BARRY ADAMS and DOUG
Wisconsin State Journal
April 16, 2006
No matter how hard Wayne Strong tries to mentally distance himself from
shooting and killing a bank robbery suspect three years ago, his daily
commute brings it back.
The veteran Madison police lieutenant works just half a block from the
Mobil Mart on South Park Street where he and three other officers shot
Julio Cesar Contreras, 39, in July 2003.
Contreras had fired a gun at the officers after a failed bank robbery
attempt across the street. It was later ruled that Contreras wanted
police to kill him, a circumstance called suicide by cop.
"I can picture where he was standing," said Strong, 46.
After the shooting, Strong received counseling and talked about the
incident with other officers, his pastor and his family. He decided the
shooting would not drive him from the profession - as sometimes happens
in the wake of police shootings.
All still on job
Of the 10 Madison police officers involved in five fatal shootings since
1997, all remain employed by the department.
The figure includes the officer involved in Wednesday's fatal shooting
of Victor Montero-Diaz, 45, at a BP gas station on Williamson Street.
Montero-Diaz, who had a long criminal history, locked himself in the
bathroom and called 911, saying he thought people were trying to kidnap
him. When officers Kip Kellogg and Kirby Harless arrived, Montero- Diaz
attacked them with a knife and was shot by Kellogg, 47. A bystander was
also wounded in the shooting.
Strong said he has no second thoughts about the decision he made to
shoot Contreras. "You're just feeling bad that you had to take a life.
There was no question we had to stop that person, but we still struggle
For some, the trauma of taking another person's life can be too much.
Former Madison police officer Paul Smith left the force two years after
shooting and killing a man for the second time in two years. In 1992,
Smith shot and killed a mentally troubled, knife-wielding rapist. In
1994, he shot a man who tried to choke him and was about to hit him in
the head with a large rock, a case that led to considerable community
questioning of his actions.
Both incidents were ruled justifiable uses of deadly force. But Smith
was not yet 30 when he was granted a disability retirement.
Attempts to reach Smith for this story were unsuccessful. He told the
State Journal in 1995 that the emotional turmoil and criticism that grew
out of the 1994 shooting broke his spirit.
A stress debriefing
Many officers suffer psychological repercussions following a fatal
shooting, although with proper counseling, most can return to full duty
without lingering dysfunction, said Michael Scott, a clinical assistant
professor at the UW-Madison Law School and co-author of the study
"Deadly Force: What We Know" in 1992.
The Madison Police Department is considered exemplary in its support of
officers because it offers ongoing counseling and requires officers
involved in a shooting go through a stress debriefing the day of an
incident, said Scott, a Madison police officer from 1981-84.
For officers involved in a shooting, the incident itself is just the
beginning of a tough period that includes an internal investigation and,
often, second-guessing by the community, Scott said. Given the power
accorded police, this critiquing is appropriate and healthy but should
occur with understanding for the officers involved, he said.
"Police officers see themselves as lifesavers, not killers," he said.
"When they're criticized and accused of wantonly taking a human life, it
conflicts so dramatically with what's going on in their own head about
what they've done that they find it very confusing and hurtful."
Just a fraction of 1 percent of all police officers ever fire their
weapons during a typical 20- year career, said Tom Aveni, a
researcher and police trainer with the Police Policy Studies Council
in Spofford, N.H. "It's extremely rare and getting more rare in that
police have more options than they ever did before," he said, mentioning
non-lethal stun guns as one such option.
Madison officer Phil Yahnke, 51, thinks it might be time to start a
local support group for officers involved in shootings, including those
who didn't fire their weapons but were at the scene and may have been
"Some of my colleagues are having problems in the aftermath of their
shootings," he said. "I've had less because I've been able to express
myself. It's therapeutic."
Empathy to outrage
Yahnke is one of four officers from the 18-member 1988 Madison Police
Academy involved in a fatal shooting. He was one of two officers to
shoot and kill Gregory Velasquez, 39, who was armed with two meat
cleavers at the Red Caboose Day Care Center on Williamson Street in
For family and friends of those killed, the shooting deaths can trigger
everything from empathy to outrage.
Jon Hinds, Velasquez's close friend, said he has tremendous respect for
police but remains convinced that officers did not need to kill his
"They have rubber bullets, they have nets they can use on people, they
could have shot him in the legs (instead of in the chest). That's three
things right there," Hinds said. "They chose the one that would end this
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard ruled the shooting of
Velasquez was justified.
After the Mobil Mart shooting, members of Contreras' family worked with
police and the district attorney to sort through why he had sought to
end his life through his suicidal actions, concluding he was deeply
depressed. The family members released a statement at the time that did
not criticize police. A member of Contreras' family contacted for this
story declined comment.