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The Madison Police Department committed a smear of omission

In the aftermath of a cop-on-cop shooting, officials left a “suspect” exposed to false accusations.

Image: The Dane County Courthouse in downtown Madison. Source photo via BobbbyLight on Flickr.

Consider, in today’s explosive climate of open racism and vigilantism, what it means to mark someone as a shooter of cops. What happens when investigators find out that this person didn’t actually shoot a cop, and that in fact another cop accidentally shot the injured officer? Does that still put a pall over that person for life, in the eyes of any law enforcement they may encounter, or in the eyes of seething weirdos on the internet who didn’t bother to get the complete facts? Do the findings stop the criminal justice system from wanting to make an example of this person? Isn’t this a hair more dangerous than the accusations and lies cops spew every day?

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Well, that’s what happened to a Madison man earlier this month. Initially, the Madison Police Department and the Wisconsin Department of Justice told us that MPD officers arrested Katoine Richardson on State Street in the early hours of Sunday, October 10; that in the course of the arrest someone shot one of the officers who arrested him; that the officer sustained non-life-threatening injuries; that Richardson went to jail; that Richardson had a gun; that this was the first time in 20 years an MPD officer has been shot “in the line of duty.”

Passive phrases like “officer-involved shooting” (truer than we knew, in retrospect!) and “arrested in connection with” smoothed the narrative like plywood over a gaping pothole. Until we found out yesterday that a cop shot another cop, the conversation about this incident elided simple declarations that one person did something to another person. In language from the cops, mayor, and various media reports, it was good enough to place “the suspect” in proximity to the shooting. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, MPD didn’t make clear whether or not “the suspect” shot the officer, or whether or not that was an open question. 

This information bobbed out there for eight days, leaving it an open but not-so-open question as to who actually shot the officer. On Monday, the Wisconsin DOJ announced that another officer fired the shots. DOJ’s findings do still accuse Richardson of being “in possession of a loaded handgun which he pointed at officers.”

So what we have is MPD failing to reckon adequately with the basic concept of someone being innocent until proven guilty. We have a man who’s being held on $16,000 bail. Activists including Freedom Inc. and the Free The 350 Bail Fund are calling for his release and calling for the city to defund MPD.

This is the supposedly enlightened department that right now stands to get about 23 percent of the city’s 2022 operating budget. The proposed $84 million outlay would include funding for eight new police officers and their weapons. Tonight’s Madison Common Council meeting Agenda includes a public hearing on the budget. That budget is really the only leash our elected officials hold on cops. They need to pull it tight and then some. 

Apparently MPD never definitively said that the suspect was the actual shooter. This did not stop the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert from declaring with only the mildest qualification that “Based on police and Dane County Jail booking records, the alleged shooter is Katoine L. Richardson.” The State Journal later updated the web version of the piece with a sizable editor’s note.

Luckily, Channel 3000’s Naomi Kowles did actual reporting and not just cop stenography, taking a closer look at the court filings and interviewing Richardson’s public defender, Stan Woodard. Kowles’ reporting, published on October 13, revealed doubts about who shot the officer. It also provided context about the altercation. Woodard told Kowles that Richardson was on the way home from work and got sidetracked, ending up out late in violation of the terms of bail from a previous criminal charge. Woodard said that Richardson was indeed armed, and that, owing to his mental state, considered “suicide by cop” during the altercation. (Another State Journal reporter, Ed Treleven, did report on the defense’s version on October 13.)

It’s up to you whether you believe Woodard’s explanation for what happened. That doesn’t make it right for the cops to leave gaping holes in the story, knowing full well that people will tend to jump to conclusions and fill in the details for themselves when they see a Black man’s mugshot and reports about an injured officer. Woodard’s account, which again largely came out in media reports on October 13, certainly looks more credible in light of Monday’s announcement from the DOJ. That raises questions as to whether this altercation had to happen at all. 

Woodard’s comments in Kowles’ story point out the problem with the way police handled the publicity around this incident:

“Why didn’t the police department personnel or those who are in a supervisory positions, why not the police chief himself–Someone–indicate that, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not saying this young man shot anyone, let alone one of our officers. We don’t have any proof of that.’” Woodard said in an interview Wednesday.

MPD and state DOJ officials left Richardson wide-open to accusations that he shot a cop. Cops and prosecutors are media-savvy enough to understand that this amounts to a vicious smear. They know that plenty of people out there wouldn’t question the validity of the criminal charges a suspect has faced in the past, including the ones for which Richardson was out on bail at the time of the incident, or question why armed police had to confront Richardson at that particular time in that particular way. They know how all this plays against the backdrop of “crime waves” and “gunplay” that police themselves have helped to create. 

Police gave the public and media outlets an excuse to put Richardson’s name and mugshot all over the internet and link it to the shooting, sometimes while digging up his past record. (Media outlets around the country have been re-assessing their use of mugshots and other common aspects of crime reporting, but clearly not enough.) This raises the questions of just how many people at MPD already knew that a cop shot another cop, how long they knew it, and why MPD and DOJ did nothing to qualify the narrative or clear Richardson’s name in the eight-day interval. 

Imagine if Richardson hadn’t pulled a public defender willing to do the legwork—happens all the time. Imagine if not one single reporter in town had taken the time to kick the tires on this case. Also happens all the time. Imagine if someone at the DOJ—yeah, yeah, it’s an “independent investigation” but really it’s still cops investigating cops—had been dishonest enough to cover for a fellow cop’s mistake. Yeah, happens. It would be easy for police and prosecutors to railroad an innocent man to prison for shooting an officer. And MPD was greasing the tracks. 

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Even after DOJ released its findings Monday, MPD continued to try and indirectly blame Richardson for its own officers’ fuckup, saying in a statement: “This incident highlights the dangers posed by individuals who choose to illegally possess and use firearms, and those dangers can no longer be tolerated by our community. We ask that the residents of our community remember the dangers our officers face every day as they try to keep this City safe.” 

This says nothing of the dangers officers face from each other, or the responsibilities officers we pay might have to safely handle the weapons we buy them with the training we fund. (This training, cops assure us, will magically stop them from doing anything wrong ever again if only we piss more money into it.) This makes no allowance for Richardson’s mental state at the time, and leaves intact the assumption that armed cops needed to chase him for being out too late at night. In this version of events, the logic of the system—constantly pulling people into an ever-deepening feedback loop of violence and punishment—is blameless. When this logic escalates to the point that a cop shoots another, it’s probably well past time to pause and consider whether all of this isn’t profoundly self-defeating on some level. 

At minimum, MPD should endure embarrassment and scrutiny for the simple fact that one of its officers managed to shoot another. But our city government will truly have failed us if it doesn’t grill MPD for leaving Richardson exposed. It’s budget season, and Alders who don’t use that leverage are culpable.


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