John Roach: Good Cop, Bad Cop

Published On: Jul 19 2013 10:22:37 AM CDT
John Roach's Column

By John Roach

Did a bad cop take a bad shot and kill a drunk, unarmed Madison citizen in front of his own home?

Or was he a good cop doing a tough job?

Those are the questions.

But like all questions in Madison, it comes wrapped in what is now our town’s greatest contribution to the nation’s economy. Madison once prided itself on producing hot dogs, machine parts and batteries. Now, more than anything, we produce process. Between the state, legislature, unions, contracts, county boards, city councils, the UW and its schools, hospitals and departments, Madison’s greatest output is now meetings, interpretations, bureaucratic haggling, memos, contract interpretations, delays and, of course, more meetings, studies and, ultimately, vast amounts of process.

We have process to the point where we forget the actual issue at hand. What begins as a simple question becomes incomprehensibly complex, sometimes by the design of those who control procedure and are protected by it.

In times of crisis, a bureaucracy, like all organisms, will resort to its most primal reflex: self-preservation. Like an ant, dog or human, bureaucracy seeks first to protect itself, so it can propagate further.

But in the case of the shooting of Paul Heenan by officer Stephen Heimsness, process can run amok and actually damage the host, just as cancer cells destroy healthy cells.

Bad process creates confusion and hides truth.

When this happens, a bureaucracy loses its way and, most importantly, the fundamental notion of why it exists in the first place. The organism loses balance. Sometimes, in the worst cases, unhealthy process will kill its host. Just as Stephen Heimsness killed Paul Heenan.

The Heenan death seemed wrong from the beginning. Along with the fatal shots to Mr. Heenan, there was another casualty that night … common sense.

Since when did Madison police start shooting unarmed bartime drunks three times? Why didn’t a supposed drunken gun grab get a quick baton swat?

Sure, Heenan wandered into the wrong home. Sure, he was responsible for his drunken or drugged condition. Sure Madison cops are put in tough positions. But if the solution for the Heenan incident was three bullets, everyone on State Street after midnight is fair game.

Months after Paul Heenan’s death, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray moved to dismiss Stephen Heimsness, ostensibly for a trail of unsavory activity unbecoming of a Madison police officer that included a collection of complaints of unnecessary force and inappropriate language. Wray wanted to fire Heimsness for violating standard procedure, not for killing Paul Heenan. Heimsness instead resigned.

Noble Wray was in the unenviable position of finally doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Not his finest moment. This is made even worse by a Heimsness file that indicates that what happened to Paul Heenan in the early morning hours last fall was not an isolated incident. It was preceded by a behavioral drum roll that was a predictor of bad news. Heimsness’s resignation should not stem further investigation on all fronts.

There are antidotes to bad process.

The first one is citizens. The folks most affected by Paul Heenan’s death have refused to be quiet. They have continued to press for justice. Good for them.

There are also lawyers and our civil justice system, who have yet to be heard on Heenan’s death. They will surely lay bare, in a more objective manner, what exactly happened that night.

But there is another way for a bureaucracy to stay true to itself.

Leadership.

Leaders have the power to seize the moment and say, “This is wrong. It will not stand. We are better than this.”

This has not been the finest hour for Madison’s peace officers.

They deserve better.

So do the people of Madison.

So did Paul Heenan.