It’s been a long week and Thursday night finally rolls around. Going out to the bars and slugging down some Glenlivet on the rocks (if you’re like me and awesome) is just about a necessity. What you don’t expect is walking back home and finding a stranger there. This crazy situation turned into a nightmare after the cops saw Paul Heenan fighting with the homeowner of the house he mistook for his own. Paul Heenan—an intoxicated new neighbor—was fatally shot by Officer Stephen Heimsness after he reported to the scene.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Paul Heenan shouldn’t have walked into the wrong house. He shouldn’t have started fighting the homeowner. He shouldn’t have approached the officer who told him to “get down.” He shouldn’t have been so intoxicated to make these mistakes. However, none of these mistakes diminishes the tragedy of this situation. Heenan’s mistakes, both individually and in toto, hardly justify his death.
Before I talk about what can be gleaned from this particular incident, I want to state that I am no cop-hater. In general, I think the police should be respected more than they are. Whenever I see videos of some ticked-off officer beating the tar out of someone online—usually titled something along the lines of “unarmed man brutally stomped by da cops!!1!” (sic)—I always reserve my judgement until the situation is fleshed out. The police have an extremely difficult job. When dealing with police, people’s natural courtesies fly out the window. The truth is, police have a lot of power. It makes sense that some social rules don’t carry over to interacting with them (not saying you should be a dick to cops). However, they get this power from society and we owe our officers a little more trust, because they do a hard, necessary job for all of us.
Generally, cops could use some slack, but when it comes to fatal shootings they deserve none at all. Officer Heimsness saw two adult males fighting and when Paul Heenan stood up, approached him and allegedly reached for Heimsness’ weapon, Heimsness killed Heenan. Had the officer grabbed his taser, his pepper spray, his baton or had simply pushed the intoxicated Heenan, this community would not be missing a neighbor and Heenan’s family would not be missing a son.
Officers receive extensive training, but no matter how thorough their training is they will always make mistakes. When an officer makes a mistake with his fist or boot, there might be a bruise, a broken bone, some incriminating video and—eventually—an out-of-court settlement. When an officer makes a mistake with his firearm, someone dies.
I have one recommendation for our police force, so that we might see zero, or at least fewer, deaths at the hands of police. This recommendation could be implemented in about a week, costs the taxpayers extremely little and could save lives.
With one exception, police officers should have a rat-shot or rock salt round at the top of their magazine. This means that the first shot out of a police officer’s gun would most likely not kill. These rounds would still be an extremely strong deterrent and they would leave officers with a lethal round up next if the criminal was still considered dangerous. The only case when an officer can unload this round is when he or she responds to a call where an armed individual has already been reported.
The downsides to this approach are that the first round, especially if it’s rat-shot, would be ineffective beyond a short range. Secondly, if the criminal had a firearm and an extremely high pain tolerance, the officer would be more likely to survive the scenario with a normal round loaded first.
I think these potential downsides are small and that this small cost-effective step could help stop tragedies like Paul Heenan’s death.
David is an opinion editor and a senior majoring in English with a computer science certificate. Please send all feedback/job offers to firstname.lastname@example.org.