A number of Madison police officers are under investigation after Chief Noble Wray called for the firing of Officer Stephen Heimsness.
Most of Wray’s charges against Heimsness are linked to inappropriate messages sent on the department’s internal computer system and not connected to the shooting death of Paul Heenan. Wray filed a complaint with the Police and Fire Commission Friday, formally asking for his removal from the force.
Sgt. Michael Hanson said the department hasn't released how many officers are on leave or what they do on the force, but confirmed at least some of the officers are being investigated due to exchanges with Heimsness. The others are in question after a department-wide audit of the computer system.
Wray’s complaint will likely take months to process, according to Police and Fire Commission attorney Scott Herrick.
Herrick explained he still needs to serve Heimsness or his attorney with the complaint. Once that happens, an initial hearing will happen within 30 days. After that, evidentiary hearings begin. Herrick said commissioners act as the judge and jury as the officer and the city will present evidence.
“It's supposed to provide some degree of public knowledge and confidence that things are being done, and we hope that that is true,” Herrick said. “And the best way to achieve that in our view, in the PFC's view, is for the PFC to do its job carefully and step-by-step and deliberately and not particularly to respond to the passions of the moment.”
Dan Frei, head of the police officers’ union, said none of the more than 100 accusations against Heimsness will hold up as a fire able offense at Police and Fire Commission hearings.
The PFC acts as judge and jury, and has the power to fire Heimsness if it rules in Wray’s favor.
None of the counts against Heimsness refer to his shooting and killing a local musician, Paul Heenan, on the near east side in November, which put Heimsness on administrative leave he still hasn’t returned from. But neighbors say it has everything to do with the shooting.
“Maybe this is just the way for the police department to get the heat off their back, to get rid of Heimsness on this other stuff,” said Marlien Pearson, Baldwin Street neighbor.
Frei acknowledged that Heimsness violated a strict policy allowing only duty-related use of the in-squad computer system.
Police administrators said Heimsness once typed “I’m gonna go on a shooting spree up in dispatch,” which Frei said was not a literal statement, but an expression of frustration.
Frei said at least one other message from Heimsness was taken grossly out of context. Heimsness on Sept. 7, 2012, typed, "Sometimes they forget they are not in Africa anymore."
Heimsness was talking with another officer with a background in cultural behavior, Frei said. He said police administrators asked for that context but didn't include it into their complaint because it would've weakened their case.
Frei declined to comment about whether he believed the police department is finding a convenient excuse to get rid of a controversial officer.
In addition, the PFC is handling a second complaint on Heimsness with a whole separate set of facts to consider. Heenan’s former roommates, Amelia and Nathan Royko Maurer, filed their own complaint about the shooting. Herrick said neither complaint will take priority, but timing of the hearings will all depend on the schedules of those involved.
On Nov. 9, the foot of Marlien Pearson’s front steps was the scene of that fatal shooting. She was troubled reading Wray’s 58-page complaint, frustrated that none of the counts against them are connected to Heenan’s death.
“We feel like there's been a total closed door to acknowledging that there may have been any misjudgment on his part,” Pearson said.
Pearson, who teaches criminology, said the chief’s handling of this officer-involved shooting has lead to a widespread lack of trust within the community.
“So much of effective policing requires trust and really good feelings of goodwill, and I think a lot of it has been squandered,” Pearson said.
Pearson said the next step is hearing what Mayor Paul Soglin has to say about the complaint and the situation at large. Soglin told neighbors and the media that he would comment on the shooting after the department’s internal investigations were completed. He was out of town Monday.
Hanson confirmed Heimsness is still on paid administrative leave.