A domestic dispute call ended up costing Weirton, West Virginia police officer Stephen Mader his job, because he failed to shoot a suspect on the scene, believing instead that he could de-escalate the situation.
The story began in May when then-Officer Mader had been summoned to the home of Bethany Gilmer, the former girlfriend of Ronald D. “R.J.” Williams II. Williams and Gilmer had a child together (the first baby born in 2016 at the Trinity Medical Center in Steubenville, Ohio, as a matter of fact.) Unfortunately, the couple soon started fighting over custody and other personal issues; Williams moved to his mother’s house in Pittsburgh.
Williams apparently visited Gilmer’s home in May, and at some point afterward Gilmer called 911, advising them that Williams “was holding a knife to his throat and threatening to harm himself. When she told him she called 911 and police were coming, she said Mr. Williams told her he was going to get his handgun from his car and make police shoot him.”
When Mader arrived, responding to the call in the early morning hours of May 6, he found himself confronting an armed man. As it happened, the 25-year-old Mader is a four-year Marine Corps veteran, having served as an infantry mortarman and IDD (Improvised Explosive Device Detector Dog) handler in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, who after returning to the States sought a role in Law Enforcement and hired as an officer by the Weirton P.D. in August 2015. Based on his prior experience in the Marines, Mader concluded that he could talk Williams down.
[T]he training [Mader] 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…. 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.
Shortly afterward, Weirton Police Chief Rob Alexander advised Mader: “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.”
On June 7, Mader received a hand-delivered letter advising him that he had been terminated because my not shooting Williams he had “failed to eliminate a threat”. Mader was still a probationary employee in an ‘at-will’ state, and had little legal recourse to fight the termination.
Around the same time, the WPD announced that their own investigation had concluded that the other officers’ shooting of Williams had been justified given what was known to them. Mader agrees with that decision as well: “They did not have the information I did…. All they know is [Mr. Williams] is waving a gun at them. It’s a shame it happened the way it did, but, I don’t think they did anything wrong.”
This is a very unfortunate case all-around. It sounds as though Mader was trying to do his job to the highest level of his own ability, even at considerable personal risk, something that we surely want of all our law enforcement officers. It’s a truism that in life it is important to have a plan to kill everyone you meet — but also to have one to let them walk away. In this case, Mader chose to let the man walk, perhaps rightly so given what he saw. It sounds like he believed that Williams wasn’t going to harm anyone but himself. In doing so, however, he apparently allowed Williams to charge a couple of brother officers with a firearm.
Mader doesn’t seem to have any regrets about the issue.
At the same time, if I were one of the other officers and saw Mader let an armed man charge me without interfering…well, let’s just say that we Humans are not as cooly rational as we like to pretend. The vision of an man rushing you with a firearm, hell-bent on suicide-by-cop one way or another because your comrade let him go, probably stays with you for quite a while. That’s not exactly a trust-building moment.
I am also left with the uncomfortable feeling that the spate of news stories accompanying this are trying to make this story fit a narrative. The completely useless comment by the Post-Gazette reporter that Mader’s gun was unloaded is just the tip of the iceberg. There was no way for either Mader nor his brother officers to possibly know that, and as the late Col. Cooper once taught, all guns have a way of always being loaded when one least expects it. To add an extra layer of narrative complication, Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King penned an article for the New York Daily News in which he veritably lionized Mader.
As you may have guessed, Mader and the two other Weirton PD Officers are white; Williams was black.
For that reason alone, we haven’t seen the last of this case.
[Hat tip: Ed Krayewski, reason.com.]