West Virginia police officer sues after getting fired for not shooting suicidal man

Former Weirton, W.Va., police officer Stephen Mader is taking legal action after being dismissed for not shooting a suicidal man armed with a gun.
The West Virginia police officer was fired after not shooting an armed man who he believed was suicidal. (Stephen Mader/City of Weirton Facebook )
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Former Weirton, W.Va., police officer Stephen Mader is taking legal action after being dismissed for not shooting a suicidal man armed with a gun.

 'I tried to deescalate the situation. I was just doing my job.'- Stephen Mader 

Last year, Mader was called to a home where a man — Ronald J. Williams — was threatening to kill himself. According to Mader, Williams was holding a gun and saying repeatedly, "Just shoot me." 

Mader refused, and instead tried to calm the man down. 

In a press release from the ACLU, Mader said: "He seemed depressed. As a marine vet that served in Afghanistan, all my training told me he was not a threat to others or me. Because of that I tried to deescalate the situation. I was just doing my job." 

Before he was a police officer, Stephen Mader served two tours of duty with the U.S. Marines, including one in Afghanistan. (Stephen Mader/ACLU)

The officers who arrived soon after Mader took a different approach. One officer shot and killed Williams.

In a letter sent to Mader after the incident, the Weirton Police criticized him for "Fail[ing] to engage the suspect to end the threat of any further violence or potential loss of life." The letter goes on to allege: "The suspect presented a clear and present danger to all people in the immediate area."

Stephen Mader spoke with As It Happens co-host Carol Off about his lawsuit. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Can you take us back to that day a year ago when you were called to the home of Ronald Williams. What kind of a state of mind was he in when you first saw him?

Stephen Mader: It was about 2 a.m. I pulled onto the street and I noticed a black male standing outside of his car door and around his trunk I saw his hands were behind his back and, you know, I told him, "Show me your hands." 

And he said, "No, I don't wanna do that." And I told him again, "Lower your hands."

And when he complied and lowered his hands I saw a silver pistol in his right hand. At that point I drew my duty weapon and, you know, I'm telling him, "Drop the gun, drop the gun." And he tells me, "No, I don't wanna do that. No, I can't do that," something along the lines of that, and then says, "Just shoot me."

And I said, "You know I don't want to shoot you, brother, just put down the gun." And he said, "No seriously, man, just shoot me," as if he was pleading with me to shoot him. 

CO: Was it your sense that he was ... someone trying to commit suicide by police officer?

SM: Yeah, yeah. That's what was going through my head during the incident is he's trying to commit suicide by cop, and so I'm trying to de-escalate the situation, trying to calm him down, and you know, trying to reason with him and everything.

Seconds later, two cruisers start coming up the road and once he sees them he takes all of his attention away from me and focuses on them and starts walking towards them. And at this time he starts to randomly waive the gun around, you know, in between myself and the other officers within seconds of them getting out of the cruisers.

Four shots were fired and the final one fatally wounded Mr. Williams.

CO: And they believed he was coming at them with a gun, is that right?

SM: I can only attest to my experience, but he was waving the gun [when] they exited their cruisers. 

CO: What made you so sure that you were not in danger?

SM: He wasn't aggressive. He wasn't angry. He wasn't screaming, yelling. He wasn't in an aggressive state. To me it seemed like he doesn't wanna harm anybody, he just wants to harm himself.

CO: You were a rookie cop at that point. But you are a military veteran. You had served as a marine in Afghanistan. What experience were you drawing from when you made the decision to hold off on using force that day?

SM: Mostly would be the rules of engagement that we had in Afghanistan where ... you don't engage the enemy unless you're threatened first. That's where I believe my mindset was that day.

CO: The police department said, and this is quote, that you "failed to engage the suspect and the threat of any further violence or potential loss of life as the suspect presented a clear and present danger to all people in the immediate area." What do you say to that?

SM: I say I that didn't fail to do anything. I think that I handled it the way that it should have been handled. I believe that if I were to go back to that exact moment I would do it the same way. I wouldn't change anything about it.

They basically said that I froze — you know, rookie cop froze — and that's not what it was. It was rookie cop trying to de-escalate a situation.

CO: Do you have any regrets about what you did?

SM: As far as the incident goes, no I wouldn't have done anything different. I wouldn't have used deadly force. I wouldn't change my mind for that, for anything. Even if I knew it was going to cost me my job I still wouldn't have used deadly force. To me the dots didn't line up and that was my choice and I'm going to live with it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story listen to our full interview with Stephen Mader. 
    

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