Police Compassion in Real Time


Three days after the “ink” had barely dried on a recent blog of mine about the need for police to show compassion when a person dies in their custody or as a result of their action or inaction (October 11 and November 6, 2012; “Should Cops Be Compassionate?”), such a situation occurs. As the police department releases information about the shooting, some citizens have questioned the police action. Was deadly force necessary? Could other actions have been taken? A split-second decision on the street in the middle of the night now becomes carefully analyzed.  The issue is a familiar one, while some decisions may be legal, may be permissible, but are they moral?  A local news reporter describes the incident as follows:


“An unarmed  man shot and killed by a Madison Police officer last Friday was not a burglar. But [the police chief] says it’s too early in the investigation to confirm that the shooting was a justified use of deadly force.

“Details of the investigation released so far confirm that the victim… mistakenly entered the wrong house just before 3 am Friday. Police responded to a 911 call from the wife of the homeowner about a possible burglary… When police arrived, [the suspect] and the homeowner were struggling with each other in the front yard… [The police officer] drew his gun and ordered them both to get down on the ground. The homeowner put his hands up and backed away, but [the chief] says [the suspect] walked quickly toward the officer and grabbed his arm. Seconds later, [the officer] fired his gun, killing [the suspect]. [The chief said], ‘At the time that the officer fired, what we had was that [the suspect] had grabbed his arm and the officer believed that with the other hand that he was going after the gun.’

“[The chief] says the investigation is continuing and [the officer] remains on suspension. But [the chief] says all the facts suggest the use deadly force was justified, ‘Any time you get a citizen in close proximity to police officer and their weapon in that close proximity and you have an aggressive move I think it does produce a deadly force situation. I can’t go much further than that.’

“The district attorney… will make the final decision on whether the shooting was justified.”[1]


One thing we all know, healing is needed. The family and friends of the man are suffering, the neighborhood in which the shooting occurred is impacted and grieving, and the police officers involved in the shooting, and the police department as a whole is suffering.

In my dual role as the former chief of police in the city and now member of the clergy, I have been asked to facilitate a community healing service. I have also asked my friend, and current chief of police, to attend along with members of the police department (understanding that the officer involved may not want to attend.)

This is a delicate situation. No doubt the city attorney and risk manager do not want the police department to say anything that might jeopardize the legal claim that is sure to follow. And in this mix of shock, sadness, loss and sorrow, the men and women of the police department are still called to go out in the community and work with and provide high quality service to its members.  They cannot take a break.

Thankfully, an event like this is rare in Madison. Yet we know that for some time, a certain tension may occur in the community. A certain wondering if this could happen to them or their children. But, overall,  the fine community work the department has done for years will help all of us heal. How we move forward, together, with concern and compassion, is going to be the real test.

A community healing meeting/service will be held at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1st Street and Winnebago this coming Sunday (Nov. 18) at 4 p.m. You are invited.


An After-Note:

A police chief who is a close friend of mine recently related his experience with a situation in which one of his officers had to shoot and kill a man:

“I had a situation earlier this year that resulted in expressions of concern from the community as to why officers took the action they did. As it turned out, I had three police representatives meet with the family members in person to answer their questions which we had asked for in writing prior to the meeting. I did not include officers directly involved [in the shooting]. There was risk involved but I thought it outweighed the need for transparency in our decision-making in taking this man’s life…

“I will share with you a personal example of how we need to change our mindset that police leaders have developed that creates a culture of police as adversaries with the people we serve…

“[We] were involved in an officer involved shooting six months ago where the circumstances were evident it was ‘suicide-by-cop.’ The suspect watched us approach, texted his estranged wife that the police were here now, this is it, goodbye… He died at the hospital… The night of the shooting we reached out to the [man’s] estranged wife who knew her husband’s intent and was aware he had followed through with his plans to die. What we didn’t do well was reach out to other family members in making the death notification; consequently, they learned of their brother’s death by surprise.

“We are changing our protocols in officer-involved shootings to assign a victim witness coordinator to the surviving family members to provide not only death notification but to liasion with the family in the first two weeks in providing them with the information we can release to them. Finally, the police chief, captain and sergeant met with three family members to answer all of their questions…

“We don’t share these examples enough. I hope this story offers an example of how these sessions may be productive for community healing and for maintaining our organization’s reputation for being responsive to the people we serve with answers.”


[1] SOURCE: Halstad, Gillman. Wisconsin Public Radio. http://news.wpr.org/post/investigation-underway-madison-police-shooting


  1. Hopefully, other police departments adopt Madison Police approach on police shootings, but that is a big hope.

    Cops don’t like it when someone plays Monday quarterback regarding their decisions, but I don’t like it when cops play Monday quarterback like they do when they are critizing and complaining about decisions made by people in other occupations like professional football, baseball, and basketball coaches.who is always thinking not only his/her next move, but his/her three to four moves but have to adapt to sudden changes in the games or doctors in the ER who have to be quick on their feet on a daily basis..


  2. Speaking of compassionate police. This photo has gone viral of the NYPD officer buying a pair of boots for a homeless man. It would be an event never seeing the light of day if an Arizona tourist (Arizona Sheriff’s office communications officer) had not taken a photo and pursued it further. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/nyregion/photo-of-officer-giving-boots-to-barefoot-man-warms-hearts-online.html?ref=newyorkcitypolicedepartment&_r=0


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