The suspect whom police officer Stephen Mader confronted was visibly distraught, and his hands were behind his back.
Following orders from Mader, the man showed his hands, revealing a handgun. The officer ordered him to drop the weapon.
“I can’t do that,” the man said, according to court documents. “Just shoot me.”
“Just shoot me,” he said a few more times.
Mader, who is white, didn’t, thinking deadly force was not necessary. He believed that the man, Ronald J. Williams, who is black, was a threat to himself but not to others.
Another officer shot and killed Williams, but Mader’s decision to not shoot would cost him his job as a police officer for the city of Weirton, W.Va., according to allegations in a federal lawsuit he filed last week against his former employer.
The complaint described Mader’s 2016 encounter with Williams and alleged that city officials wrongfully fired Mader. Williams wanted to commit “suicide by cop,” the complaint said — and the handgun he was carrying was not loaded.
Timothy O’Brien, Mader’s attorney, said what happened to his client is uncommon.
“It’s more ironic that we had many instances where an officer uses deadly force and nothing happens to them,” O’Brien told The Washington Post. “Here, we have an officer who uses restraint and he gets punished. Odd would be an understatement.”
Weirton Police Chief Rob Alexander did not return a call from The Post seeking comment, but officials have told local media that Mader was fired for other reasons in addition to his encounter with Williams. Cy Hill, a private attorney for the city, said he cannot comment.
Williams’s death and Mader’s subsequent firing come at a time when some police departments’ use of deadly force, particularly in interactions with black suspects, has come under fire.
The incident occurred May 6, 2016, when police received a call from Williams’s girlfriend, who said he’d threatened to kill himself with a knife. After finding out that an officer was on the way, Williams got his unloaded handgun from his car, saying he will get the officer to shoot him, according to the complaint.
The woman called 911 again and told the dispatcher that Williams had a gun but that it was not loaded. But Mader did not know that when he arrived at the scene because that information was not radioed over to him or to the two other officers who arrived later, O’Brien said.
Mader tried to persuade Williams to drop the gun, believing he was “not aggressive or violent,” the complaint said. But Williams, his hands to his side, pleaded with Mader over and over to just shoot him.
The two other officers arrived. At that point, Williams waved the unloaded gun, and one of the two officers fatally shot him.
All three officers were placed on administrative leave as part of standard procedure. Mader returned to work a few days later, but he was again placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the incident.
He was fired June 7, 2016, for “failing to meet probationary standards of an officer” and “apparent difficulties in critical incident reasoning,” the complaint said. Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis later announced in a news conference that the shooting was justified.
In September, Mader spoke about the circumstances of his termination, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Alexander, the police chief, had told him that he placed the two other officers in danger and that he was fired because of that.
City officials held a news conference shortly after and said the Williams shooting was not the only reason they fired Mader. Alexander told reporters that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story was inaccurate and relied on a one-sided story from a “disgruntled employee.”
A news release from the city describes two other incidents that officials say led to Mader’s termination. One involved mishandling a death investigation by failing to determine that it was a homicide. The other involved searching a man’s vehicle without probable cause or a search warrant and cursing at the man’s wife. In the Williams shooting, officials said, Mader “froze” and did not communicate with the other officers involved.
“We had done different avenues in terms of retraining, placing him with a different training officer,” City Manager Travis Blosser told reporters. “None of those seemed to work.”
O’Brien, however, said neither of the two other incidents resulted in disciplinary action against Mader. In the one about the mishandled death investigation, other officers more senior than Mader were at the crime scene, he said. O’Brien added that he’d talked to the woman who was cursed at and that she said she complained about the conduct of another officer, not Mader.
O’Brien argued that officials fired Mader “to give themselves cover for the use of force on the part of the other officer” and that they painted him as a bad cop in retaliation for speaking publicly about the termination.
“It’s very difficult to discern someone’s motivation,” he said. “All that we can do is look at the facts and draw the reasonable inferences.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also reported that a four-page investigative report that Mader received with his notice of termination included two pages detailing his failure to shoot Williams and only briefly mentioned the other incidents.
“It’s very evident, very clearly established that the reason and determinative factor that resulted in Mr. Mader losing his job was that he chose to not use deadly force when he did not believe that the force was necessary under the circumstances,” O’Brien said.
Mader’s firing became a controversy in Weirton, a city of more than 19,000 people just west of the Pennsylvania border, and drew criticism toward police and city officials.
“What’s disappointing is the phone call and the hateful messages and the emails that we have received today are just dumbfounding to me,” Alexander said, according to NBC affiliate KTOV. “All based on a one-sided statement. That’s changed my outlook on a lot of things. That’s devastating.”
Mader’s firing surprised civil rights advocates.
Joseph Cohen, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in West Virginia, said Mader did not just see a black man with a gun when he confronted Williams.
“He was able to look at the full situation, the body language, words that used, and determined that Mr. Williams was not a threat to other people,” Cohen said. “We were flabbergasted. Here was a police officer who did everything that we want police officers to do.”
Cohen said the Constitution prohibits police officers from using deadly force unless there’s a probable threat.
“The fact that he would be fired for that, for honoring Mr. Williams’s constitutional right to not be shot, blew us away,” the ACLU official said.
According to The Post’s database of officer-involved shootings, police have fatally shot 354 people this year. Of those, 147 were white and 90 were black. Last year, police fatally shot 963 people. More than 400 of them were white, and more than 200 were black.
Recent shootings, including the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., intensified tensions between law enforcement and the black community. It also raised questions on when police officers should use deadly force.
Jack Dolance, an attorney for the Williams family, said the family believes Mader did the right thing.
“He took his time and looked at RJ as a person and not a dangerous subject,” Dolance told CNN.
O’Brien also pointed to Mader’s previous experience in the military, having completed a tour in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. Marine Corps.
“Mr. Mader was trained to assess the threat level posed by individuals he encountered, including taking into account an individual’s demeanor, physical appearance, and actions,” the complaint said.
Mader was hired as a probationary officer for the Weirton Police Department in June 2015 and completed training at the West Virginia State Police Academy later that year.