August again already. Seein’ red everywhere in unmowed ditches, burning up the sides of steep hills, wheat and corn tops when the light’s right, patches of red quilt-stitched to lawns and flowerbeds. Seein’ Red.
What happened in Kasota on July-22? All the public really knows – based on a media quilt of eyewitness accounts and police statements – is that Todd Waldron, a Le Sueur County Sheriff's investigator and 10-year department veteran, shot 24-year-old Tyler Heilman 4-times. Heilman, whose widely-reported last words were, “I’m done, man. I’m done,” died in the parking lot of his apartment building. Results of the official investigation probably will not be available until September. So all there is, for now, is the discombobulating sensation of seein’ Red.
Seeing red grass and fireweed is one thing. But seein’ Red, the classic metaphor of anger and conflict, communicates in an instant a minefield of complex feelings. Who can say that the Red one person sees is not heard by another, or smelled. In the end, an afternoon of swimming with friends that reportedly involved drinking and driving home and pursuit by a plain clothes Sheriff’s Deputy and a verbal argument that led to a so-called scuffle that escalated to the use of deadly force. I am reminded of Paul Newman’s memorable last words in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
The year Cool Hand Luke hit theaters, 1967, was Neil Haugerud’s last year as Sheriff of Fillmore County. (He was first elected in 1959.) Haugerud went on to serve in the Minnesota House where in 1977 he authored a bill, which passed, requiring all Minnesota law enforcement agencies to report the details of every single on-duty firearm discharge. After leaving the legislature, Haugerud spent time trying, unsuccessfully, to convince those same law enforcement agencies to add extensive communication training to academy programs.
Jailhouse Stories, Haugerud’s 1999 recollection of his years as Sheriff, put him on the thinly-populated small town and rural county literary map. I met Neil some Christmases ago over dinner, drinks and tales. We sat across from each other among half-a-dozen guests, and when Neil began explaining how Neurolinguistics could aid communication between law enforcement officials and citizens, suspects and perpetrators, he looked right at me. “Do you HEAR what I’m saying?” he asked, “Or do you SEE what I mean?”
In a July 27 Star-Tribune op-ed, Neil used the tragic Kasota shooting to once again call for changes in officer training. He specifically recommended that all police, “have extensive training in communications that would include neurolinguistics and other up-to-date methods of interactions before they ever pick up a gun.”
Reaction to Haugerud’s commentary by some in law enforcement has been swift. In a Strib Counterpoint, retired State Patrol officer Steve Mengelkoch called Haugerud’s piece Amazing. “I can think of no other printable word to describe Neil Haugerud's recent commentary.”
Most disconcerting to Mengelkoch – and others – is Haugerud’s assertion that firearms training trains officers to shoot rather than to communicate. A representative to the Board of Training Academy Directors, Mengelkoch does not dispute that officers are trained to shoot, but points out that, “Use of force is a required part of initial and ongoing training. That training has saved the lives of many officers in Minnesota.”
Last Sunday, in a Letter to the (Strib) Editor, Edina Police Chief Mike Siitari took aim at Haugerud’s recommendation that the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (POST) be eliminated, and that communication training come before firearms training. “The author's suggestion that neurolinguistics would solve our problems,” stated Chief Siitari, “sounds like something Barney Fife would suggest. Unfortunately, we no longer live in Mayberry RFD.”
Wait a minute? Who you calling Barney Fife, Chief? Us bumpkins hearin’ Mayberry? Why, them wrastlin’ words! And, I’m a’smellin Red!
Minnesota writer Tom Driscoll reports on politics, economic development and life in rural America at The Small of America.