Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said he does not expect any changes to the department’s training or use-of-force policy following the fatal shooting of Paul Heenan.
But Wray said last week he will pursue changes to the department’s internal review process, including greater scrutiny of officers who have had multiple complaints alleging excessive use of force, even if they are unsustained.
Wray said he also would explore drug and alcohol testing of officers involved in shootings. And while he is open to exploring independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, Wray said he needs more details before deciding whether that would be better than having the department conduct its own criminal investigations.
Officer Stephen Heimsness was cleared of wrongdoing in the Nov. 9 shooting of Heenan.
The department previously found Heimsness used excessive force when he shot the tires of a fleeing car in a Downtown parking ramp in 2001. But it found a complaint that he used excessive force in subduing a man who was resisting arrest at a State Street bar in 2006 to be not sustained, though the city paid $27,000 to settle a claim in the case.
Wray has declined to say if there have been other unsustained allegations of excessive force against Heimsness. The department is now investigating three other incidents involving Heimsness that occurred before the fatal shooting, which Wray has said did not appear to involve excessive force. The U.S. Department of Justice also is reviewing the Heenan shooting.
Heimsness remains on paid leave pending the outcome of the police department’s internal investigations.
Meanwhile, the department, which has a long history of community-oriented policing — a philosophy that focuses on problem-solving to reduce crime — and is regarded by some as one of the best departments in the country, is continuing to deal with questions surrounding the shooting, which Wray said "cut at the core of policing."
Two former department leaders strongly associated with the department’s community-oriented approach have echoed concerns of Heenan’s neighbors and others and questioned whether the use of deadly force was not just legally, but morally justified.
Heimsness was responding to a possible burglary at a home on South Baldwin Street when he observed the homeowner struggling with Heenan outdoors. Heimsness drew his gun and ordered both men to get down, but Heenan came at him.
According to Heimsness’ account, Heenan was reaching toward his gun as the two struggled. Believing his life was in danger, he fired three shots, killing Heenan after the two briefly separated.
It was later learned that Heenan, who was unarmed and intoxicated, had recently moved two doors down from the home he entered at about 2:45 a.m., and the homeowner was taking Heenan to his own residence when Heenan began struggling with him.
In a recent blog post, former Madison Police Chief David Couper, who championed the department’s shift to a community-oriented policing philosophy in the 1970s and is now an Episcopal priest, called Heimsness’ actions "questionable" and said the department should review its defensive tactics training.
Former Capt. Cheri Maples, who was a finalist along with Wray to lead the department and is now a Buddhist teacher, told the State Journal, "While I am not in a position to question Officer Heimsness’ statement that he feared for his life, I sincerely believe few officers would have made the same choice in the same set of circumstances."
At a recent community talk, Maples described the current legal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court governing the use of deadly force as the "lowest possible bar," saying, "Just because it might not be criminal to respond using deadly force in this type of incident does not mean this is what we should do."
Wray, who embraced Couper’s philosophies and brought his own emphasis on building community trust, said he nevertheless disagrees "wholeheartedly" with Couper’s and Maples’ assessment of the incident.
Wray said he believes the shooting met not only the legal standard, "I believe it met the moral standard."
"Any time a human being believes that their life is in jeopardy, morally they have the ability to defend themselves and the life of someone else. I think that’s the community standard. I think that’s what the community expects," he said.
"The other part of that moral authority, is that I have a responsibility as chief of police to ensure that if (officers are) in a situation where they believe that their life is in danger, that they feel comfortable with preserving their life and preserving the life of someone else and not second-guessing that."
Wray said he does not believe the department’s policy on use of force needs to be changed. "I think it was applied correctly," he said. "I think the officer did what he believed was objectively reasonable."
Nor is he "seeing anything related to training that would need to be adjusted at this particular time," Wray said, adding, "I think the training is exceptional."
Wray said one of the things that makes the Heenan shooting difficult is that it’s two stories in one. One is that of an officer responding to a burglary in progress and observing a homeowner wrestling with someone he believed to be a burglar.
"He takes his gun out. He’s justified in doing that from policy and training," Wray said, adding that within 15 seconds, a struggle ensues and fatal shots are fired.
"The other is the story of a neighbor, or of someone who is unarmed," Wray said. "All those things start to come out afterward. Depending on where you align with this particular incident, there’s a story that supports it."
The reaction to the shooting has taken a toll on the department, said Wray, who described it as the most difficult crisis he has dealt with in his nearly 30 years on the force. Detectives are investigating death threats against him and Heimsness, Wray said.
The department also "continues to be mindful of the tragedy" Heenan’s family and friends have experienced, Wray said.
Despite her criticisms of the shooting, Maples said she believes Wray is "a good man with a good heart and values I really appreciate" who "has the capacity to lead us back from this tragedy."