But the chief’s measured approach hasn’t impressed some demonstrators. Koval angered some of them earlier this year with a blog post demanding they stop blaming police for their problems.
"There are no apologies that can repair the loss or deal with the loss of (Robinson)," said Brandi Grayson, an organizer with Young, Gifted and Black, a Madison group that has demonstrated against what it says is mistreatment of blacks by the justice system. "This was bound to happen. There’s nothing the chief can say short of changing the system."
No one answered the door at Robinson’s mother’s home on Sunday. A reporter left a note in the door asking her to contact The Associated Press but she had not done so as of late Sunday afternoon.
Robinson died Friday night after Kenny shot him in an apartment during a confrontation. Kenny had responded to a call of a man jumping in and out of traffic. Kenny forced his way into the apartment after hearing what Koval described as a "disturbance."
The state Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation has taken over the investigation under a new state law passed last year that requires an outside agency to lead probes of officer-involved shootings. DOJ spokeswoman Anne Schwartz declined to comment on Sunday.
The shooting comes against a backdrop of multiple instances of white police officers killing unarmed black men around the country over the last year. The highest-profile incident was the death of Brown in Ferguson last August.
Days of violence ensued, marked by looting, fires, police firing tear gas into a crowd and officers pointing weapons at demonstrators. Another round of riots broke out in November after a grand jury chose not to indict the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson. Last week the U.S. Justice Department declined to charge Wilson with civil rights violations but issued a scathing report accusing the Ferguson police department of racism and using policing to fund the city’s budget.
Koval, who is white, took over as Madison’s chief in April, replacing retiring black Chief Noble Wray. In September he told the Wisconsin State Journal he believed his department could deal with a racially charged shooting better than Ferguson, saying his agency is more diverse and more invested in the community than Ferguson’s "rent-a-cops."
"I see in Ferguson a series of missteps and miscues where they’re always reacting and, in fact, over-reacting to every set of facts that is thrown in their midst, frankly," Koval said in the interview.
Two months ago, Koval wrote a blog post criticizing Young, Black and Gifted for blaming his officers for "everything from male pattern baldness to global warming." The entry came in response to the group staging protests over officer-involved deaths during rush-hour traffic, demanding jail officials release 350 black inmates and imploring police to stay out of black neighborhoods.
Koval tried to be diplomatic when asked about the post on Saturday, saying he and the group have agreed to disagree on policing black neighborhoods.
Grayson said Koval has had plenty of time to prepare for a racially charged shooting after watching what unfolded in Ferguson.
"He had a perfect response — perfect for white people," she said.
Associated Press writer Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis contributed to this report.