Scars mean different things for each of us. Sometimes we look in the mirror and see our scars from the worst moments of our lives and we look away, unable to relive them. Other scars are badges of honor reminding us of battles won or at least fought.
Scabs, on the other hand, are all the same. They bleed and swell and are gross. Worst of all, we pick at them just making them worse.
For many Madison residents, the Tony Robinson case has felt like a bad scab that lingers. The $3.35 million settlement his family accepted has felt to many residents like ripping the band-aid clean off a healing wound.
For Bradley Campbell, who is running for the open Common Council seat being vacated by Alder Tim Gruber, the Robinson settlement represents a missed opportunity at both justice and a chance for Madison residents to heal.
“We haven’t gotten the chance to heal because we can’t get to justice right now,” said Campbell. “We need the process of reconciliation and healing that could have taken place in a trial. We haven’t been provided with the chance to heal the community.”
His opponent, Arvina Martin, disagrees.
“I think trials are adversarial by nature,” she said. “Regardless of what happens in a trial, one side will be hurt and grieving and angry. I don’t think a trial would have helped anything.”
She notes that other cities have gone through trials of police officers and lawsuits against police departments, and it rarely ends well.
“In many cases it’s inflamed things further,” she said. “I don’t think it would have helped heal anyone.”
City officials were not part of the process of settling the lawsuit brought by the Robinson family, as the city’s insurance company settled on behalf of the Madison Police Department and Officer Matt Kenny. Many feel the sting of having been left out of such a process as well as concerned that the doling out of finances simply sends the wrong message and leaves everyone feeling wounded.
Campbell said that with every incident like the Tony Robinson shooting or the 2014 Ferguson shootings, the community sees its confidence in public service erode. In each instance the police officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing, leaving the families and communities of the deceased searching for answers and justice.
Campbell believes there is a way forward for those families and the communities around them, but that it must start with believing in the police as an entity of help not harm.
“I want to see a Madison that heals and a Madison that is strong,” Campbell said. “I want a Madison where all of our communities have reason to have confidence in our public servants. It’s all about getting to that truth and having an inclusive, sound and vibrant community that not only says everyone is welcome but backs it up through all public mediums.”
Campbell pointed to recent statistics showing that an overwhelming number of police arrests made in schools have been minority students. It is one more rung on the ladder of mistrust between police and the community, Campbell said.
Martin agrees that there are large, long-term issues to tackle.
“We have to start thinking about going forward and looking at the circumstances that have led us to this situation and all the underlying unconscious biases and how our systems are set up,” she said. “It’s too big of a problem to be able to solve it quick and easy.”
Steve Fitzsimmons, who is running for City Council against incumbent Maurice Cheeks, thinks the settlement sends the wrong message altogether. Fitzsimmons is running against incumbent Maurice Cheeks in a race to represent Madison’s near west and south sides, and believes without a trial, there should have been no settlement. Just handing out the money, he believes, mean that more cases like this will never see the inside of a courtroom.
“The message sent is Madison settles lawsuits,” Fitzsimmons said. “I believe this will encourage more lawsuits. The city should fight to protect its taxpayers and should not have settled.”
During a question and answer session last month, Fitzsimmons was asked which decision the City of Madison has made recently that he would reverse if he could. Fitzsimmons pointed directly at the Robinson settlement.
“It also sends the wrong message to everyone that the city may have been at fault,” he said. “Why else would the city settle for such a record amount? That hurts all police, especially hurts the officer involved and undermines our trust in police.”
But incumbent Cheeks said that no message was sent by the city.
“Those that say that this settlement sends a message from the city are distorting the
reality of the situation for political purposes,” Cheeks said. “The city was not party to the lawsuit, and did not have an influence one way or the other in this lawsuit.”
During the Q&A, Fitzsimmons also said the allocation of $400,000 recently approved by the Common Council to evaluate MPD policies and practices is a misuse or waste of those funds.
But it is exploration like that which might lead to a stronger community like the one Bradley Campbell envisioned. Seeing the blind spots in what should be a colorblind system and finding or at least admitting the flaws in our system could lead Madison residents to form the kind of trust needed for good community policing.
Campbell believes that is possible.
“We only get justice if we have a system that works,” he said. “I just want Madison to heal.”
Cheeks, however, isn’t buying it.
Cheeks expressed that even arguing or discussing whether or not the settlement was appropriate is to entirely miss the point.
For Cheeks, residents shouldn’t have to heal. They shouldn’t have to accept settlements. They shouldn’t have to have trials or payouts or scars or scabs.
There just shouldn’t be anything to heal from.
“All I know is that anyone who cares about this city should regard it as essential that our community be seeking ways to ensure we avoid situations like this entirely in the future,” Cheeks said.
This piece was produced by a student reporter in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more and support our educational programs, visit Madison365.org/academy.