A police officer who refused to pull the trigger and shoot a young black man was fired, and now he’s suing the city where he was employed, contesting that he was fired for not shooting.
Stephen Mader, a former police officer in Weirton, W.Va., was fired on June 7, 2016. The cause of his termination was for unsuccessfully meeting the “probationary standards of an officer” and showing “apparent difficulties in critical incident reasoning,” according to a federal lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia filed Wednesday on Mader’s behalf.
Mader told the Huffington Post that he responded to a situation around 2 a.m. on May 6, 2016. A man reportedly had a knife and was threatening to harm himself. Mader said he arrived to find 21-year-old Ronald “RJ” Williams visibly distraught and standing beside the driver-side door of a car.
Mader asked the man if he could help him. Williams told him no, and that he could leave. As Mader made his way around the car, he could see that Williams had his hands behind his back. After several commands from Mader to show his hands, Williams complied.
“When we brought his hands from behind his back, he had a silver pistol in his right hand,” Mader told the Huffington Post. “I drew my duty weapon and I’m telling him, ‘Put the gun down, put the gun down.'”
Mader said he remembered Williams saying, “Just shoot me.”
Mader, an Afghanistan war veteran, believed Williams to be suicidal and told him he wasn’t going to shoot him.
As the officer tried to coax Williams to put his gun down, another police car entered the scene, and Williams’ attention turned to the newcomers as he waved his gun — a gun later found not to be loaded.
“Within seconds, shots were fired and the last shot fatally wounded Mr. Williams to the head,” Mader said.
Officer William Kuzma shot Williams. Kuzma, Mader and a third officer were placed on administrative leave. Hancock County prosecutors investigated and ruled the shooting was justified.
One month later, Mader was fired. A termination notice read he “failed to eliminate a threat” when he didn’t shoot Williams.
According to the Pittsburgh Gazette, the city manager of Weirton publicly stated other reasons for Mader’s termination, including unrelated instances in which Mader apparently did not report an elderly woman’s death as suspicious and another circumstance when he allegedly cursed at a woman while arresting her husband for disorderly conduct.
That’s not how Mader saw the situation.
The lawsuit states that the police department “terminated Mr. Mader’s employment because his decision not to use deadly force to shoot and kill a suicidal African-American male, made or could have been construed to make Officer Kuzma’s use of deadly force appear unreasonable or excessive under the circumstances.”
The lawsuit also states that Kuzma sent Mader disturbing text messages accusing him of escalating the situation and calling Mader a “coward.” Kuzma was never disciplined and remains with the department.