How A Cop Gets Fired in West Virginia
September 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Officers often say that we don’t respect their heat of the moment decisions enough. Just last week in Cross, Nick Selby pointed out that, according to officer reports, roughly nine out of ten shootings are justifiable responses to a show of force. Should we be more conciliatory? Weirton Police Chief Rob Alexander doesn’t think so. He just fired an officer for not killing someone.
It was not a decision to be taken lightly. West Virginia Officer Stephen Mader came to Ronald D. Williams’ house on a domestic violence call. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes it, Williams had told his girlfriend that he was “going to kill myself in front of you and the child, and you’re going to live with this the rest of your life, and our son is going to know you caused my death.”
At almost 4 in the morning, Williams’ girlfriend called the police on him. Williams decided that it would be easier to let himself get shot than to do the deed himself, unloading his weapon and telling his girlfriend “You know what? I’m going to make the cops do it.”
Then Williams strode out to the front lawn, where he “flicked” his gun several times in Mader’s direction, saying “shoot me. Shoot me.” Mader, a former Marine, suspected that Williams was simply attempting suicide by cop. So he chose not to shoot him, instead trying to deescalate the situation by telling him in his “calm voice” to put the gun down.
Mader was confronted with exactly the sort of “split-second,” “life-or-death” decision breathlessly discussed in countless legal opinions. Confronted with a man holding a silver handgun, Mader had to decide whether to risk his own safety to make sure that the gunman would some day be able to go home to his family.
Two other officers arrived on the scene, and Williams waved his gun in their direction as well. Shortly afterwards, he was shot in the back of the head and killed. The officers were placed on a short administrative leave, and the shooting declared justified not long afterward.
Now it’s hard to quibble with the officers who arrived on the scene, saw a man waving the gun, and fired quickly. The officers had no way of knowing that that the gun was unloaded and Williams was deliberately trying to provoke them into shooting him. Even under the strictest standards, this was likely a good shoot, though it’s tough to agree with the prosecutor’s assessment that “[n]one of these officers signed on to have guns pointed at them that night.” We probably wouldn’t be draping flags and firing off salutes for a group of people that didn’t voluntarily take on a dangerous job because they wanted to help people, after all.
Still, the termination of an officer for his restraint in the face of grave personal danger signals that, to this department, the lives of officers are simply more important than those of civilians. That terminating a risk to officer safety with extreme prejudice isn’t just justifiable, it’s mandatory.
Caution and restraint make perfect sense when you are encountering another human being, someone whose life has value. But to many, it has no place in a war zone, where every enemy killed might mean saving the lives of your countrymen. A soldier might be embarrassed to report that he never fired his weapon, but it used to be a mark of pride for an officer that he went his whole career without ever shooting his service weapon. Here, the Chief learned that Mader decided not to shoot and, as he placed him on administrative leave, told him that he had “put two other officers in danger.”
The chief’s reaction suggests that of a military officer learning that one of his soldiers is a pacifist. The Los Angeles Times recounts the story of Desmond Doss, a man who refused to carry a weapon as he fought in the Pacific, preferring instead to ensure the preservation of life. Doss was willing to serve, but he was not willing to kill. And for that restraint, he was cursed at in boot camp, and called a “coward.” That is, until the day he braved enemy fire to save seventy five of his fellow soldiers, lowering them down a fifty-foot cliff face while clenched in the teeth of a barrage of Japanese fire, earning the Medal of Honor.
Policing can be a dangerous job. And of course there are situations where a lethal response is called for. But policing needs room for men like Desmond Doss, and for Officer Mader. For conscientious people willing to undergo significant risk to make sure even the potentially dangerous get a chance to keep living. Restraint is no bar to heroism.
In his post on the subject, Radley Balko mentioned his hope that men like Officer Mader be given a medal. But the irony of all this is that such an award itself might offend the sensibilities of those who think honoring restraint means punishing force. Given the opportunity, Mader would likely save other lives. But to the police in Weirton, West Virginia, that will never be as valuable as killing when the opportunity arises.