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What this particular kind of Wisconsin boy wants is to go on listening to his Boston and Steve Miller and AC/DC, driving his crotch rocket and snowmobile and shooting his allotted two bucks a year while also getting props for being slightly cooler than his buddies back home. And if he realizes, somewhere deep in his soul, that cool is an ethical and moral challenge to the belief system around which he’s built his life, if he knows he’s a faker and that his new friends see through him, don’t really like or trust him, doesn’t it make sense that he’d grow to loathe the people who scoff at him behind his back? And doesn’t it make sense that he’d burrow down and defend the culture that these radically odd people are threatening to upend?
And what happens if this guy is a cop? What if this guy, like so many like him, compensates for his insecurity and fear of others by taking the officer’s test and funneling his rage into enforcing the law, punishing those whose very existence mocks everything that gives his life meaning?
And what if his name is Stephen Heimsness?
In that case, his beat would be the downtown party scene—the third shift, closing time. He’d spend his nights herding drunk sorority girls off the street and breaking up their boyfriends’ fights, icing off the late night drug casualties and talking down the early morning suicidals. He’d be chummy with the people who keep the scene alive—one of them, except for all the ways he wasn’t. He’d be into all the things that make Madison cool and he’d want the approval of the people he patrolled. A jokey, you-know-me doof of a cop.
If you weren’t on the force, if you didn’t know how involved he was with the police union or how many commendations the department had given him, you might mistake him for a radical oddball, one who’d, oddly, infiltrated the authoritarian ranks. But in that, you’d be wrong. Sure, he was a loud, public advocate for the repeal of Scott Walker, among the leaders of the cadre of police officers who refused to shut down the protests that roiled through the city in 2011 and instead joined the rabble occupying the capitol foyer with its homemade signs and interminable drum circles, but Heimsness also contained in himself the nihilistic Wisconsin cruelty that exists in most boys who grow up in the state. As with cops everywhere, he understood the value of protecting the clan. He’d seen the good that could come from cops protecting cops. He’d benefited from it. As he wrote in his 2012 statement describing why the Madison Professional Police Officer’s Association should reelect him to its board of directors, “The reason I initially ran for a seat on the board was to give back after I was the focus of an investigation. I understand what it is like to be under that microscope and how important it is to have a union representative there on your side.” By then he’d had twelve complaints lodged against him, usually for excessive use of force, but also for “overbearing, oppressive, or tyrannical conduct” and “insulting, defamatory, or obscene language.” In the two most well-known of these cases, he’d shot at a moving car as it sped away from him in a parking lot and, according to witness statements reported in the press, walloped on the head of some guy who was purportedly resisting arrest in front of a rowdy college crowd at State Street Brats until he was nearly unconscious in a pool of his own blood. An employee of the brat house where this second incident took place actually called 911 to report Heimsness and his partner, telling the dispatcher, “They were kicking him in the head and stomping on his face and bending his neck over to the side, and he’s out now, and there’s blood everywhere.” And nearly every time Heimsness’s rage billowed out of control he was either exonerated or let go with a record of “no finding,” presumably protected by his friends on the force.
Which is how we arrive at November 8th, 2012, and the events that took place early that morning on Baldwin Street.
The papers described it starkly in their initial reports. Police, responding to a 911 report of a burglary in progress, arrived on the scene to find two men struggling outside the home in question. When instructed to cease and desist, one of these men—the suspect—charged the officer and grabbed for his gun, at which point, the officer, fearing for his life, shot the suspect three times. The suspect died on the scene.
The Madison Police Department classified it as an “Officer Involved Shooting.” Beware the brutality hidden in neutral language like this.
As the days and weeks passed, the story would grow more complicated. Names would be released. Paul H. “Paulie” Heenan. Officer Stephen Heimsness. It would be revealed that Paulie was unarmed, that the person he was “struggling” with was Kevin O’Malley, the husband of the woman who’d placed the 911 call, and that what was described as struggling was more like the sort of grappling that goes on when a sober person is trying to retain his grip on a drunk friend, to hold him up, to help him walk. Paulie had moved into the neighborhood one week before the shooting. The houses all looked the same. He’d entered the wrong one and his neighbor, who, after all, is a tolerant Madisonian, had recognized him. He was taking him home.
More information would make its way into the press. Heimsness arrived alone. His uniform was black as the night, a blur in the darkness. His hair was long and greasy, his face cloaked in an untrimmed goatee—more the look of a good old boy out in the night than a police officer responding to a 911 call. He did not identify himself before he began barking orders at Paulie and O’Malley. Paulie’s blood alcohol level was .208, so high that he would have been reeling and lurching, his relationship with time and space as slurred and his speech. One of the shots that entered his body went through his hands, as though he’d had them in front of his chest, a posture of submission. O’Malley would make a public statement claiming that Paulie was backing away when Heimsness fired.
The story didn’t go away. When the Madison Police Department exonerated Heimsness (again), a loud, insistent call for an outside investigation rose up from all corners of the city and the police department flailed, publicly, as it tried to manage the scandal. The comments sections of web articles about the story filled up with angry rhetoric—the two Wisconsins at war with one another, one maintaining that the cops were infallible defenders of society, the other questioning everything the cops did. Amelia and Nathan Royko Maurer, the local musicians Paulie had been living with during the final week of his life, made advocating for justice in his case—and reforming the MPD—a full-time job. A charity meant to support music education in the Wisconsin Public Schools was formed in his name. The coolest bands in town got together in May to do a show called Paulie Fest at which they played covers of his songs and kept the story going.
