Kate Brandon would like people to know something about her "baby" brother: "He was a good soul. He never lost his temper. He never raised his voice. He was the kindest, gentlest guy you'd ever want to meet."
On Sunday, July 15, Madison police killed Ronald Brandon with a bullet to the head. Drunk and despondent, the 48-year-old had called 911 to report, falsely, that a man with a gun was threatening neighbors. When police arrived at the east-side residence, Brandon was sitting on the front porch. He purportedly pointed what appeared to be a .38-caliber revolver first at his own head and then at an officer, drawing a lethal rifle shot.
Later it emerged that Brandon had a mere pellet gun and that his ex-wife Susan had called 911 to convey this information. According to Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, who promptly cleared the officer of criminal liability, Susan Brandon told the 911 center the gun was fake 40 seconds before police arrived at the scene and 109 seconds before the shooting. But the officers were never told.
Tapes of the 911 calls were released Wednesday afternoon. Susan Brandon told the dispatch center her ex had a pellet gun and may have just called 911 because he wanted "to end his drunkenness." The officers arrive and seconds later she's screaming, "They shot him! Oh my God!" She tells the police, "It was a pellet gun. I called 911 to say it's a pellet gun."
The 911 center has the ability to converse with officers at the scene, even after they've left their squad. But center director Joe Norwick says there wasn't enough time. "We were in the process of getting information" when the shooting occurred. "The worst thing we can do is give bad information to the officers."
MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain thinks any policy change from this incident "may be in the way they relay information from the 911 center." But, he adds, even if police had known someone was saying it was only a pellet gun, "it's unlikely they could have determined it was reliable information." The gun looked real, and police are taught to not take chances.
Kate Brandon thinks the cops are just trying to cover for their actions. She says police called her in for a briefing last week, then refused to discuss the shooting because it's still under investigation and pumped her for information on her brother, presumably to round out their portrayal of him as a madman.
She also faults the MPD's approach to such situations: "They have to stop shooting first and asking questions later." Her brother, she says, was obviously intoxicated, and pointing the weapon at himself indicated a high level of emotional distress. "He was crying out for help."
Blanchard's review concluded that officers had "the legal privilege" to use lethal force against Brandon. He ignored commands to drop his gun and by pointing it at police "effectively compelled officers" to shoot to kill.
Kate Brandon is not persuaded.
"Why didn't they Taser him?" she asks. "Why didn't they beanbag him? Why didn't they shoot him in the arm? They had a lot more options than shooting him through the head. If this had been handled differently and properly, my brother would still be alive."
This was the second such incident in the Madison area this month. On July 7, a Dane County sheriff's deputy shot and killed David Damaschke, 52, in the town of Westport. Damaschke, who had a history of mental illness, was also brandishing a gun, in this case a real one. Afterwards, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney announced that no policy changes would result.
And in April 2006, a Madison man in the throes of a psychotic breakdown was shot and killed when he attacked an officer with a steak knife. Police had been told the man, Victor Montero-Diaz, was "delusional."
Former mayoral aide and recent mayoral candidate Peter Muñoz, now head of Centro Hispano, has argued for years that police here should adopt a model developed in Memphis for responding to such situations. But Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, like Richard Williams before him, rejected this advice.
"These deaths are being caused by arrogance and will continue until the police department decides to look at this model," says Muñoz. "We will continue to kill the mentally ill or folks who are in crisis from alcohol and drug abuse."
Muñoz uses the words "violent," "lethal" and "Neanderthal" to describe the MPD's approach: "These officers are trained to kill." The Memphis model teaches ways to deescalate crisis situations and avoid fatalities (see www.memphispolice.org/Crisis Intervention.htm ). In Brandon's case, says Muñoz, it may have meant firing a beanbag, which "knocks the bejesus out of you but is not deadly force."
This model, he attests, has spared the lives of people in crisis while also saving money and achieving a seven-fold reduction in injuries to police.
"You want to protect the officers," he says. "You want to protect the public. This does a better job of both."
In fact, the police officer who shot and killed Ron Brandon was doing exactly what he was trained to do.
Police are taught to always gain the upper hand in potentially dangerous encounters. If a suspect raises his fists, you pull your club. If he has a knife, you draw your gun. If he points a firearm, you don't wait around wondering if he's serious, or try winging him in hopes that this will end the threat; you "shoot to stop." And if the threat remains viable and imminent, you keep shooting.
There is logic to this training. One primary objective of police is, and should be, to protect themselves.
But that doesn't mean officers are trigger-happy or enjoy their "legal privilege" to kill. The truth is, in Madison, as throughout the nation, only about half of the officers involved in fatal shootings are still on the job five years later. For many, it's a burden they cannot bear.
That's why the appropriate response to shootings by police should never be simply to justify what occurred, but to seek ways to prevent it. If there's a better model out there, let's make it our own - not just for the sake of people like Ron Brandon, but for the officers who are put in the awful position of having to kill them.