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.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.
Mader was responding to a 911 call from Williams’s girlfriend. In that call, she told police that Williams was threatening to kill himself, not anyone else.
What Mader did upon arriving at the scene is a hell of a lot braver course of action than simply opening fire when the suspect doesn’t immediately disarm. What Mader did is in fact exactly what we want cops to do when someone is in crisis. It’s also precisely what law enforcement officers say they do on a daily basis — put themselves at risk in order to save lives. Mader should have been given a medal. Unfortunately, two more cops then showed up, and quickly shot Williams dead.
As it turns out, Williams’s gun wasn’t loaded. There’s no way any of the police officers could have known that. But it does show that Mader had read Williams correctly — he wasn’t actually a threat to anyone but himself. His life could have been saved.
The Weirton police department then refused to name Williams for three days and assigned an investigator to look into the shooting . . . who then promptly left for a weeklong vacation. Then came the punchline.
Mr. Mader — speaking publicly about this case for the first time — said that when he tried to return to work on May 17, following normal protocol for taking time off after an officer-involved shooting, he was told to go see Weirton Police Chief Rob Alexander.In a meeting with the chief and City Manager Travis Blosser, Mr. Mader said Chief Alexander told him: “We’re putting you on administrative leave and we’re going to do an investigation to see if you are going to be an officer here. You put two other officers in danger.”Mr. Mader said that “right then I said to him: ‘Look, I didn’t shoot him because he said, ‘Just shoot me.’ ”On June 7, a Weirton officer delivered him a notice of termination letter dated June 6, which said by not shooting Mr. Williams he “failed to eliminate a threat.”
The city mentioned two other incidents in firing Mader, but it seems clear that his failure to kill Williams was the motivation for his termination. Even the rare cop who gets fired often gets to keep his pension. Mader won’t be getting one.
After he received his termination notice, Mr. Mader sought attorneys to help him fight the city. He was told because he was still a probationary employee in an “at-will” state, he could be fired for any reason and there was no point in fighting the city.One attorney told him the best he could hope for was to ask to resign instead of being terminated.“But I told [the attorney] ‘Look, I don’t want to admit guilt. I’ll take the termination instead of the resignation because I didn’t do anything wrong,’ ” Mr. Mader said. “To resign and admit I did something wrong here would have ate at me. I think I’m right in what I did. I’ll take it to the grave.”
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the longstanding problem in which even the rare bad cops who do get fired are often able to quickly find work at another policy agency. Mader, who served a tour in Afghanistan and has two sons under five-years-old, told the Post-Gazette that he’s now studying for a commercial truck driving license, but he’d consider another job in law enforcement if he were offered one. I hope that happens. I hope he’s given the same second chance that corrupt, trigger-happy cops are given. My hunch is that he’ll be driving trucks.