Last week, a jury acquitted David Wilson of murdering Midland police Officer Nathan Heidelberg. That Wilson shot and killed Officer Heidelberg was never in doubt. Officer Heidelberg hadn’t fired at Mr. Wilson. In fact, he wasn’t using any force against David Wilson at all. By all accounts, Officer Heidelberg was a good man, doing his duty.
Heidelberg’s death was an absolute tragedy, and an unnecessary one. There’s a lot we can and should learn from it.
The tragedy started about 1 AM on March 5th, 2019, when Midland police were notified of an alarm going off at Mr. Wilson’s home, where he lived with his wife and children. Two officers were dispatched and they called for backup shortly after arriving. Two more officers would arrive on the scene.
Things went wrong pretty fast. In fact, they had already had. During the trial we found out that the notice of the alarm from the monitoring company was a malfunction. Midland police assumed that the company would notify the Wilsons of the false alarm. Records show that never happened. The Wilsons had no idea their alarm had “gone off,” or that, by now, police were at their home.
When officers arrived and parked near the Wilson’s home, they did so without lights or sirens. At no point did they turn their flashing reds and blues on. This was standard procedure.
Lesson learned; cameras can mean the difference between your-word-vs.-theirs and hard evidence. Mr. Wilson had both internal and external low-light capable cameras at his home. Combined with the officers’ body-worn cameras, they provided a large and detailed amount of ultimately exculpatory audio and video evidence of what happened that night.
Video shows the officers first went to the back of the home where they found a gate locked. They then went to the front of the home, where one officer opened an unlocked front door. When the officer opened the door, an “open door” alarm chime audibly sounded in the home.
At that point, it was Mrs. Wilson, who, hearing the door chime, woke her husband and told him she thought someone was in the house. Mr. Wilson got up and retrieved a GLOCK 19 pistol from his closet.
That’s when Officer Heidelberg called out “Midland Police, come to the sound of my voice.” Tragically, he did so only once, and was outside the home when he made the announcement.
Mr. Wilson testified that he never heard the officer’s single command, and the responding officers acknowledged in court that, considering his panicked state and his location in the home, Wilson may have indeed simply never heard the officer. Although one officer testified she heard the command, the announcement wasn’t picked up by another attending officer’s body camera.
At some point, the officers closed the front door and Mrs. Wilson called 911. She told the dispatch officer that someone was yelling and that they had kicked in their door. The officers had already reported that they saw what they believed was the family moving around in one of the bedrooms of the home. And yet, none of this was relayed to Mrs. Wilson. The dispatcher only told her that the police were on their way. She didn’t know that they were already there, milling around the Wilsons’ porch.
Dispatch also failed to inform the officers present that the Wilsons had called 911 and were awaiting their arrival.
With this evidence, I’m sure the jury understood Mr. Wilson’s plight. He could see shadows of men on his front porch, shining flashlights. He knew his door had been opened once, but was now closed. His wife woke him up telling him someone may be in the house. He had no idea the alarm company had notified the police, and he had some reasonable expectation that the police weren’t there yet.
Fearing someone had broken into his home, he went to check the front door. It was at this moment when Officer Heidelberg opened the door a second time, unannounced, and shined his flashlight into Mr. Wilson’s face. Wilson, blinded, fired, striking Officer Heidelberg through the wrist and shoulder, transecting his subclavian artery.
Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Wilson called 911 again, informing dispatch that police had still not arrived and that she believed her husband had just shot one of the intruders. It was only when she called back a third time that she was informed police were already on the scene.
Testimony and video evidence confirmed Mr. Wilson had no idea he had shot a police officer. He was handcuffed and put into a patrol vehicle. He asked why he was being arrested and informed the police he was the homeowner, not the burglar.
It was at that point Mr. Wilson was informed that he had shot a police officer. Mr. Wilson immediately broke down crying and asked if the officer was OK. Officer Heidelberg, 28 years old, would soon die of his wounds.
The trial lasted seven days, and it took the jury only 90 minutes to acquit Mr. Wilson of all charges.
The first thing we can learn from this: don’t believe initial reports from the media, the prosecutor, or law enforcement. The first reports that were widely circulated made it sound like Midland police clearly identified themselves while a trigger-happy Wilson rushed to ambush Officer Heidelberg. The evidence presented at trial painted an entirely different picture.
Next, remember that a halfway decent prosecutor can get a jury to indict someone for just about anything. In this case, the initial charge was more reasonable, second-degree manslaughter. The grand jury increased the charge to murder. Any cursory review of the evidence would make a reasonable person wonder how this was possible.
The key here is to never assume that what you observe is the same thing everyone else observes. And never ever expect that someone will draw the same conclusions from your assumptions.
The officers in this case assumed their single announcement was heard. It wasn’t. They assumed Mr. Wilson knew of their arrival. He did not. Mrs. Wilson assumed police were on their way. They had already arrived.
The police assumed that the Wilsons knew they were there, and were likely simply waiting for one of the them to call or otherwise give them the all-clear for a false alarm. The Wilsons assumed one or multiple assailants had gained entry into their home. None of their assumptions were true.
Another lesson that must constantly be learned and trained for is…don’t scare people. Whether you are law enforcement or not, you should do everything possible to reduce the level of fear in those you encounter, especially in a potentially threatening situation. Frightened people are very difficult to predict and unpredictable people do unpredictable things.
On a purely tactical side, there are a number of lessons as well. For instance, if you are going to announce yourself, keep doing that until you get a response. Confirm, either by voice, by phone, or by signal, that the other party has heard and understands your command. Without that acknowledgement, don’t assume they know you’re there. Something has gone wrong, and you need to reassess the situation.
Evidence presented showed was just over 30 seconds from when the audible door chime sounded to when Mr. Wilson’s shot rang out. That’s not a lot of time. Whenever you can, slow it down. Build in time to think, calm down, and to communicate.
Finally, don’t ever shoot until you’ve identified your target. There are no exceptions to that rule.
Mr. Wilson’s wife testified that her husband owned one pistol and one rifle, and that he had only been target practicing on their property. She mentioned no training, and he didn’t have a concealed handgun license or LTC. It’s hard not to believe that if he had even rudimentary training and had ingrained into his being the most basic of gun safety rules, this tragedy would have been avoided.
In the end, the jury concluded that Mr. Wilson had reason to believe his life and his family’s safety were in immediate danger, and that he acted accordingly. I’m sure Mr. Wilson and his family are glad he isn’t serving a life sentence, but had he taken the time to positively identify his target, I’m betting he’d be sleeping a lot better at night. I know Officer Heidelberg’s family would.