The shooting death of East Side musician Paul Heenan by a Madison police officer was a tragic event. But in wake of the controversy surrounding ast year’s incident, an internal investigation conducted by the Madison Police Department determined that the officer acted within the bounds of his training.
After reviewing the accounts of that night, we agree with the conclusion of the internal investigation. The officer was dealing with a drunken man in the middle of the night and thought that the man was reaching for his weapon. In hindsight and with all the facts that we know now, the officer may have been able to react differently — but we cannot second guess split-second decisions made in an unknown and possibly threatening situation.
The public action taken MPD in the aftermath of the situation does leave something to be desired. MPD’s original response was somewhat tone-deaf and understandably led to a large and emotional movement to reprimand the officer, Steven Heimsness, who shot Heenan. Those people, who include Heenan’s family and the neighbors who called the police on him, are rightly protesting MPD’s stance and procedure.
Several independent organizations, including the Department of Justice, have investigated the events leading up to the shooting. However, regardless of their findings, these investigators can only recommend a course of action to the police department — they have no real authority. This situation demonstrates a lack of oversight and external review by MPD. Trusting in the actions of the police department is a crucial component of a good relationship between citizens and law enforcement. The Department has repeatedly shown it deserves that trust, and we don’t believe they have damaged it in this situation. But they have run the risk of doing that damage.
No matter how trustworthy, allowing the police department to police itself does raise some concern. If there were an external body with authority not just to review, but also to judge actions such as this, many of the concerns that Madison has shown in the aftermath of this shooting would be assuaged.
Despite MPD’s stalwart reputation, people deserve to know that deadly force is being used only as a last resort, and a more transparent review process may help to answer pertinent questions.