It looks like the community will be divided for some time over how justified the police shooting of Paul Heenan was, what with friends and family and others calling for further investigation.
But Mike Scott has a question that hasn’t really been addressed yet.
“How did this young man get so intoxicated?” he asks.
Scott isn’t just some armchair quarterback. Nor is he a cheerleader for the police who’s trying to blame the situation on the guy who got shot. He’s a former Madison cop, former Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., police chief, and a current expert on policing at the UW Law School.
Oh, and he once co-authored a 600-page review of police use of deadly force, which was at the time the definitive work on the subject.
And he wants to make sure the question of how Heenan, a 30-year-old musician and sound engineer, got so drunk — his blood-alcohol level was 0.21 — that he barged into the wrong house, jostled with the homeowner, then threw himself at a cop with a gun.
“Nobody ever says, ‘Where did this guy get that drunk and who facilitated that? Who was serving him that much alcohol?’” Scott says.
He adds that he's not trying to take the focus away from further investigation of the officer's use of deadly force, which he's all for. He just doesn't want anger at the Madison Police Department to cloud the fact that Heenan's intoxication level was a huge factor in the shooting.
"Maybe that story comes later," he says, "but my concern is that it doesn’t come at all."
Police have not released any information on where Heenan did his drinking on Nov. 9 before officer Stephen Heimsness shot him three times at close range. But he was known to frequent the Williamson Street bars near his house, two doors down from the one he mistakenly entered at about 2:45 a.m.
Scott says he obviously was too drunk to know what he was doing.
Police say Heimsness arrived on the scene after getting a report of a burglary at a family's residence. He came upon Heenan and the homeowner involved in what appeared to be a scuffle outside, pulled his gun and ordered the two to the ground. Heenan, however, shoved the officer and flailed his hands at the gun, which police say led Heimsness to believe Heenan was trying to disarm him.
The time that elapsed between when Heimsness got out of the car to when he fired at Heenan: 15 seconds.
At Heenan’s blood-alcohol content — well over twice the legal limit for driving — Scott says most people would have been unconscious.
“In all probability he was virtually incoherent, which would explain how he ends up going into the wrong house, how he doesn’t fully recognize his own neighbor, how he doesn’t recognize or appreciate what a police officer is telling him to do, and why he would come after a police officer’s gun,” he says. “To get to a blood-alcohol content of .21, that takes a lot of drinking.”
Putting aside the matter of whether or not Heimsness was justified in shooting Heenan, there’s no doubt that Heenan’s intoxication played a part. If a cop pulls a gun and orders someone to the ground, “nine times out of 10 that’s going to work,” Scott says. “If you point a gun at two individuals and order them to the ground, they’re going to do it. This is that one time out of 10 that because of intoxication that didn’t work.”
He says that with debate raging over the justifiability of the shooting, maybe the community needs to have a conversation about drinking as well.
“We know that all kinds of bad things can happen to somebody that gets to that level of intoxication,” he says. “It’s almost a matter of dumb luck as to which bad thing’s going to happen. You’re going to get hit by a car, you’re going to pass out and choke on your own vomit, you’re going to stumble into somebody’s house, you’re going to pass out in the bushes. These things happen in Madison, and they happen with a good deal of regularity. And this case just ended up in probably the worst possible outcome one could imagine.”
Attempts were unsuccessful Friday afternoon to reach a member of the city's Alcohol License Review Committee to see if that panel might get involved in the matter.