Stepping Back: Reflecting On a Police Shooting

thinker 2

MANY YEARS AGO, I was a young police officer, just out of the academy. My partner and I, also a rookie, were assigned to downtown Minneapolis on the day shift when we were called to respond to our first bank alarm. As we were trained, we took up tactical positions around the bank. My partner took the shotgun and set up on one of the corners. I took the other. After a while, we were told to stand down. It was, as many of these calls are, a false alarm.

On the way back to the squad car, our sergeant waved us down for a ride. When he got in, he saw my partner was in obvious distress. He was profusely sweating and shaking, the shotgun still in his grip. The sergeant reached over, gently removed the shotgun, and said, “Son, are you sure this is the work you want to do?” The next day, my partner turned in his badge and resigned.

Throughout the years, I have thought about the interplay of fear and danger in policing. While I hired many young men and women to do this job, I knew not everyone would make it through their probationary period. Every officer has his or her “rite of passage” when they successfully control their fear and get the job done. Once that happens, officers become more capable. For me, it was an exchange of gunshots with a barricaded suspect very early in my career.

I am not talking about not being afraid – we police often are and should be. Every police officer knows the acrid taste of fear and how our bodies respond to it. An old adage about police work goes like this: police work consists of hours boredom interlaced with minutes of terror. But through training, experience, and coaching police learn how to control their fear, accept it, and still effectively respond to the danger. When police do it well, they are called courageous, sometimes heroes. At the same time, they know they are never fear-less. Fear is always with them, always present, and they know that to act like it isn’t is both foolish and dangerous.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a shooting of an unarmed suspect by police in Madison. Suddenly this happens. And everyone, rightfully, asks why. Why did the officer shoot? Couldn’t something else have been done? But I have a theory, based on my experience over the years, that once in a while fear gets the best of an officer – even experienced ones. I have no inside information on this. It’s just what I think happened.

The hard fact of policing is that officers must learn to control their fear even if they are afraid. That’s what police do. It’s a dangerous job. And, as I mentioned earlier, fear and danger are never absent from it. Every new police officer wonders, will I meet the test? Will I act as I have been trained, as my colleagues expect me to do? And they never know until they do it. That’s why police trainers simulate fear-producing scenarios for new officers and why there are specially trained officers to continue to evaluate them in the field for a period of time after their graduation. The only thing that can keep fear in control is training and practice in doing so. Otherwise, who would ever pursue a suspect down a dark alley who may wish to kill them?

The police department policy (rules) and it’s training, nevertheless, addresses situations like this:

“Recognizing our legal and moral obligation to use force wisely and judiciously, it is the policy of this department that deadly force will never be resorted to unless an officer reasonably believes that a lesser degree of force would be insufficient to defend the life of another, one’s self, or in limited situations, to apprehend a dangerous felon…”  [MPD Policy 6-100].

The policy still begs many questions surrounding this incident. It may be clear to you and I after the fact that the man did not present a life-threatening situation to the officer, but somehow to the officer he did. And according to policy, officers have a moral as well as a legal responsibility in using force. The policy instructs them to use force wisely and judiciously and to use deadly force only when a lesser degree of force would be insufficient. Unfortunately, no one can get into the head of the officer involved as to whether his act of self-defense was reasonable given the situation (a person of small stature, intoxicated, but unarmed, who failed to respond to verbal commands officer and grappled with him). During the investigation we heard the term “objective reasonableness” used; not what we subjectively think the situation was, but what the officer objectively believed it was.

As the former chief of the department, I have struggled with this incident and the suffering it has caused. You may come to the conclusion that the policy and training of the department is deficient, but a look at the data may lead you, as it has me, to another conclusion. Stepping back from the agony of this incident, I remembered an old teaching. It came from the statistician Dr. Edwards W. Deming and my work with him in the 1980s. Deming taught that variation always occurs in a system – between people, outputs, and even training. The question is what the variation is trying to tell us?

With that in mind, I recalled that for over 40 years this policy and its training has guided Madison police officers in thousands of fear-filled encounters. There has been little variation in the results; few people have died. This tells me that I would not alter the current policy but I would call for a review of the defensive tactics training officers receive to make sure it is consistent with the policy.

