A police officer in West Virginia has been fired by his department for refusing to shoot a man holding a handgun during a domestic violence call in May. The man was shot and killed by another officer moments later.
After responding to a report of a domestic incident on May 6 in Weirton, W.Va., then-Weirton police officer Stephen Mader found himself confronting an armed man.
Immediately, the training he had undergone as a Marine to look at “the whole person” in deciding if someone was a terrorist, as well as his situational police academy training, kicked in and he did not shoot.
“I saw then he had a gun, but it was not pointed at me,” Mr. Mader recalled, noting the silver handgun was in the man’s right hand, hanging at his side and pointed at the ground.
The man was Ronald D. “R.J.” Williams Jr., 23, of Pittsburgh, and what happened in the seconds after Mr. Mader’s initial decision is still being investigated by Mr. Williams’ family as well as the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. Mader, who was standing behind Mr. Williams’ car parked on the street, said he then “began to use my calm voice.”
“I told him, ‘Put down the gun,’ and he’s like, ‘Just shoot me.’ And I told him, ‘I’m not going to shoot you brother.’ Then he starts flicking his wrist to get me to react to it.
“I thought I was going to be able to talk to him and deescalate it. I knew it was a suicide-by-cop” situation.
But just then, two other Weirton officers arrived on the scene, Mr. Williams walked toward them waving his gun — later found to be unloaded — between them and Mr. Mader, and one of them shot Mr. Williams’ in the back of the head just behind his right ear, killing him.
We ask law enforcement agencies to competently train their officers in such a manner that they can enforce the laws, protect society, and protect themselves while doing so. A large part of that relies on officers making good judgement calls based upon the totality of their training.
When then-officer Mader responded to this domestic violence call, R.J. Williams had a gun in his hand, but it was pointed down at the ground. He was not threatening anyone with the weapon, and Mader did what I’ve been taught by my LEO trainers to do: he not only looked at the gun in Williams’s hand, but what he was (and wasn’t) doing with the handgun and Williams’s overall demeanor.
Mader read Williams’s body language, listened to his tone of voice, and noted that he wasn’t attempting to use the firearm in his hand to threaten anyone. His judgement was that Williams was not attempting to harm anyone, but was distraught, and was possibly attempting “suicide by cop” when he begged Mader to shoot him.
But then things changed
The situation changed when other two officers arrived. After they arrived, Williams changed his behavior. He advanced upon the officers, allegedly “waving” his gun. One of the other officers then shot and killed Williams with a shot to the head.
The gun was later found to be unloaded, but there is no way any of the officers could have known that at the time.
Based upon my reading of the circumstances, Mader’s response in the beginning of the incident showed a great awareness of the facts then known and a solid reading of the suspect’s behavior, which is something we hope to find in everyone who takes on the difficult job of law enforcement.
If Mader was fired for not shooting Williams at this point during the call, then I’d argue that City Manager Travis Blosser and Weirton Police Chief Rob Alexander need to be fired. but that’s not what happened here.
Mader was fired because he refused to shoot at Williams when Williams more aggressively attempted to complete his goal of “suicide by cop,” and walked towards officers while “waving” his handgun.
I called for an Ohio officer to be fired last year in a similar circumstance, when his desire not to fire on a suspect erred too far on giving the suspect too much leeway to act in a dangerously aggressive manner, putting numerous officers at risk. I said at the time about New Richmond (OH) officer Jesse Kidder:
We don’t know what would have happened if those other officers hadn’t arrived. Perhaps [the double-murder suspect] Wilcox would have surrendered to Kidder, but after chasing him for what appears to be at least 50 yards down the road, I rather doubt it. If Wilcox had been afforded a few more seconds, it is quickly likely that we’d instead be reading about a young officer who was killed with his own weapon when he refused to follow his training.
I’m not bashing Jesse Kidder as a person, as he showed incredible restraint that will be a great asset in many endeavors, but he simply is not cut out to be a police officer.
When you put on the shield, you make a commitment to the public and to your fellow officers to do what is in the best interests of public safety. Sometimes that includes firing a weapon at a threat as you are trained to do, as the situation dictates.
Wilcox’s series of charges clearly required Kidder to follow his training and shoot the double murder suspect as he closed the distance down to mere feet.
How can any New Richmond police officer now trust Kidder in any future scenarios? Could you trust him if he was your backup to take the appropriate action in future high-risk stops? For that matter, doesn’t his reluctance to follow his training make all future interactions with him a “high risk” event for fellow officers?
Officer Jesse Kidder was clearly willing to put his life on the line to avoid shooting a suspected double murderer.
What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that he put countless other lives at risk as well.
There comes a point in situations of potential violence that an officer has to make a decision to deploy violence in order to give himself, other officers, and the public they are sworn to protect the greatest chance of survival.
Officer Mader acted with great restraint and compassion during his encounter with Mr. Williams, but when Mr. Williams advanced upon the officers and began “waving” his weapon, the essential calculus of the situation changed.
To this day, Mr. Mader doesn’t seem to grasp that fact, and it is likely that is the reason he was terminated.
I applaud Stephen Mader for not wanting to fire on R.J. Williams prematurely and without good cause, but when Williams advanced upon officers and took a more aggressive tone, it was time to use lethal force.
Mader does not seem to get that, and it’s no wonder that other officers don’t trust his judgement.