The U.S. Justice Department will review the fatal shooting of Paul Heenan by a Madison police officer to determine if Heenan's civil rights were violated by the use of unreasonable force.
U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil said he asked for the review after receiving 50 to 100 letters seeking an independent review of the Madison Police Department's own investigation of the Nov. 9 shooting.
Vaudreuil said the review by the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., which could take several weeks to be completed, will be limited to the question of whether there was a violation of federal law, specifically whether Heenan's constitutional rights were violated by the use of unreasonable force.
A review of the Police Department's investigation and other information by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne found Officer Stephen Heimsness had not violated state law.
An internal investigation by the department also found that Heimsness had not violated its policies on the use of force.
But Heenan's family and community members continue to question the need for deadly force and the impartiality of the department's investigation, along with citing two prior cases in which Heimsness' use of force was investigated.
Police welcome review
Heenan, 30, was intoxicated when he entered a neighbor's home at about 2:45 a.m., then began struggling with the homeowner who tried to take Heenan to his own residence. Seeing what he believed to be a struggle between the homeowner and a possible burglar, Heimsness ordered them to "get down" at gunpoint, but Heenan, who was unarmed, came at him.
According to Heimsness' account, Heenan grabbed his arm and was reaching toward his gun, leading him to him believe Heenan was trying to disarm him and his life was in danger. After the two separated briefly, he fired three shots.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said Chief Noble Wray welcomes the federal review.
"He wants to be as transparent as possible," DeSpain said, adding that state Department of Justice has already reviewed the department's investigation, which also was monitored by a Dane County Sheriff's official.
Madison attorney Jeff Scott Olson, who is representing the Heenan family, said, "I think it's a fine development."
Olson noted that the four Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King were cleared by their department and acquitted of criminal charges by a jury before two of them were found guilty of federal civil rights violations, saying, "It's an illustration of how important the Department of Justice can be in a police misconduct case."
Credibility is key
But other legal and law enforcement experts say that based on what is currently known about the Heenan case, it is unlikely the federal review will find a civil rights violation.
"It has never had the feel of a blatant and overt violation of an individual's civil rights," said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at UW-Madison. He added that there does not appear to be gross brutality or willful misconduct by the officer.
UW-Madison law professors Walter Dickey and Donald Downs said it will likely come down to whether Heimsness' account is found to be credible.
The homeowner, Kevin O'Malley, has said he did not see Heenan reaching for Heimsness' gun, though he acknowledged that could have occurred, nor did a second officer, who police say was arriving as the shots were fired.
At a community meeting about the shooting Tuesday, questions also were raised about O'Malley's account that Heenan had put both of his hands up to his chest defensively and had begun backing off and crouching as though he was complying with Heimsness' orders at the time he was shot.
Vaudreuil, who attended the meeting, on Thursday praised community members for the insightful questions they posed to police and the district attorney. He said it was a reasonable goal to see some changes result from a police department review of its policies.
But, Vaudreuil said , if the goal is to have the officer charged with a crime, "That's a goal that I suspect is going to be a very difficult goal."