Shoot First, Ask Questions Later (Or Don’t)

Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Officer Stephen Mader was fired from the Weirton, West Virginia police force after R.J. William was shot and killed. Mader’s not the one who shot him — Mader was trying not to shoot.

The Weirton Police Department, like almost every other, has a policy on the use of lethal force: If someone is a threat to life — a civilian’s or an officer’s — an officer can shoot to kill.

Mader said it was scary in the dimly lit street. His adrenaline was pumping. It felt, he said, like it could be one of those “oh, shit” moments.

But Mader did not regard Williams as a threat. Williams seemed distraught. He avoided eye contact. He was looking around to see if anyone was watching. He wasn’t being belligerent. He was only repeating a single sentence:

“Shoot me.”

The requests felt to Mader like pleadings.

“It’s a red flag,” Mader later said. “Suicide by cop.”

Williams was waving a gun around; it turned out not to have been loaded. He was ultimately shot by another officer who showed up on the scene a few minutes later. Mater’s firing, subsequent smearing by the force, and ultimate exoneration are documented in fascinating, maddening detail at ProPublica by Joe Sexton in a thought-provoking piece on police culture.

Alexander, it turns out, had not fired the officer who shot Williams. He had fired Stephen Mader, who had chosen not to shoot the young man.

Alexander had concluded that the young officer had frozen in a life-and-death moment. He had determined that Mader, in not eliminating what he said was the threat posed by Williams, had put the lives of fellow officers at risk. Kuzma, the officer who had killed Williams, thought Mader should have shot him first.

Mader’s actions at 119 Marie Ave. in May 2016 had instantly become the subject of analysis and gossip among the ranks of the tiny department. The word “coward” was being tossed around. Kuzma and Baker had taken the remarkable step of asking Alexander in writing never to assign them to work again with Mader. Two other members of the force signed on as well, and the memo was quietly slid under the chief’s door.

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