$3.35m settlement for family of black US teen killed by officer

2017-02-24 13:22
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Madison — Relatives of an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in Wisconsin will receive $3.35m to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit, attorneys announced on Thursday.

Tony Robinson Jr, 19, was shot and killed by Madison police officer Matt Kenny, who is white, in 2015. The shooting sparked protests throughout the city and calls for an examination of police use of force.

Robinson's attorneys said the deal was the largest police shooting settlement in Wisconsin history. Attorney David B Owens called it vindication for parents still grieving the loss of their oldest son.

"If you could bring their son back, would they give all the money back? Absolutely," Owens said.

The settlement was reached by the city of Madison's insurance carrier and Robinson's family. Kenny's attorney, Jim Palmer, said it was nothing more than a business decision to avoid the costs of trial.

"The Robinson family has made a number of outrageous claims that will now never be resolved," Palmer said. "The settlement serves to further cast a pall over Matt's reputation and his service to the community."

Conflicting accounts

Myra Longfield, a spokesperson for US attorney John Vaudreuil in Madison, said his office and the US Department of Justice's civil rights division are still reviewing the death to determine whether federal civil rights charges are warranted.

Kenny shot and killed Robinson in an apartment house after Robinson's friend called police because Robinson was acting erratically. Kenny said he entered the house to investigate sounds of a disturbance, and Robinson started punching him. Kenny's attorney said Kenny suffered a concussion, but Owens disputes that. Owens said three of Kenny's seven shots appeared to be fired from several feet away, contradicting Kenny's account that Robinson was attacking him.

"There is no way in the universe that this happened the way Matt said it did," Owens said. "We did the investigation that the city of Madison refused to do. They wouldn't have paid a dime if they thought they were going to win a trial."

An autopsy showed Robinson had traces of drugs in his system, including hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Evidence review

Kenny was later cleared of criminal wrongdoing and an internal investigation found he acted within police policies. District Attorney Ismael Ozanne declined to charge him with any crime. The police department did change policy to give officers the option of using a Taser when alone in situations requiring the use of force.

Attorneys for Robinson's family, including Owens, appeared with Robinson's mother and other relatives at a press conference Thursday. Owens said, despite the settlement, he plans to ask federal investigators, Ozanne and the Madison Police Department to review evidence gathered for the trial. He said the department's investigation failed to question Kenny's account.

Robinson's mother Andrea Irwin asked the public to "go in with an open mind and actually dig and do the research" on her son's death. The family's lawsuit was to go to trial on February 27 before it was settled.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said it's difficult to understand the calculations police officers must make when confronted by people impaired by substance abuse or mental health issues.

Settlement's effect on reputation

"Officer Kenny was forced to make immediate decisions in dangerous circumstances which led to tragic consequences," Soglin said in a statement.

Kenny now works with the department's training programme and horse-mounted patrol unit often used to control crowds. Madison police chief Mike Koval said though Kenny has earned the right to return to active patrol, there are no plans for him to do so.

Koval said the settlement has a "chilling effect" on the police department's reputation, even though it does not include any admission of wrongdoing.

"Reasonable people can infer that if the cops had done nothing wrong, why in the world would they have settled for such an astronomical amount?" he said. "But we're not going to be defined by this settlement. That's just not how we roll."

The shooting came less than a year after an officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid heightened scrutiny nationwide of police shootings, especially of young black men.

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