As more and more mentally ill people are killed by the police who were called to help them, the case of Stephen Mader, a cop who was fired after not killing a man, has begged for more attention.
Now it’s finally gotten it, thanks to a PBS Frontline and Pro Publica investigation into an incident in May 2016 in which the Weirton, W.V., rookie cop — he’d returned home from two tours in Afghanistan to become a cop in his hometown — repeatedly told Ronald Williams “I don’t want to shoot you” after Williams repeatedly begged him to.
Another cop did … 10 seconds after arriving on the scene.
The police dispatcher had not relayed to the cops the information from the caller that there were no bullets in the gun.
Mader was de-escalating the situation, something he’d learned at the state police academy. He liked the work they did on de-escalating potentially volatile situations, he told Frontline.
“You’re not just there to kill and be killed,” he said of police work.
But he was the bad guy in the scenario, the city decided. Just two weeks after the shooting, it fired Mader. A day later, it determined the other three officers on the scene, including the one who killed Williams, would not be charged with any crime and were back at work.
Mader said he was never interviewed by the captain in the department who recommended he be fired.
It would be months before anyone in the news media learned of what really had happened, until the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a story about it, prompting a text message to Mader from the cop who did the killing.
“You’re nothing but a coward,” he wrote. “And thanks for putting our officers in danger now. We have been getting death threats from all over the area because of your bullsh** article.”
Later that cop confronted Mader after being called to the truck driving school where Mader was taking classes after his firing.
“If I were to have shot that kid,” Mader told him during the ensuing shouting match, “I wouldn’t have felt justified.”
“Well, then you should never have been a cop,” Officer Ryan Kuzma said.
The family of Ronald Williams considered a lawsuit against the police and Kuzma. But Mader refused to say the killing wasn’t justified, Frontline/Pro Publica said.
The epilogue: The city and Mader cut a deal. Mader got $175,000. The city acknowledged no wrongdoing in its firing.
Being deemed fit to serve as a military police officer but not as a member of the Weirton Police Department is one of the many puzzles he hasn’t been able to work out. To this day, he finds it hard to understand why some people can’t see the legitimacy of his position — that he and Kuzma might both have been justified in what they did.
His frustration and disappointment, however, are allayed a bit by something Williams’ sister Amanda relayed to him not long after the shooting. Mader’s last act as a Weirton officer, if it had cost him his job, had held meaning for Williams’ family.
Amanda told Mader that while there was no way to accept the loss of her brother, she and the family were heartened that the last person Williams had spoken with was Mader — someone, she said, who had seen the man’s despair and done his best not to worsen it.
“It really touched me, because at that point I realized that my brother wasn’t alone, that there was someone there that was looking at him as a person,” Amanda said. “So I found him on Facebook, and I ended up messaging him on Messenger, just to thank him for what he did for my brother, and for being there for him.”
Mader, she said, messaged her back.
“He said that he just wished that he could have had a few more seconds, that he wished it would have turned out different, that my brother would still be alive.”
Related: North Minneapolis police shooting renews push for better mental health response (Star Tribune)