Why does Madison keep shooting its citizens and clearing its officers?
The Madison Police Department has recently faced three high-profile lawsuits over controversial shooting deaths. In July, a jury awarded the family of Ashley DiPiazza $7 million—$4 million compensatory, $3 million punitive. That followed a $2.3 million settlement over the 2012 death of Paul Heenan and $3.35 million for the family of Tony Robinson, whom an MPD officer killed in 2015.
The resolutions in all three of these cases contrasted sharply with internal and external investigations that cleared the officers involved and deemed their use of deadly force reasonable. All three payouts also caused an uproar among police advocates and police unions, who argued that they set a dangerous precedent for potential backlash against Wisconsin officers who deal with high-pressure situations and have to make life-and-death decisions quickly.
In DiPiazza’s civil case, a jury of six women and two men found enough reason to believe that officers Justin Bailey and Gary Pihlaja acted with unreasonable force when responding to DiPiazza in May 2014. During a suicidal episode after a breakup, DiPiazza was armed, but she pointed the gun only at herself. Officers shot her 11 times after they attempted to negotiate and DiPiazza ignored several demands to drop her weapon. (As of now, Bailey is no longer with the department.)
In his testimony in the civil trial, Pihlaja claimed he was only making decisions based on his training, shooting DiPiazza because a suicidal person can turn homicidal and aim their gun at an officer long before an officer can respond. However, the burden of proof in a civil case is lower than in a criminal case, and the DiPiazza families attorneys managed to convince a jury that the officers’ stories didn’t match up with where the blood and bullets were found. Essentially, they insinuated that DiPiazza didn’t charge towards the officers and therefore did not pose a homicidal threat in the middle of her episode.
Unlike the officers who shot Heenan and Robinson, Bailey and Pihlaja will personally face some accountability through the civil courts. They are facing $3 million in punitive damages ($1.5 million per officer), punishing them for their actions and potentially setting a new precedent for officer-involved shootings. While the DiPiazza family found justice in the form of this jury award, the circumstances of the case are sure to cause several points of contention in the greater Madison community dialogue around police reform.
Tony Robinson—a biracial Black man, age 19 at the time of his death—was posthumously victimized by a media narrative that portrayed him as a reckless teenager: high out of his mind, playing chicken with cars in the street, and fighting Officer Matt Kenny before Kenny shot him. (In this characterization, many neglected to remember that Robinson’s friends called the police to help him amid this episode.) Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne decided not to press charges against Kenny, and MPD’s internal review cleared the officer as well. The Robinson case was the second fatal shooting in Kenny’s career. The first one occurred in July 2007, when Ronald Brandon, a white man, called MPD on himself while intoxicated with a pellet gun on his porch. Brandon’s ex-wife called in as well to inform the dispatcher that the gun wasn’t real, claiming Brandon just wanted to be “taken away.” That information was never passed on to the officers. Kenny shot and killed Ronald Brandon on the scene, the death was ruled a suicide by cop, and Kenny received a medal of valor for his actions that evening. When the city moved to settle in the Robinson case, Kenny’s supporters noted his disappointment in never getting to defend himself and clear his name after months of being called a racist murderer.
Paul Heenan—a white man, age 30 at the time of his death—was killed by officer Stephen Heimsness in November 2012 after a neighbor reported a possible burglary on the East Side. Heenan, intoxicated, stumbled into the wrong home, using a key the neighbor kept in the door. According to Heimsness, an unarmed Heenan was found struggling with a neighbor, then took Heimsness’ hand and reached for his weapon, giving Heimsness cause to shoot Heenan after Heenan ignored several commands to disengage. In the aftermath of the shooting, Heenan’s divorce and major struggles with drug and alcohol abuse became focal points of his characterization in the media; he was found with a 0.208% blood alcohol level at the time of the shooting. Ozanne cleared Heimsness of criminal wrongdoing as well, but then-MPD Chief Noble Wray moved to get Heimsness fired after investigating a long history of complaints filed against Heimsness since he joined MPD in 1997. MPD released records back in March 2013, citing 12 complaints against Heimsness, six of which involved excessive force. He remained a city employee on paid sick leave through the investigation and eventually retired in October 2013 on state disability, citing PTSD in the aftermath of Heenan’s death. Critics claimed Heimsness never truly answered for any wrongdoing in his 15 years in the department. Had someone in MPD investigated and dealt with Heimsness long before 2012, perhaps Heenan wouldn’t have died that night on South Baldwin Street.
Robinson, Heenan and DiPiazza—two of them unarmed, one threatening only self-harm, and all caught in struggles with mental health and/or intoxicants—were all shot down when officers were called to intervene, in circumstances that shouldn’t have resulted in their deaths. Every officer was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by internal MPD investigations and external investigations on the state level. Only DiPiazza’s civil case resulted in punitive damages where MPD’s officers were actually found guilty on some level, as the city of Madison elected not to settle out of court this time around. It’s foolish not to recall the racism behind Robinson’s characterization as a troubled young man as if that justified his death, or the problematic recovering-drunk narrative of Heenan’s life used to justify his. The woman-majority jury in DiPiazza’s case may have played a major advantage in characterizing her death as a white woman struggling with her own mental health, unlike Robinson’s similar encounter, which rendered him nearly guilty by default.
It’s a bittersweet proposition: The highest payout from an officer-involved shooting went to the family of a white woman, and this decision may lay the groundwork for several more like it. More accountability is necessary, and it shouldn’t require anyone else losing their lives.
When officers aren’t found guilty in criminal court, the awards from these civil suits are set to cost the city millions more in damages. (The majority of of those costs are paid out by the city’s insurance company, with the rest coming from taxpayers.) These civil resolutions appear to be the only sliver of justice available to families who lose their loved ones to a police officer’s snap judgment. Under these circumstances, how can we ensure that taxpayers won’t be forced to keep bailing out the police?
Furthermore, what does it say when the folks in charge of training and representing our officers seem hell-bent on remaining stuck in their ways and trusting the same procedures that have caused these needless deaths? At what point do fatal mistakes become fatalities the system is designed to cause?
If MPD and the city of Madison want to restore trust with the community, let the DiPiazza verdict be the final call to truly move in the interest of preserving lives rather than insuring deaths. No more grandstanding masked as protecting the interests of officers, no more broken promises of transparency and self-improvement, no more slandering the dead, no more institutional oversights for officers harming those they serve until death becomes an inevitability.
Editors’ note: This article initially used language that conflated out-of-court settlements (as in the Robinson and Heenan cases) with damages awarded by a jury (as in the DiPiazza case). The wording has been corrected to reflect this distinction.