When we asked our good friend Paulie Heenan to move in with us and our little daughter, we never expected that he would be killed by a Madison police officer. Paulie was your go-to guy for lending a helping hand or repairing broken stuff: your car, your computer, your heart. That's why we asked him to stay with us when he moved back to Madison after spending 8 years in New York.
After a night out scouting bands for his new job at a local recording studio, a friend dropped Paulie off near our house. But it was dark, Paulie had been drinking, and he was new to the neighborhood -- so he didn't realize that he'd mistakenly entered our neighbor's nearly identical unlocked home. The homeowner, Kevin O’Malley, recognized Paulie and started to help him get his bearings. Not knowing what was happening, his wife Megan called the police as a precaution while Kevin guided Paulie home. When the police arrived, the simple misunderstanding turned into a tragic killing.
The first officer to respond was Stephen Heimsness, who has a record of using excessive force stretching back to 2001. Paulie may not have known that Heimsness was an officer -- when he arrived on the scene, his police lights were off, he snuck up on the men from half a block away, didn’t verbally identify himself as a police officer, and immediately pointed his gun and began yelling at the men to get on the ground. Kevin O'Malley said he thought it was another neighbor coming to assist or possibly just someone out walking their dog before he heard the officer's shouts and noticed the gun pointed in his direction.
Paulie and Heimsness scuffled for a moment before Paulie, realizing that Heimsness was an officer, stepped back with his hands raised according to O’Malley’s account -- and Heimsness shot him three times in the chest. Kevin repeatedly told Heimsness, "He's a neighbor!" but says that the officer did nothing to defuse the situation.
The Madison Police Department and Dane County District Attorney -- two groups with obvious conflicts of interest -- investigated the shooting and decided that Heimsness didn't do anything illegal by shooting an unarmed man.
But a huge gulf separates what's legal and what's right. Officer Heimsness had extensive training in using non-lethal tactics. Heimsness acknowledges that he had backup on the scene. That backup, Officer Troumbly, says she arrived with a Taser -- not a gun -- drawn seconds before Heimsness opened fire on Paulie. Instead of waiting for his backup, he chose to use deadly force against an innocent, unarmed, confused man.
This isn't just a tragedy: it's part of a dangerous pattern with Heimsness. In 2001, he was suspended from the force for shooting out a fleeing suspect’s tires against department policy. And in 2010, the city of Madison paid nearly $30,000 to a man who Heimsness allegedly beat and stomped into a bloody pulp. We don't trust someone with this record of poor judgment to patrol the streets of Madison.
Police most effectively keep neighborhoods safe when they have the trust of those they protect. Thanks to Heimsness' reckless actions, that trust has been seriously eroded. Megan O'Malley told one reporter, "I feel terrible I called the police. I wouldn't call them again."
If Heimsness’ actions are tolerated, it’s only a matter time before he goes from an anomaly in our police department to a precedent. Please join us in calling on Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, the Madison Police and Fire Commission, and Mayor Paul Soglin to do everything in their power to take Officer Stephen Heimsness off the streets and to review the Madison Police Department's use of force policy and training to ensure that no more people needlessly die at one of their officers' hands.