During the last week, Wisconsin lawmakers passed and Governor Walker signed a new bill affecting how deaths caused by police officers would be investigated.
In November of 2012 Paul Heenan was shot and killed by Madison, Wisconsin Police officer Stephen Heimness. Heenan had been drinking and had entered the wrong house on his street. He was shot as he was struggling with the home owner and reportedly with officer Heimness. Heimness said that Heenan attempted to take his gun and that he was in fear of his life when he shot Hennan.
An internal investigation conducted by the Madison PD and an investigation by the Dane County DA’s office cleared Heimness. A federal DOJ investigation was reportedly started, but where it went is not known. The Madison Chief of Police later found that Heimness had committed 118 violations of 13 department policies and Heimness resigned in lieu of a termination hearing. The Chief, who later retired, said that the shooting was still a good shooting and was within policy.
Uh huh. The lawsuit for wrongful death wouldn’t have anything to do with that statement, would it?
This wasn’t the only case where the internal police investigation was questioned. In 2011 Derek Williams choked to death in the back of a Milwaukee squad car, and although there was a finding of probable cause that officers committed criminal acts, there was no prosecution. In 2004, unarmed Michael Bell Jr. was shot and killed and the Kenosha Police internal review found no wrong-doing after only 2 days. Despite that, the city settled the lawsuit for $1.75 million. Michael Bell Sr. then used the money for billboards and fullpage newspaper ads. The settlement outraged the police – but the city and the insurance company doesn’t hand out that type of money unless there is a reason for it.
In any event, the bill, AB 409, now requires:
- An investigation by two outside investigators, one of whom is in charge of the investigation;
- Any internal investigation may not interfere with the outside investigators;
- The outside investigators submit their report directly to the District Attorney; and
- If the District Attorney does not prosecute, the outside investigators are required to release their report to the public.
This is a good start on what is needed. As an example, in Dallas, Texas, a former officer was recently indicted for aggravated assault for her actions in shooting an unarmed carjacking suspect who had his hands up and was surrendering. She is the first Dallas officer indicted in 41 years for an on-duty shooting.
It all depends on how the individual agencies implement the law. For example, the policy issued by the Madison Police after the law is, in my opinion, not compliant with the new law. For example, the outside “lead” investigator is allowed to “observe” the Madison Police department investigation and submits his observations. It is not to contain the facts of the case, but only if the investigation was impartial. The policy also states that the Madison Chief of Police is the sole authority on whether an officer is to be arrested.
That hardly seems to meet either the spirit or letter of the law.