Law and Legal

Terminated Officer Wins Lawsuit Against Department

7,152

(cityofweirton.com)

WEIRTON, W.Va. – A terminated officer wins the lawsuit against his former department. The man who also served as a Marine was fired for failing to use lethal force against an armed, suicidal man. Additional responding officers saw things differently and killed the despondent individual who had been in dialogue with the former officer.

LET originally reported the incident, which occurred on May 6, 2016. Police Officer Stephen Mader responded to a report of a domestic incident. Upon his arrival he found himself confronting an armed man.

Officer Mader assessed the situation and determined lethal force was unnecessary at the given moment he conversed with the distraught individual. He believed the subject was not a threat to anyone but himself.

Mader, who is white, saw that Ronald D. Williams, Jr., 23, who was black, had a gun in his hand, but he said it was not pointed at him. He noted that the gun was in the man’s right hand, hanging at his side and pointed at the ground.

Mader said, “I told him, ‘Put down the gun,’ and he’s like, ‘Just shoot me.’ And I told him, ‘I’m not going to shoot you brother.’ I thought I was going to be able to talk to him and deescalate it. I knew it was a suicide-by-cop.”

But as two other officers of Weirton Police Department arrived on the scene, Williams walked toward them waving his gun, and the situation quickly escalated. As a result of his actions, he was shot and killed. However, Mader did not fire.

A month after the incident, Mader would be fired from the department for “failing to meet probationary standards of an officer” and “apparent difficulties in critical incident reasoning.” He would also be publicly accused of having frozen and privately called a “coward” by a colleague, court documents revealed, according to The Washington Post.

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In the ensuing months of public scrutiny, Weirton officials maintained that Mader was fired for other reasons in addition to his encounter with Williams.

However, Mader, now 27, fought back. In a federal lawsuit filed against his former employer last May, Mader said Williams wanted to commit “suicide by cop” — and the handgun he was carrying was not loaded.

He claimed his decision not to shoot Williams cost him his job as a police officer in Weirton, a city near the Pennsylvania border, about 35 miles west of Pittsburgh.

After months of legal proceedings, Mader and the city of Weirton reached a settlement for $175,000 to dismiss the lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia represented Mader, and made the announcement Monday.

“At the end of the day, I’m happy to put this chapter of my life to bed,” Mader said in a statement. “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.”

Travis Blosser, Weirton’s city manager, said the city is “pleased to see that the matter is over with.” He said the settlement was reached with the city’s insurance carrier.

The settlement ended a lengthy legal battle that had prompted numerous debates about what constituted appropriate use of force — or, in this case, the lack of it on Mader’s part. Williams’s death and Mader’s subsequent firing occurred when some police departments’ use of deadly force, particularly in interactions with black suspects, was coming under criticism.

The incident was prompted by a call from Williams’s girlfriend, who said Williams was threatening to kill himself with a knife. After finding out that an officer was on the way, Williams retrieved an unloaded handgun from his car, saying he would get the officer to shoot him, according to the complaint.

The woman called 911 again and told the dispatcher that Williams had a gun but it was not loaded. But Mader did not know that when he arrived at the scene because that information was not radioed to him or to the two other officers who arrived later, said Timothy O’Brien, Mader’s attorney.

Mader tried to persuade Williams to drop the gun, believing he was “not aggressive or violent,” the complaint said. But Williams, his hands to his side, pleaded with Mader over and over to just shoot him.

The two other officers arrived. At that point, Williams waved the gun, and one of the two officers fatally shot him.

Hancock County Prosecutor James W. Davis Jr. believed that the shooting was justified. In court proceedings, Ryan Kuzma, the officer who shot and killed Williams, defended his decision to use deadly force with “mere seconds” to evaluate the situation.

“If he felt so strongly that Mr. Williams was attempting suicide by cop, he could have tackled him,” Kuzma said, according to court documents. “He could have stood in between. He could have moved.… I was faced with a situation where a guy has a gun, and he is waving it back and forth pointing it at me, that I had to react. And there was no reaction out of Mr. Mader.”

Police experts believe each officer could have made the correct decision based upon their perspective. In essence, the scenario is impossible to conclusively argue one way or the other without personally experiencing it, or participating in the investigation. Yet the organization pitted one officer against two others by terminating him. Some believe the termination was justified. Others are spewing expletives claiming the administration threw Mader under the bus.

Furthermore, while Mader prevailed in the lawsuit, the settlement of $175,000 will not go very far when compared to potential earnings from an entire career.

According to court documents, Kuzma previously texted Mader after a news conference, calling him a “coward” who “didn’t have the balls to save [his] own life” and accusing Mader and his mother of being “loud mouth pieces of s—” for talking to reporters.

Mader’s attorney said they were “pleased” by the settlement but disappointed that Mader’s decision not to shoot was questioned. Mader was hired as a probationary officer for the Weirton Police Department in June 2015 and completed training at the West Virginia State Police Academy later that year. He also is a Marine and an Afghanistan war veteran, O’Brien added.

“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,” O’Brien said. “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.”

Jack Dolance, an attorney for the Williams family, said last May that the family believes Mader did the right thing.

“He took his time and looked at R.J. as a person and not a dangerous subject,” Dolance told CNN.

Mader no longer works as a police officer but as a truck driver, and he continues living in Weirton with his family, the ACLU said.

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