Paulie has become an icon, a symbol, a tool with which to hammer out political change. People are selling T-shirts silk-screened with his face. And though questions of the Madison police culture’s culpability in his death have been successfully buried in the convoluted bureaucracy of internal reviews, some measure of public resolution has been achieved. In June 2013, the MPD police chief, Noble Wray, filed a formal complaint against Heimsness, recommending his dismissal from the force, not for his actions that night but for what he claimed were the unrelated offenses of “violating department conduct rules.” The complaint details a history of messages Heimsness sent from his squad-car computer to dispatch, including such choice examples as: “sometimes they forget they’re not in Africa anymore,” and “i’m ready to go on a shooting spree up in dispatch.” Two days before he shot Paulie, he wrote “i’m a hater. one of these days i’m going to snap and go up there and start shouting WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU?” In the statement he made announcing the complaint, Wray was careful and explicit about the relationship between his desire to fire Heimsness and Paulie’s death. “Nothing contained within the 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,” he said. Disingenuous, maybe, but worded in such a way as to complicate the wrongful death suits headed the city’s way.
Seeing the end, Heimsness agreed soon after the complaint was filed to resign from the force. A typically unsatisfying American ending.
* * *
I, meanwhile, linger on the events of the night, replaying them over and over in my head.
Since separating from Mae, Paulie had been on his own, trying to figure out how to rebuild his life. He was relying on his support network to get through this difficult period in his life. He’d gone out for dinner and drinks with his new roommates earlier that evening. Later, he popped by the studio and hung out with Mark Witcomb, the guy who owned the place, his old friend and collaborator. They had a beer or two and debated who might want to work with Paulie, where and when their next gigs were, which member of this or that band he should talk to.
It must have felt good for Paulie to be back in Madison. Good to be free of New York and its bullshit pretensions. When he left the studio, he hit the clubs and he scouted some bands and he downed some more drinks and he overdid it, simple as that. He chased the high his future dangled in front of him all the way to the edge where the bottom fell out. And then he was just a skinny guy going through a divorce who’d gotten himself piss drunk again. It was closing time and he needed a ride home.
On Baldwin Street, every house looked the same. The same porch. The same shutters. The same arched roof. And having just moved to the neighborhood, Paulie didn’t yet have the sense memory to navigate all this sameness. He chose the wrong one, but he didn’t know that. He was barely conscious, just a body moving toward the bed where he’d drop fully dressed and lose contact with himself until tomorrow’s sunlight started drilling at his skull.
What happened next is a matter of public record. The 911 call. The neighbor O’Malley’s struggle to walk Paulie home. The big dude lumbering toward them through the shadows. Greasy shoulder-length hair. A beard of some sort. Those tinted glasses that go from dark to light.
I wonder what Paulie thought when he saw him. What O’Malley thought. What I would have thought. I keep asking myself, When did Paulie realize this dude was a cop? When did O’Malley, the neighbor, realize it? What was the informational transaction and who in this moment was paying attention, assessing the signals, making quick, smart decisions?
I know that Paulie could be belligerent—especially when he’d had too much to drink (which was one of the reasons, when I knew him in New York, he often declined to drink at all). But we also know O’Malley shouted when he saw Heimsness’s gun, “He’s a neighbor! He’s a neighbor!” And we know O’Malley never saw Paulie reach for the officer’s weapon. And we know O’Malley claimed they were separated by five or six feet when the officer began to fire, with Paulie’s hands “at his chest, in a defensive position.” One other thing we know is that while making his official statement to the MPD on the incident, Heimsness couldn’t stop himself from betraying the more resentful aspects of his state of mind, saying “I was pissed off at the guy that he made me shoot him.”
When Mae called to tell me the news the next morning, she was blunt and direct. “Paulie’s dead,” she said.
“Paulie’s dead, Josh.” Her voice had a guarded severity to it that crackled like sarcasm and smacked with bitterness, the self-protective front of the sensitive and frail. She often sounded this way. Though I knew she wasn’t joking, or being metaphoric, I didn’t at first comprehend what she was saying.
We talked about details—who to tell and when, whether she had anybody in Portland to help her with the waves of confusion and grief. Paulie’s name hadn’t been released to the public yet because, though Mae knew, she hadn’t been officially informed of his death and she wouldn’t be until later that evening. We didn’t get into the specifics of the crime. They weren’t relevant right then. There’d be more than enough time for outrage later.
I tried to comfort her. I was careful to let her define how much comfort she would accept.
Before she hung up, she choked up for a second and I could sense that she was gathering her strength to say the thing she’d been trying to avoid while we’d talked. When she spoke again, her voice had shifted. It was plaintive now. Her defenses were gone. “Josh,” she said. “We were better. We’d been talking. We were friends again. Everything was going to be okay.” She said it again. “Josh, everything was going to be okay.”
* * *
They say Heimsness cried as he gave his statement about what went down that night. As a child of Wisconsin, I have to wonder if he was crying for Paulie or himself. Was he crying because he was tortured by what he’d done? Or was it that he’d been caught? Were those the tears of a perp terrified of what might be coming next, unable to stop himself from envisioning the way the gears were going to start locking in place and then turning, and then stretching him until he broke? Because boys in Wisconsin don’t prize compassion and Heimsness might have thought he was cool, but he’d never truly been radically odd. He was an unremarkable but exemplary specimen of the other part of Wisconsin culture. The part you try to forget, the part that made you want to flee the state way back when, the part that was waiting there when Paulie returned, watching him, readying itself for the moment when it could unleash its punishment and remind him, finally, irrevocably, that Wisconsin never liked people like him.