Still another neighborhood meeting has been convened – this one by Alder Marsha Rummel – to talk more about what happened on November 9th on South Baldwin street on Madison’s near east side. It’s been almost three months since local musician Paul Heenan was stumbling home, drunk, in the wee hours of the morning, and accidentally entered the wrong house.
It’s not like that hasn’t happened before in this city, known nationwide for its vibrant local music scene, and – the tendency of its young downtown residents to drink way too much.
But this time, something went wrong, and a veteran police officer shot Heenan dead, bam-bam-bam, three shots to center mass. (At least, that's what I'm told happened.) The officer said Heenan got into a struggle with him after the homeowner reported a break-in, that Heenan went for his pistol, and Heenan got dead.
When sober, no one is so stupid as to try and grab a cop's gun. Heenan wasn't sober.
Ironically, the veteran cop who shot Heenan was Officer Stephen Heimsness, a music-lover, guitar player, and avid supporter of the downtown music scene.
Immediately, the cops put a blue blanket of silence around the incident. Didn’t answer questions from the media, circled the wagons, stonewalled the reporters, and a few agonizing days later, Chief Noble Wray gave a carefully-orchestrated “response” in the form of a news conference. An investigation of the shooting by the Dane County DA’s office concluded that Heimsness followed the procedures of the Madison Police Department.
The thing is, it’s nearly three months later, and this incident won’t go away. This sort of thing is deeply disturbing to a city like Madison, where we have one of the finest, well-trained, most professional, and – let’s face it – most tolerant police forces in the nation. The rank and file of Madison cops consists of men and women with college degrees…..many of them holders of advanced degrees….more than a few with law degrees….and they’re not in any way prone to over-react and have never, not ever, not even in the troubled 60’s – been accused of being trigger-happy.
Show me another city which holds a public drunkfest every spring (the Mifflin Street Beer Blast) where the cops gladly pose for pictures with the revelers.
This is one of my favorite photos….taken in April 2005 at the Beer Blast. Officer Lind is far left, our son Dru is chugging a beer, Officer Scheller is at the center, flanked by our daughter Mallory and her BFF Briana. Dru’s best pal Chaise is kneeling in the front.
This city has also had the benefit of having one of the most progressive police chiefs in the world leading the ranks from 1972 to 1993, David Couper, whose treatises on urban policing are considered gospel by hundreds of police departments. Couper, now a semi-retired Episcopal Priest (and U.S. Marine: no one who served in the Corps should be called “former” Marine), posted some thoughts on the Heenan/Heimsness incident on his blog a day or so ago.
The first point Chief Couper ponders is whether the police should be permitted to investigate a potential crime involving one of their own officers. We all know the answer to that question is a resounding “NO”, and Wisconsin is one of the few states that still allows it. Chief Couper also wonders whether the situation was really as dangerous as the official report made it out to be, given the number of back-up officers readily available downtown.
But perhaps the most important question Chief Couper raises is “will this be the new standard of conduct regarding how the Madison Police Department will deal with a situation like this in the future”?
This incident, and its discussion in the community, are not over. Not by a long shot.
We know the cops have a very, very difficult job, and they have to make split-second life and death decisions. It takes a special kind of person to do the job. And it’s not easy to sleep under the blanket of protection our professional police officers provide, and then question the manner in which they provide it.
But this is Madison, and we question authority as part of our genetic disposition.
Too many questions remain about this incident.