In what was being called the largest settlement in a police shooting in state history, the city of Madison has agreed to pay the family of Paul Heenan $2.3 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the former police officer who shot and killed him.
Heenan, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by officer Stephen Heimsness on Nov. 9, 2012, after a homeowner’s report of a possible burglary on Madison’s Near East Side. Heimsness said Heenan had reached for his gun during a struggle before Heimsness pulled his gun and fired three shots into Heenan.
“On behalf of Paul’s parents, I want to let you know that they hope this settlement and the work it took to achieve this settlement will become part of the national conversation that is currently dealing with relationships between police officers and their respective communities and the dialogue between police officers and their respective communities that seems to be dreadfully out of sync,” said Michael Fox, one of three lawyers for Heenan’s parents, John and Doris Heenan.
Fox, along with lawyers Jeff Scott Olson and Andrea Farrell, announced the settlement in a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol. The team said that it believes it is the largest settlement in a police shooting in state history.
Fox declined to say what proportion of the settlement would go to the Heenans and how much would cover attorney fees.
Although the Dane County District Attorney’s office and an internal investigation cleared Heimsness of any wrongdoing in shooting Heenan, he retired in October 2013 after the department later moved to have him fired for unrelated policy violations.
The city admits no liability under the settlement, Fox said, which is not unusual in a case like this.
Heenan, who was white, was killed before protests erupted nationally over police killings of unarmed black men, starting with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.
Fox said he hopes that the Heenan case, which helped spark legislation requiring outside police agencies to investigate police shootings in Wisconsin, will continue to “bring to the attention of the public the problem of excessive use of force that seems to be more prevalent than it has ever been, or at least it is reported today more than it has ever been, particularly with regard to minority communities and their relationships with the officers who police their communities.”
Since Heenan’s death, Madison has seen others die from police shootings, most notably Tony Robinson, an unarmed black teenager who was shot in April during what a state Department of Justice investigation determined was a struggle with Officer Matt Kenny. Kenny was cleared of any potential criminal liability or policy violations by District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and by an internal review by the Madison Police Department.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Madison assistant city attorney Patricia Lauten said that the city was confident that a jury would have found the use of deadly force by Heimsness to have been justified and lawful, as it had been by an MPD investigation, Ozanne and federal authorities.
However, she wrote, “civil rights litigation carries with it significant risks and cases are often settled for a variety of reasons. The settlement reached in this case, while significant, is consistent with similar settlements/verdicts in Wisconsin and well below recent national settlements/verdicts.”
She wrote that the settlement avoids “years of continued litigation, a potentially disruptive trial, and lengthy appeals process and protects taxpayers from the risks associated with civil rights trials and appeals.”
“Litigation cases are evaluated individually and settlement may not always be the outcome,” she wrote. “Settlement was determined to be the best course of action in this particular case.”
The city will pay $300,000 of the settlement, and the rest will be covered by insurance, Lauten said.
Lawyers for Heimsness referred questions to Lauten.
Fox said that Heenan was a musician and a member of a tight-knit community on Madison’s East Side whose death sparked benefit concerts in his honor.
“We don’t expect one settlement to cure all of the ills that are currently being discussed,” Fox said. “But what this settlement does, and what this situation does, is hopefully become part of the national narrative and enlarge that narrative beyond minority communities to the definition of unreasonable force as is practiced everywhere.”
Farrell said that they had hoped to show during the trial that the city was responsible for Heenan’s death because it had failed to discipline or remove Heimsness from duty despite earlier excessive force complaints, or because of “horrendous messages” Heimsness posted on his squad car mobile data terminal that “show clearly that Heimsness should have been looked at.”
Had his superiors done that, Farrell said, “I believe he would not have been on the street.”
Former Chief Noble Wray moved to fire Heimness in June 2013, alleging 118 counts of violating departmental policies. Many of them related to comments Heimsness made about citizens, dispatchers, supervisors and fellow officers in messages written on his squad car computer. A month later he agreed to retire, effective Oct. 14.