During the Deming era, we learned that you don’t change a system based on its normal variation. It may be difficult to look at this incident in these cold terms, but it is really the best method to decide whether the policy or the training should change because of one incident as heart-rending as it is.

Yet the question can still be asked, what went wrong here? If fear is a factor, then what is to be done? What action can the department take that will satisfy the family of the victim? What action can reduce the grief of those who suffer? What can further be done to help officers control fear that may be paralyzing or lead to a wrong decision? Maybe we think we would have handled the situation differently – but that is after the fact. None of us really know. None of us can go back to that fateful moment.

We find ourselves now, both police officers and citizens, to be in an agonizing conundrum. Does condemning the incident show lack of support for our police? Or, on the other hand, does supporting the police mean they cannot be asked to acknowledge that a mistake has been made and to reaffirm their policy and review their training practices on the use of force that has guided them so far?

But before you dismiss the officers of the Madison department as untrustworthy, or somehow less than you imagined them to be, please remember that for over four decades, they and those who came before them, have responded to and handled fearful and dangerous situations without having to resort to taking a person’s life.

I believe this has been a gruesome variation in a system that has worked and worked well. Madison police are not trigger-happy. They are not bullies. They do not make questionable or frivolous arrests. They are one of the best, if not the best police department in the country. This requires them, nevertheless, to analyze and adjust their practices on an on-going basis with an ear very close to the community they serve.

For all intents and purposes, the career of the officer involved is over and he will need care along with the victim’s family for quite some time. As a pastor, my heart goes out to the victim’s family and his friends and neighbors. But I also was a police officer for many years, and this also calls my heart to the men and women of the police department who also suffer, but who will continue to protect and exceptionally serve our community in spite of the constant presence of fear and danger and the questionable action taken by of one of their colleagues.


[For my thoughts in general about the obstacles to police improvement and what needs to be done, see my new book, Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police.  You can take a peek or order it — CLICK HERE]



1. A Problem in Madison (Jan. 21, 2013)

2. Making Choices: The Moral Aspects of Policing (Jan. 15, 2013)

3. A Police Shooting: What Would You Do? (Jan. 8, 2013)

4. Just Because We Can, Should We? (Dec. 14, 2012)

5. Police Compassion in Real Time (Nov. 15, 2012)

6. Should Cops Be Compassionate? Part II (Nov. 6, 2013)

7. Should Cops Be Compassionate? Part I (Oct. 11, 2012)

8. Let’s Be Creative on the Use of Force (Sept. 28, 2012)


  1. “An old adage about police work goes like this: police work consists of hours boredom interlaced with minutes of terror.” You can say that about combat.

    Whether you support or criticizes the police in a shooting or lesser use of force incident, the police do not want other people to do a Monday quarterback replay on them and sometimes the police don’t want to hear differing opinions from other cops.


  2. I appreciate Rev. Couper’s thoughtful and wise analysis, but he leaves something out. Many police are psychopaths ( Among the personality characteristics are ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, charm, persuasiveness and a lack of conscience and empathy

    The author of the article referred to above contends that in some occupations psychopaths may be preferred. He says they are exactly the type you would want in an emergency situation. That may or may not be the case, but it would be worth knowing what portion of police forces are psychopaths.

    It would be especially good to know if Officer Heimsness is a psychopath. He may be a good police officer in most situations – we don’t know – but it appears that under pressure he has a tendency towards violence. It is likely remorseless violence. If so, then he is a psychopath.

    It is likely that, being remorseless, he would have no problem lying about the circumstances in which he shot and killed an ordinary citizen, only circumstantially to be considered a suspect. This was pretty literally a case of shooting first and asking questions later.

    Again, if Heimsness is a psychopath, it is likely that he did not experience fear in the shooting. If so, this removes Rev. Couper’s argument about fear being a motivating factor. In decades past it was common for police to drink before going to work as a way of dealing with stress and maybe fear. The preferred drink was vodka, supposedly because it couldn’t be detected on their breath. I remember this from a study of police stress and suicide in one of the Chicago newspapers decades ago.

