Perhaps the most understandably difficult point to communicate when talking about criminal justice reform is that it’s not about disliking police, and especially not about disliking individual police officers.
It makes sense that this would be a sticking point for many: After all, anyone who knows a cop will likely think of that person first when they hear of protests about police misconduct or calls for police accountability. And if, as is likely the case, that officer works hard to be fair and humane on the job, it can be tough to see why reform is needed.
That’s one reason the story of a Weirton, West Virginia, police officer named Stephen Mader is so important. Mader was fired after he refused to shoot an emotionally disturbed man, 21-year-old Ronald Williams, who seemed to be attempting to commit suicide by cop. Williams was holding a gun, but it was not loaded. According to the Washington Post, Williams’ girlfriend initially called 911 saying he was threatening himself with a knife. After Mader was sent to the scene, Williams’ girlfriend called police again, saying Williams had a gun that was not loaded, but dispatchers never relayed that information to Mader or other officers at the scene, according to Mader’s lawyer, Timothy O’Brien.
“When I arrived at the scene, Mr. Williams was pleading for me to shoot him. He didn’t appear angry or aggressive,” Mader said. “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 deescalate the situation. I was just doing my job.”
While Mader was trying to keep the situation calm and safe, two more police officers showed up, and one of them fatally shot Williams. About a month later, Mader was fired after his department decided the other cop’s shooting was justified and Mader had “failed to eliminate a threat.”
But Williams wasn’t a threat, and Mader was doing the right thing. That’s why he sued the City of Weirton, and this week, he won a settlement of $175,000.
“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,” said O’Brien when the lawsuit was first filed in May 2017.
“Such restraint should be praised, not penalized,” O’Brien continued. “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.”
O’Brien’s comment highlights the key takeaway from this case: Criminal justice reform is typically not about individual police officers being “good cops” or “bad cops.”
Yes, sometimes we come across really egregious examples of personal misbehavior. More often, however, police misconduct is linked to systemic issues. It’s stuff like departmental policies and training about use of force and deescalation; or a police department’s culture of not holding coworkers accountable for brutality; or failure to require outside investigations and personal financial responsibility when officers do something wrong.
Rare Politics editor Jack Hunter made an analogy back in 2014 which I continue to find helpful: Conservatives call for education reform measures — like charter schools or school vouchers — and everyone understands it’s not about being anti-teacher. In the same way, calling for policing reforms is not about being anti-cop.
Mader’s story is a vivid illustration of the systemic nature of police misconduct, because while he was trying to be careful, his department wasn’t. Notice that when he described his experience, Mader cited his training as a “Marine vet” and “an active member of the National Guard” as his guidance for dealing with Williams. That suggests his police training was not helpful to him, perhaps because it didn’t include adequate deescalation techniques.
Unfortunately, such a deficiency wouldn’t be surprising. “Simply put, police training in America is in dire need of an overhaul,” explained a police officer named Louis Hayes in an article at Quartz. “Our training spends too much time and effort on the ‘exceptions,’ and not enough on the ‘rules,'” he added. “Police training should emphasize slow-down strategies and tactics that allow for police officers’ critical thinking skills to complement, and, if necessary, override, emotions like fear or prejudice.”
Hayes says cops are “taught to expect the worst possible outcome,” which makes it very difficult for them to be composed and compassionate in circumstances like those Mader encountered. Of course, officers remain responsible for their choices regardless of training, but the habits they develop and the department policies they learn can make a life-or-death difference when there’s a split-second decision to be made.
In Williams’ case, Mader’s deescalation training could have saved his life. Instead, a bad use-of-force policy left one man dead, another man fired, and the taxpayers of Weirton $175,000 poorer.