WHEELING – A former police officer has filed a lawsuit against the city of Weirton after he claims he was fired began he chose not to shoot and kill an individual during a domestic disturbance call last year.
Stephen Mader claims on May 6, 2016, he was on policy duty when he received a domestic dispute call and, as he arrived on the scene, he encountered Ronald J. Williams, an African-American male who was visibly distraught and attempting to commit “suicide by cop” and pleading with Mader to shoot him, according to a complaint filed May 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.
Mader claims he used his training and experience to attempt to de-escalate the situation and, based on his combat experience, military training and police training and reasonably believed that Williams—although he was holding a gun—intended to inflict self-harm and did not pose a threat of harm to others.
As it turned out, the gun held by Williams was not loaded and when two more officers arrived on the scene, one of them shot and killed Williams, according to the suit.
Mader claims rather than respect Mader’s informed judgment and experience and his reasonable attempt to de-escalate the situation, Weirton, in a flawed effort to buttress the other officer’s use of deadly force, wrongfully terminated Mader’s employment.
When that termination came to light in the local press, the city then engaged in a pattern of retaliation designed to destroy Mader’s reputation, according to the suit.
Mader claims Weirton’s conduct violated his right to be free from the loss of employment in violation of public policy, his First and 14th Amendment right under the U.S. Constitution and his rights under Article III, Section 7 and Article III, Section 10 of the W.Va. Constitution.
Mader is seeking compensatory damages. He is being represented by Timothy P. O’Brien of the Law Office of Timothy P. O’Brien; and Jamie Lynn Crofts of ACLU of West Virginia.
“When I arrived at the scene, Mr. Williams was pleading for me to shoot him. He didn’t appear angry or aggressive,” Mader said in a press release. “He seemed depressed. As a marine vet that served in Afghanistan and as an active member of the National Guard, all my training told me he was not a threat to others or me. Because of that I attempted to de-escalate the situation.”
Mader said he was just doing his job.
“The City of Weirton’s decision to fire officer Mader because he chose not to shoot and kill a fellow citizen—when he believed that he should not use such force, not only violates the Constitution, common sense and public policy— but incredibly punishes restraint—when given the tragic, and, far too frequent unnecessary use of deadly force,” O’Brien said. “Such restraint should be praised not penalized. To tell a police officer—when in doubt— either shoot to kill, or get fired, is a choice that no police officer should ever have to make and is a message that is wrong and should never be sent.”
Joseph Cohen, Executive Director of ACLU of West Virginia said Mader did exactly what citizens want their police officers to do by attempting to de-escalate a tense situation.
“He attempted to save R.J. Williams’ life,” Cohen said. “The Weirton Police Department so deeply misunderstands Stephen Mader’s sensible attempt to prevent violence and death that it kicked him off the force and then publicly attacked his character when he spoke out.”
Cohen said the Weirton Police Department, like many others in West Virginia, needs training to appropriately engage with people, to fight the implicit biases that infect society, and to make de-escalation a primary goal.
“I lost a job I loved,” Mader said. “As a police officer I took an oath to protect and serve my community. I feel like I was fired for trying to uphold that. Even still, I would have done the same thing.”
The case is assigned to District Judge Frederick P. Stamp Jr.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia case number: 5:17-cv-00061