Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nothing To See Here. Move Along.

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.


  1. I do agree with you though, cops have it hard. They're constantly on a life and death struggle and they need to be quick on their feet. It's one of the toughest jobs there is.

  2. What makes this a difficult situation begins with, "why were the police called to deal with this incident?"...as I understand from reports, a 911 call was made stating that there was a burglary in progress...calling the police with the guise that a burglary is taking place sets up a scenario that will ultimately end with guns drawn...is the suspected burglar armed?..does he have accomplices?...are there innocent people in harm's way?...the adrenalin is flowing...I remember the mental high's achieved during fire fights in Viet Nam...and comrades in arms who relished this high wanting to achieve it over and over...a police officer with an adrenalin high is acting on emotions and reacting to training that he/she received to deal with such an incident...unfortunately being human, all desired results will not be achieved 100% as envisioned in the training scenarios, hence this result...the officer is now a victim of the profession believing that everything he did was correct and yet the community he serves is holding him liable...we want protection yet when something "goes wrong" we want to punish someone or something...can we do that?...who decides if what took place is within the bounds of the intent to resolve the incident to the satisfaction of all parties involved....this discussion will go on forever...the Police Officer has to deal with his actions that resulted in death to a fellow member of the community...I would not want to have this burden, but it is a potential all officers accept when they take the oath...it happened..let's discuss ways to try and avoid it happening in the future, if in fact that is even possible, but at least we will spend our time looking for reasons to improve the system rather than tearing it apart.

  3. I'm not sure if we're on the same page or not, Gary. Your last phrase...about tearing the system apart...is not, I think, what anyone is trying to do, certainly not me. This system needs improvement, and that's what I'm trying to do. And I think that's what all the people holding community meetings are doing, too.

    It's one thing when a cop shoots dead some belligerent perp who's commited a crime, or is high on PCP or crack or whatever, and points a gun at a cop. Or when a human piece of garbage is beating up somebody - family member or acquaintance or stranger - and neighbors call the cops to intervene (for their own safety) and some asshole ends up dead. Point a gun at a cop and you're going to die, and as far as I'm concerend that's the way it should be.

    But the real issue here, Gary - the one that nobody wants to say out loud, not even me in the post above, is this: How the FU@K does a skinny, drunk, unarmed person wind up DEAD - when facing not one, but TWO trained cops? You mean we have people out there with badges and guns who can't take down a skinny drunk beligerent asshole? Really? You mean all that training which specifically addresses idiots trying to grab your gun is worthless in the real world?

    How many other cops in how many other cities have faced similar situations and subdued skinny beligerent drunks who went for their gun, and, because of their superior training, experience, and sobriety - have successfully taken down the perp and cuffed him, rather than shooting him THREE TIMES?

    That's the real issue, Gary.

    This cop may have been giving the blessing of his peers who said he "followed procedures", but, if we are to accept that - then, as Chief Couper says, we need to review our procedures.

    That doesn't mean tearing down the system.

    That means making it better.

    Not only does that cop have to live with the aftermath of his actions that night, he also has to live with the knowledge that there are a shit-ton of other cops who are secretly shaking their heads in disbeleif and saying behind his back "really? You couldn't handle that skinny drunk asshole?"

    1. Tim: Your reply is better reading than your post! What some of my friends also point out is the Montee Ball situation. Several creeps beat up Montee Ball, important Badger football player, and the police go into full investigation mode, catch said creeps, and they await trial. However, the beating was reportedly in retaliation for a kid being beaten severely enough to be hospitalized by several football players. As far as we know, there was little or no Madison police investigation and not a single football player or anyone else was arrested for putting the kid in the hospital. Do you have any info. on this? These episodes have sown more than a little distrust of the Madison police...fair or not.

    2. Now that I read my post, sorry for the poor grammar.

    3. No problem with the grammar. Problem with the cops essentially (my opinion) whitewashing the party with the beat-down that resulted in the retaliation on Ball. I don't know any more about it than anybody else.

      What I do know is that Badger "athletes" are treated with kid gloves. Why? Because if they get into ANY trouble, the Jockocracy makes SURE they get THE BEST lawyers to represent them, and, if push comes to shove, said lawyers will tie this stuff up forever in depositions, motions, pre-trail conferences - in other words, all the stuff Scooter Jensen's lawyers did to get him off. And the cops and the DA's office know it. The jocks will pay to run the meter of the most expensive lawyer in the city just to make DAMN sure the player doesn't have to miss a game or even a practice.

      Is justice fair? Nope. Is justice blind? Nope.

      That's the way the world works, and we know it.

  4. If justice is neither fair nor blind and that's just how the world works, then how can you improve the system?

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