Short Take: Stephen Mader, The Cop Who Didn’t

He was called a coward by his fellow cops. He was fired for putting their lives at risk. And he settled his claim for wrongful termination for $175,000. It’s not an insignificant amount of money by any stretch, but it pales in comparison to the cost of the message.

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.

Mader was a white probationary cop. Williams was a black man trying to commit suicide by cop. This isn’t surmise, but shown by the fact that the gun he was holding, that he refused to drop, was unloaded.

“I can’t do that,” Williams responded, according to court documents. “Just shoot me.”

Mader then did the unthinkable. He didn’t shoot.

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.

Mader violated the First Rule of Policing. For that, he couldn’t be trusted.

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.

Calls for de-escalation training are issued to soothe the public’s concerns that cops are trigger happy, overly fearful and, well, just don’t give a damn about any life not blue. But Madar wouldn’t get a medal, even from the most empathetic chief, for his refusal to kill here.

“If he felt so strongly that Mr. Williams was attempting suicide by cop, he could have tackled him,” [Ryan] 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.”

This wasn’t the scenario where a cop didn’t know whether a person was armed. Williams had a gun, and they saw it. Williams raised his gun, and they saw. While the 911 caller informed the operator that the gun was unloaded, neither Madar nor Kuzma were made aware of it. Getting such details across to the cops on the road seems to perpetually be too difficult to accomplish.

Still, Madar chose not to kill, despite Williams waving the gun, which was loaded as far as he was aware.

Was Madar wrong to rely on his instinct, that Williams would do no harm to anyone but himself? Even guys attempting suicide by cop can shoot to force the issue. Since he didn’t know Williams’ gun was unloaded, he couldn’t know that he wouldn’t shoot. If we’re to trust a cop’s instincts when they don’t kill, are we willing to trust their instincts when they do?

But the question remains whether the lesson taught by Madar’s firing, even if his decision in this case was subject to question, is whether cops are taught that de-escalation is a lie, that taking any risk will get you punished, disparaged as a coward and ultimately fired. Nobody will challenge a cop for killing a guy pointing a gun. But not killing? That’s a career killer.

So Madar closes this chapter with $175,000 in settlement, paid for by the largesse of Weirton, West Virginia’s taxpayers. The hidden cost will be the life of the next guy shot when he didn’t have to be, because some other cop learned that killing is the best way to keep his job.

12 thoughts on “Short Take: Stephen Mader, The Cop Who Didn’t

    1. SHG Post author

      When the story originally broke, it was a litmus test of good/bad cop, which I thought was terribly simplistic. The message is far more subtle.

  1. Curtis

    Stephen Mader was Marine Corp vet who served in Afghanistan and was taught by the Marines to avoid violence whenever possible. Unfortunately for him, in West Virginia, caring about civilians is a fireable offense.

    1. SHG Post author

      A lot of people assume that ex-military are violent guys. I find just the opposite, that they’re tougher and less inclined to pull the trigger out of inchoate fear. If the threat is real, they won’t hesitate, but they won’t shoot until they know that’s their only choice.

      1. Rick Horowitz

        I defend a lot of vets. And I’m not applauding their choice of metaphor, but they frequently refer to cops, including those who arrested them, as “pussies.”

        If you change out “pussies” for “cowards,” I agree with them.

  2. Kurt

    I know and understand why you don’t want links in your comments, but I’ll preface the link with a little excerpt, so that you might give this one a pass – it’s relevant…

    “If you want to tangle with bad guys and blow them away, fair enough. But understand: That means they get to shoot first to prove their intent, just as happens with the military these days. Our ROE these days are usually “only if fired upon and no civilians are at risk.”

    If your plan is “shoot first, shoot later, shoot some more, then if anyone is still alive try to ask questions,” and bleat, “But I was afeard fer mah lahf!” you’re absolutely no better than the thugs you claim to oppose. All you are is another combatant in a turf war I don’t care about.”


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