The Madison police officer who fatally shot a local musician last fall repeatedly violated departmental conduct rules in the months before the shooting, according to a lengthy complaint Chief Noble Wray has filed with the city’s Police and Fire Commission seeking the firing of Officer Stephen Heimsness.
The 58-page complaint, which Wray filed late Friday, alleges 118 violations of 13 department policies, including the department’s equal protection policy aimed at assuring the community the police are not biased in enforcing the law. The complaint also cites violations of harassment, workplace violence and weapons handling policies.
Most of the alleged violations involve comments Heimsness made about citizens, dispatchers and fellow officers and supervisors, many of them filled with obscenities and remarks that could be considered racist or sexist.
Wray said in a statement the actions are unrelated to the high-profile investigation into the Nov. 9 fatal shooting by Heimsness of Paul Heenan, for which Heimsness was previously cleared. Wray said he would not comment on the complaint while it is before the commission.
But the messages, transmitted via the laptop computer in Heimsness’ squad car, express frustration toward other officers, supervisors and dispatchers in the months leading up to the fatal shooting.
Heenan’s roommates, Nathan and Amelia Royko Maurer, also filed a complaint against Heimsness with the Police and Fire Commission on Friday, challenging the department’s review of the shooting and alleging that Heimsness incorrectly assessed and unnecessarily escalated the situation to a point where he claimed deadly force was necessary.
Officer Dan Frei, president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, acknowledged that Heimsness violated the department’s strict policy limiting use of the message system to work-related communication, but said the offenses did not constitute grounds for firing.
“That’s clearly a mistake he made and he’s not the only one who’s made that mistake,” Frei said.
Frei also questioned whether the messages violated other department policies as alleged in the complaint. He said some of the remarks by Heimsness included in the complaint are portions of conversations that are taken out of context, while in others Heimsness is just letting off steam.
“When you see it on paper and don’t have the full benefit of knowing the history or context, it can seem a lot worse,” he said.
Frei declined to comment on whether he or other officers believe department leaders set out to find a way to get rid of Heimsness because of public pressure stemming from the Heenan shooting.
Heimsness did not want to comment, Frei said.
According to the complaint, in a Sept. 7, 2012, message referring to a man against whom a woman had made a complaint, Heimsness wrote: “sometimes they forget they are not in africa anymore.” In a follow-up interview with a police investigator, Heimsness said he understood the man was from an African country and that in the United States “you can’t act like you do maybe in your home country.”
Frei said Heimsness made the initial statement in a conversation with another officer who has a background in cultural anthropology. He also said the department provides training to officers about the fact that laws in other countries do not prohibit some actions that are illegal here.
A week later, Heimsness wrote to another officer, “i don’t know what’s worse the dumb drunks or the dumb dispatchers.” In another message, he referred to a dispatcher as a “drama queen brat.”
Frei said officers sometimes become frustrated with dispatchers, who aren’t always able to obtain all the information officers would like to have when responding to a call.
“We have a lot of respect for them and we understand a lot of times they are our lifelines,” he said, adding, “If I’m being sent into a situation that feels unsafe to me, that evokes a response in you.”
In a Sept. 25 message, Heimsness wrote: “jesus I work with morons.”
In another message about participants in the city’s Ironman triathlon, Heimsness referred to the runners as “Ironclowns.”
Several of the messages appeared to express frustration toward co-workers and his job.
“i better go in. it’s getting light out and all these people will soon be able to see the raging contempt on my face,” he wrote on Sept. 8. The next day, he wrote: “i’m ready to go on a shooting spree up in dispatch.”
“i’m going to kill somebody. Dispatch, coworkers, who ever,” he wrote on Oct. 5.
In another message on Nov. 2, he asked an officer “did you Zeus that guy?” followed up by: “COME ON MANUAL TASER. whatever happened to old fashioned pride in workmanship? pretty soon we will be shipping our punching to China.”
On Nov. 7, two days before the shooting of Heenan, Heimsness wrote of the dispatchers: “i’m a hater. one of these days i’m going to snap and go up there and start screaming WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU?”
“Sometimes cops will use language that sounds more violent,” Frei said.
“I know Steve,” he said. “He’s a funny, sarcastic guy. He communicates with certain people in certain ways that won’t always be understandable to the public.”
The complaint also alleges Heimsness used his mobile computer to conduct personal business, including looking for motorcycle parts and online music.
It also accuses him of unsafe handling of a firearm for disassembling a fellow officer’s rifle and moving it to a hard-to-find location after she inadvertently left it in a squad car after her shift, and alleges that Heimsness was untruthful with investigators about the incident.
Frei said, “I don’t see any clear evidence” that Heimsness was not being truthful. He attributed inconsistencies by Heimsness to being interviewed about the incident, which seemed minor at the time, by three people at different times when he was dealing with the stress of the fatal shooting.
In January, Heimsness was cleared of wrongdoing by the police department and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne in the shooting of Heenan.
A 15-year veteran of the force, Heimsness was responding to a reported burglary in progress when he shot Heenan, 30, who was intoxicated when he entered a neighbor’s home shortly before 3 a.m., then struggled with the homeowner and with Heimsness, who said Heenan was reaching for his drawn gun.
In his statement, Wray said “nothing contained within the (PFC) filing changes my conclusions regarding the officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of Paul Heenan. The use of force was objectively reasonable and within MPD policy.”