Michael T. Sullivan
In the aftermath of the shooting, protests have been peaceful.
One of the first things Phil Yahnke remembers after gunning down a 39-year-old man was an odd inertia.
Yahnke, a Madison police officer, and officer Shane Pueschner had just killed Gregory Velasquez on March 9, 2004, after the man threatened several small children and adults at the Red Caboose Day Care Center with two meat cleavers.
A fellow officer and friend was attempting to lead him away from the scene, when Yahnke resisted. "I didn't want to go. I said, 'No this is my mess. I shot the guy,'" Yahnke remembers. "I felt some need to stay there and answer questions. I felt this flash of resentment and anger, and I shook her arm off and said, 'No leave me alone, I can deal with this.'"
The fellow officer insisted, and Yahnke relented. In a squad car, he called his wife.
"I was thinking 'How am I going to break this to my wife, my mom?' My mom had always had misgivings about me being a cop," he remembers. "I just sat there and tried to absorb the enormity of what I had just done. Shane and I have committed a homicide, a justifiable homicide, but we had taken a life."
The Red Caboose shooting -- at least in the immediate aftermath -- was much less ambiguous than last Friday's killing of Tony Robinson by officer Matt Kenny. But Yahnke's experience offers insight into what officers deal with after taking a life.
Isthmus recorded an interview with Yahnke two years ago, but his comments resonate today. He confirmed Tuesday he was comfortable sharing his experiences.
After the 2004 shooting, Yahnke was taken to the station, where he was photographed in uniform. His gun was taken from him to be examined and tested. Then he was issued a new one.
"The thinking there is a cop without a gun really isn't a cop," he says. "You're sort of neutered, in disgrace almost."
He was then taken to a room at Inn on the Park to decompress. Although Yahnke was with another officer, he was warned not to talk about the shooting -- anything he said about it would have to be reported.
Waiting in the hotel room was agony for him.
"I wanted to talk. I wanted to get out and get this on the record. That what we'd done was justifiable," he says. "To have done anything less would have been an abdication of our moral and legal responsibility to those kids and the day care staff. We had to deal with the threat."
Yahnke adds: "I wanted to scream that to people. This was a righteous shoot. He gave us no recourse."
Yahnke was indeed exonerated and was back at work a week later.
The support the Madison Police Department provides to officers involved in critical incidents -- which includes shootings, but also injuries, violent confrontations and other trauma -- has changed considerably since the 2004 Red Caboose shooting, says Capt. Kristen Roman, who oversees the department's "aftercare" process.
"Historically, in first-responder professions, there's a culture that inhibits officers and firefighters from seeking help," she says. "The culture has shifted over the years."
Today, every officer on the force has selected a fellow officer to be his or her "critical incident partner." When a critical incident happens, that person is called in to offer support and act as a go-between to other people offering support or requesting information. "Everybody wants to reach out, and it can be a bit overwhelming for that officer," Roman says.
Trauma counselors are immediately made available to officers. Department policy also mandates follow-up sessions with a trauma counselor at intervals for up to five years.
Officers directly involved in a critical incident are mandated to take at least a week and a half off, Roman says. However, in cases where there's an investigation -- like with the Robinson shooting -- officers are often on leave for much longer.
Leave is also available to other officers, she says. Trauma often has a "ripple effect."
"There's an impact that takes place throughout the organization," she says. "Officers involved in past critical incidents can experience a reemergence of stress."
Roman says officers other than Kenny have been given leave for last Friday's shooting, although she did not know how many.
Asked how Kenny himself is doing, Roman says: "All of the officers that responded that night are doing as well as can be expected. They are getting a lot of departmental support and from people in our community."
Years later, Yahnke still vividly remembers details from his own shooting. He admits that even justified killings take a heavy toll on police. Many can't cope, leave the force, some drink heavily, a few kill themselves.
"There are times when I think, 'Why am I still here? Why am I still married with four wonderful kids, why am I not drinking?," he says. "I don't have an answer for that."