On this much, at least, everyone agreed: A brief standoff on May 6, 2016 — which left one police officer without a job and another man dead — unfolded with mere seconds to make the most crucial decisions.
That night, Stephen Mader, then an officer with the Weirton Police Department in West Virginia, responded to a domestic-dispute call. Once at the scene, he encountered a “visibly distraught” man named Ronald J. Williams, court documents said.
As Mader ordered the man to show his hands, Williams did, revealing a handgun. Mader ordered him to drop the weapon.
“I can’t do that,” Williams responded, according to court documents. “Just shoot me.”
Even as Mader attempted to de-escalate the situation, Williams pleaded repeatedly: “Just shoot me.”
Mader, who is white, didn’t shoot, thinking deadly force wasn’t necessary. In those tense moments, he reasoned that Williams, who was black, was a threat to himself but not to others.
But as Mader was attempting to talk Williams down, two more Weirton police officers arrived on the scene. As they did, Williams raised his gun — and was shot and killed by another officer.
A month after the incident, Mader would be fired from the department for “failing to meet probationary standards of an officer” and “apparent difficulties in critical incident reasoning.” He would also be publicly accused of having frozen and privately called a “coward” by a colleague, court documents revealed.
In the months of public scrutiny that would ensue, Weirton officials maintained that Mader was fired for other reasons in addition to his encounter with Williams.
Mader, now 27, fought back. In a federal lawsuit filed against his former employer last May, Mader said Williams wanted to commit “suicide by cop” — and the handgun he was carrying was not loaded.
He claimed his decision not to shoot Williams cost him his job as a police officer in Weirton, a city near the Pennsylvania border, about 35 miles west of Pittsburgh.
After months of legal proceedings, Mader and the city of Weirton reached a settlement for $175,000 to dismiss the lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia announced Monday.
“At the end of the day, I’m happy to put this chapter of my life to bed,” Mader said in a statement. “The events leading to my termination were unjustified and I’m pleased a joint resolution has been met. My hope is that no other person on either end of a police call has to go through this again.”
Travis Blosser, Weirton’s city manager, said the city is “pleased to see that the matter is over with.” He said the settlement was reached with the city’s insurance carrier.
The settlement ended a lengthy legal battle that had prompted numerous debates about what constituted appropriate use of force — or, in this case, the lack of it on Mader’s part. Williams’s death and Mader’s subsequent firing occurred when some police departments’ use of deadly force, particularly in interactions with black suspects, was coming under criticism.
The incident was prompted by a call from Williams’s girlfriend, who said Williams was threatening 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 would 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 it was not loaded. But Mader did not know that when he arrived at the scene because that information was not radioed to him or to the two other officers who arrived later, said Timothy O’Brien, Mader’s attorney.
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.
Hancock County Prosecutor James W. Davis Jr. believed that the shooting was justified. In court proceedings, Ryan Kuzma, the officer who shot and killed Williams, defended his decision to use deadly force with “mere seconds” to evaluate the situation.
“If he felt so strongly that Mr. Williams was attempting suicide by cop, he could have tackled him,” Kuzma said, according to court documents. “He could have stood in between. He could have moved.… I was faced with a situation where a guy has a gun, and he is waving it back and forth pointing it at me, that I had to react. And there was no reaction out of Mr. Mader.”
In September 2016, 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.
The 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.
City officials held a news conference shortly after the Post-Gazette story was published, saying the Williams shooting was not the only reason they fired Mader. A news release from the city described two other incidents that officials say led to Mader’s termination. One involved allegedly mishandling a death investigation by failing to determine that it was a homicide. The other involved allegedly 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 at the scene.
“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.”
But O’Brien 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 had talked to the woman who was cursed at and that she said she complained about the conduct of another officer, not Mader.
O’Brien said 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 officer in retaliation for speaking publicly about the termination.
According to court documents, Kuzma, the officer who shot Williams, texted Mader after the news conference, calling him a “coward” who “didn’t have the balls to save [his] own life” and accusing Mader and his mother of being “loud mouth pieces of s—” for talking to reporters.
Mader’s attorney said they were “pleased” by the settlement but disappointed that Mader’s decision not to shoot was questioned. 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. He also is a Marine and an Afghanistan war veteran, O’Brien added.
“No police officer should ever lose their job — or have their name dragged through the mud — for choosing to talk to, rather than shoot, a fellow citizen,” O’Brien said. “His decision to attempt to de-escalate the situation should have been praised, not punished. Simply put, no police officer should ever feel forced to take a life unnecessarily to save his career.”
Jack Dolance, an attorney for the Williams family, said last May that the family believes Mader did the right thing.
“He took his time and looked at R.J. as a person and not a dangerous subject,” Dolance told CNN.
Mader no longer works as a police officer but as a truck driver, and he continues living in Weirton with his family, the ACLU said.