Paul Heenan And Our Drinking Culture


There is no way to dodge a most real, and troubling part of a story that unfolded in the Madison neighborhood where I live.

In November a Madison police officer shot Paul Heenan three times, killing the young man.  The officer, Stephen Heimsness, arrived on the scene for what was first thought to be a burglary.  When the full story was told Heenan mistakenly entered a wrong home, struggled with a homeowner, and then was shot on the front lawn by the police.

I can in no way justify the three shots which were fired, or the lack of finding some other avenue by Heimsness to calm the situation.  This is a tragedy of major proportions, and all the more harsh given where it occurred.

This morning the newspaper reported that Heenan had a blood-alcohol level of 0.208 perecnt, which is more than twice the state’s legal limit for drivers.  Even though Heenan was walking and not driving, it still makes for a very intoxicated situation, one that severely impaired his judgement.

Cleary that was the case when Heenan, who was new to the neighborhood, mistakenly entered someone elses home.  He found his life coming to an end on November 9th at 2:50 A.M. when he was shot multiple times in the upper torso by a policeman.

While the Dane County District Attorney said no charges will be filed against the officer I suggest we all might want to ponder a charge against society that creates, nurtures, and condones a drinking culture that produces a great deal of sadness.

Shortly after the shooting a group from this neighborhood gathered for reflection concerning the event.  I was not there, so can not comment on the topics discussed but I would bet there was not a lot of dialogue about one of the reasons that this whole sad story started.

There are at least two dozen drinking establishments with an alcohol license in this neighborhood.  Too often drinking is considered a ‘past time’ in the same way that others might go to a movie or take a long walk.  Everywhere we turn in our society there are ads for beer or other intoxicants, and there is hardly a gathering where an alcoholic beverage is not offered.   It is not uncommon to hear of people saying they have a hangover several times a week.

I have no idea why Heenan was drinking to the point he was twice the legal limit.  But the sad fact is alcohol played a major role in his death.  By all accounts he was a bright, creative man with a great deal of potential.  The night we was killed alcohol severely impaired his judgment.

No one can miss the senseless nature of what led up to the horrible ending.   While the police pulled the trigger, someone poured more drinks than Heenan should have consumed.

Make no mistake, he made choices the night he died.

But now I would ask that we make the choice in his memory, and for countless others who get caught up in a story of this type, to ponder the role alcohol plays in our lives and our society.

I in no way am advocating for prohibition.

I am, however, suggesting we start to have common-sense conversations about the amount of alcohol that is consumed, and the impact it has on our country.   I can assure my readers who do not live here that the loss of this young man has jarred the community.  But will it jar us to the point where we ask deeper and more meaningful questions?  Can the tragedy of Paul Heenan be a vehicle by which we can look at how alcohol too often plays a needlessly harmful role in our society?

The cost of pretending there is no problem seems too high a price to pay.

2 thoughts on “Paul Heenan And Our Drinking Culture

  1. Another tragedy… for both the young man who died…and for the police officer. I don’t know the details but I feel very sorry for everyone involved.

    I don’t understand why you wrote, ” I can in no way justify the three shots which were fired, or the lack of finding some other avenue by Heimsness to calm the situation.” It’s not your place to justify, or to second guess the actions of the police officer. We weren’t there – we don’t know what transpired. I do appreciate the fact that you didn’t go into your usual “Gun control thing.”

    I find it very positive, that you are willing to go to the heart of the matter, which is alcohol abuse. I don’t know the exact numbers – and find throwing numbers around very non productive anyway as most of the time they are “apples and oranges”, but a large percentage of deaths in America can be traced directly to the misuse of alcohol – be it domestic violence, car accidents, or whatever. If all the efforts by the federal government to very unsuccessfully deal with marijuana was instead steered towards dealing with the alcohol problem, I think that many lives could be saved. I’m very glad that you are willing to ask the questions that may start a dialog that will make changes. Thank you !

  2. This officer has had other events on the job that do allow for the public to wonder what happened. In addition, as long as we pay the salaries of those who serve us, we as taxpayers do get to ask what happened, and second-guess. That this all played out in the neighborhood with others seeing what happened makes this a larger story for Madison.

    I also find it hard to understand why the police will not release the dashboard camera info that Channel 3 and other news outlets have asked for.

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