    If Heimsness was drinking the night of November 9 last year, we have no way of knowing, because he was not given a blood test. Or, if he was, for some strange reason it was left out of the investigation and resulting report.

    There are many questions that are unanswered about what happened the night Paulie Heenan was killed. Stephen Heimsness can provide most of those answers. Unfortunately, he will likely not, at least not truthfully. Ease with lying is another characteristic of the psychopath.


    1. John, I would hope that current police psychometric testing, selection, training, and peer-review systems would cull out the psychopaths. Nevertheless, a chilling and unsettling thought. Over the years, I may have worked with a few of them that made it through the processes.


    2. Do non-sustained complaints inform the early warning system or just sustained complaints?

      When objective reasonableness is the standard used to measure an Officer’s justification for killing someone and an Officer’s personal threshold for fear informs them of when to react, and that threshold for fear changes in response to experience and memory, how on earth is it legal, moral, just or at the very least, intelligent to exclude ongoing psychological and drug screenings from their contract?

      According to Chief Wray, there are no mandatory, on going drug or psychological screenings for MPD officers. Their contracts (I’m guessing union contracts) do not require these. While screening for the academy makes absolute sense, it’s stunning to find the ‘best’ and ‘most educated’ police force in the nation doesn’t consider it absolutely necessary that mandatory mental and drug screenings are enforced through out an officer’s career. The opportunity for trauma is far greater for an active officer than a civilian or trainee. If an officer’s everyday behavior is “normal”, subtle triggers and panic be damned, the Chief and MPPOA find it objectively reasonable to send them back out! Is there a greater misdeed of a law enforcement leader and police protective agency than to send an officer who is mentally unfit into harms way? Yes, there is actually. The action of not requiring screening is worse because it sets the leaders up with less information and therefor demands zero accountability on their part when a mentally unfit officer hurts someone.


      1. Amelia, you raise some very important questions about mental health in the police field. My sense is that we have a lot to do in this area of not only selecting mentally healthy men and women to serve as our police officers but also to see that they maintain that mental health throughout their careers. Many of us know the impact of, for example, divorce, depression and deaths in our families (let alone dealing with death and tragedy on the job).


    3. You wonder if those cops who shot those two women in Torrance, California were psychopaths when they were looking for ex-LAPD officer Donner? In addition, their ability to control their fear needs to be look. Did they have any prior combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan where they learn to control their fear and not be so trigger happy?


  3. A while ago, I was watching a TV program about the organization called Citizen Watch and how they deal with the police when they are filming police encounters with the public. One of the people of Citizen Watch stated that cops are parnoid creatures and you have to be careful how you approach them particulary when you are approaching them from the left or right side or when you are walking up behind them. Of course, when you tried to videotaping them, they stated that you are in their safety zone, that you are interfering with the police in the performance of their duties, and order you to move so far back that you can’t video any kind of police misconduct.


  4. Chief Couper, part of the problem is exactly that people are starting to think this is *not* an outlier based on how it’s being handled. Dan Frei of the MPPOA was in the Capital Times the other day lashing out at people wholesale (including you), saying in effect that to question Heimsness was to attack every officer in the Madison Police Department. You might expect that kind of tone-deafness from someone in his position, but unfortunately it is being echoed (if more tactfully) by leaders with a broader charge in this community, including and especially Noble Wray and Paul Soglin.

    Your story about the false alarm was very much on point. A few years ago I witnessed a Madison officer level a gun at a neighbor in front of his own house – evidently a well-meaning passerby saw him go in through the window and called it in. He had misplaced his key and It looked like he was pretty close to being shot for it. The policy seems to elevate *reported* burglaries to deadly force type situations. Maybe that should be reviewed.


    1. To the best of my knowledge, the officer involved in the shooting did not lose his job. He was exonerated by the police department’s internal investigation and that of the district attorney — no violation under law and police department policy (rules). The issue seems to be with the community is whether or not the officer should be returned to patrol duty or assigned somewhere else.


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