WHEELING – A former Weirton police officer has reached a settlement with the city in his wrongful termination lawsuit.
Stephen Mader had filed a complaint against the City of Weirton last May in federal court. In his complaint, Mader said he was fired because he chose not to shoot and kill a suicidal man whom he didn't think posed a threat that warranted the use of deadly force.
Under the terms of the settlement, the City of Weirton paid Mader $175,000 to dismiss the lawsuit.
"At the end of the day, I'm happy to put this chapter of my life to bed," Mader said in a press release. "The events leading to my termination were unjustified, and I'm pleased a joint resolution has been met.
"My hope is that no other person on either end of a police call has to go through this again."
The Law Office of Timothy O'Brien and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia represented Mader.
“We are pleased that Mr. Mader’s case has been successfully resolved, but this should never have happened,” O’Brien said. “No police officer should ever lose their job — or have their name dragged through the mud – for choosing to talk to, rather than shoot, a fellow citizen.
"Mr. Mader is a Marine and Afghanistan war veteran who served his country and community with competence and courage. His decision to attempt to de-escalate the situation should have been praised not punished. Simply put, no police officer should ever feel forced to take a life unnecessarily to save his career.”
“The termination of Stephen Mader was yet another incident exposing the toxic culture that infects far too many police departments in America,” ACLU-WV Executive Director Joseph Cohen said. “We need to give law enforcement officers tools to effectively serve their communities. That means we need to invest in de-escalation training, implicit bias training and crisis intervention training.
"Hopefully the resolution of this lawsuit will send a message to the City of Weirton and police departments across the country that our communities deserve thoughtful, compassionate, transparent law enforcement.”
In his lawsuit, Mader claims on May 6, 2016, he was on police duty when he received a domestic dispute call and, as he arrived on the scene, he encountered Ronald J. Williams, a black male who was visibly distraught and attempting to commit “suicide by cop” and pleading with Mader to shoot him.
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.
“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 was 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