Know Your Madisonian: Veteran police officer revisits artistic roots
David Dexheimer took an unusual path to becoming a Madison police officer.
Dexheimer, who grew up in Appleton, attended college at the Kansas City Art Institute as a painting major. In Kansas City he began working for a large-events florist, and then spent many years as a floral designer, including at a flower shop that used to be on Monroe Street in Madison.
But then Dexheimer turned to policing, a career he calls “more satisfying than I could have imagined.” He’s worked as a patrol officer, on the North and South Side community policing teams, and as a neighborhood intervention officer in the Vera Court neighborhood and the North District.
Monday marks the 22nd anniversary of his first day of solo patrol – and also his last day in uniform.
His past and present met when Dexheimer turned again to painting a few years ago. His work was selected as part of the show “Redefining Narratives” in the Overture Center galleries last spring.
Dexheimer, who turns 60 in May, lives in Monona with his wife, Mary Brackey. His daughter Margaret, whose own creative ventures into painting inspired him to return to art, is in college studying dance.
Dexheimer’s first oil painting in many years was based on a photo he spotted in the newspaper. Later he would channel his talents into painting real-life street scenes in Madison following the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, who was black, by a white police officer four years ago this month.
How did you return to painting?
A (news) photographer had snapped a picture of an uprising in Turkey. … The populace had taken over this tank that had come down the street. It reminded me of “The Raft of the Medusa,” some of those Delacroix, Géricault paintings that were very, very dramatic. And I thought, “I’m going to paint that, because it’s got the same structure that you see in those old paintings.” It was good to get the brushes going again, to get your brain thinking in that painterly mode again.
We had just gone through Ferguson (the 2014 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri) and a number of events that had resulted in upheaval and people in the streets. So I started looking for images like that. … I was looking at all these photos that were published and finding things that had that drama — these colors, tear gas in the air, these night lights. … It was that sort of surreal street event.
Then I got to the point that this was beyond copying photos, because we’re living in a time when these things have hit home. … It became cathartic.
That’s when I thought, “I need to revisit ... Tony Robinson. I need to dig into that and look at those images and revisit that.” This was probably two years after the shooting.
(Robinson’s death) was four years ago, but it feels like yesterday. And we’re not over it in Madison. We’re not over it at all. … The veneer of trust is very, very thin, and can be broken very, very easily.
Tell us about one of the paintings.
(One showing officers behind a yellow police line) speaks to me because it talks about the split between the police, who have that job to do, and aren’t even allowed to express what they’re feeling inside. (The Robinson shooting) deeply affected anybody who was associated with our police department, whether they would talk about it or not, and it still affects those people. I knew, and still know, a lot of people who were on the other side of the police tape and it was quite difficult to hear that outpouring of grief and ill will towards the police. It was like, “I know you guys.” ...
Protesters need to know they made a difference. Policing has improved. Our tactics are changed, because people did take to the streets and they spoke out and said this is wrong, what are you going to do about it?
How did you become a police officer?
My brother Jim also was. He always encouraged me. I thought, “I’m a florist — why would I be good at that?” He emphasized the people skills. Retail is actually good training for people skills. I came to (policing) later — I was 37, so had a little maturity.
What was a career highlight?
(Following the homicide of 20-year-old Jonathan Wilson in 2011) my focus was just on Vera Court. It was a transformative experience. It was one of those things that I don’t know a lot of officers get to experience. The epitome of good policing is when you’re not somebody from the outside coming in, but you’re part of the thread of the fabric of the neighborhood. And that’s what it felt like. “I belong here. This is where I can do my work and get things done.”
After retirement, what’s the next chapter?
It would be great to paint again, although I’m reluctant to create more artifacts — we’re clearing out our house and downsizing. I’m sure I’ll be doing some volunteer work. Vera Court Neighborhood Center is somebody I’ve worked closely with, and this summer we’re going to have the Vera Court Rocket Club, one more time.