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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Madison to train staff in "dignified" communications after hostile emails by police officer Stephen Heimsness
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Soglin: "How I feel is not the legal standard."
Soglin: "How I feel is not the legal standard."
Credit:Bill Lueders

Amelia Royko Maurer wants to know what's so special about 15 seconds.

The 15 seconds in question are the ones when Madison Police officer Stephen Heimsness shot and killed her friend Paul Heenan outside her home on Nov. 9. Heimsness was exonerated in the shooting, but Police Chief Noble Wray now wants to fire him for numerous incidents in the months leading up to the shooting.

"Chief Wray has drawn a circle around those 15 seconds," she said. "We don't trust him all those other times, 118 counts over four months, but we trust his judgment in those 15 seconds when he shot an unarmed man who was submitting."

Heenan, who was living with the Royko Maurer family, had mistakenly entered a neighbor's home that night while inebriated. The neighbors called police, and Heimsness arrived to find Heenan in a struggle with one of the neighbors outside a South Baldwin Street home. The officer claims Heenan lunged for his gun.

The Dane County District Attorney and the Madison Police Department ruled that Heimsness was justified in using deadly force. But last Friday, Wray filed a complaint with the Police and Fire Commission (PFC) to have Heimsness removed from the force for allegedly committing 118 violations of 13 department policies in the months prior to the shooting. The infractions involve hostile email messages -- some of them racist and sexist -- allegedly sent by Heimsness to other officers. In one, he wrote: "I'm going to kill somebody. Dispatch, coworkers, whoever."

At a press conference Tuesday, Royko Maurer pressed Mayor Paul Soglin on how the city could give Heimsness the benefit of the doubt on the shooting, while condemning so many of his other actions.

Soglin responded that all of Heimsness' statements reported in the complaint trouble him, but added: "How I feel is not the legal standard."

The mayor quoted an email from city attorney Michael May: "Generally speaking, with some exceptions, evidence of a person's character or trait is not admissible to show that the person acted in conformity with that trait in a given instance."

The mayor called the press conference to announce that the city is expanding training for all its employees. "We're going to ensure that every one of Madison's staff in every department understands that they cannot effectively and properly serve the public... unless every action, every word, is committed to gaining trust and dignity."

Soglin said the program is still being developed and was vague about what it will involve or how long the training sessions would be. He said there is no evidence that hostile messages like the ones sent by Heimsness are "widespread" on the force.

"But what concerns me is that because other officers were the recipient of it, it might indicate that such communication is acceptable," Soglin said.

He added: "To not face up and confront that, to remain silent, is the worst thing we can do."

Later in the afternoon, Royko Maurer was planning to present a petition with 1,500 signatures to District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, asking him to order an inquest into the case and transfer his authority about whether to prosecute Heimsness over to a jury.

In the hands of the PFC

Whether Stephen Heimsness will be allowed to remain on the Madison police force now rests in the hands of the Police and Fire Commission.

In order to fire any officer, Chief Noble Wray must go through the commission. Its longtime lawyer, Scott Herrick, explains that an initial pre-hearing on the matter will be held soon, with the order of business to decide when it will hold a hearing on the case.

The hearing on Heimsness' fate will be open to the public, although the commission's deliberations (like that of a jury) will be in private.

Herrick expects a lengthy hearing. "You can see that in the length of the complaint -- it's a lot of pages. It may take a while to present that case."

The commission will have to sort through all 118 complaints against Heimsness and decide if they are valid. If it decides any of the complaints have merit, it has three options for discipline. One of those, demotion, "isn't available here because the officer is not in a promoted rank," Herrick says.

Its other two options are to suspend or terminate. Herrick says it's also possible the department is negotiating with Heimsness for some other outcome.

Herrick says the commission doesn't see a lot of termination cases. "The chief doesn't want to fire people very often, and sometimes people leave rather than get fired."

Dan Frei, president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, did not return a call for comment.

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