The day Stephen Mader walked in on a domestic violence case, he was faced with a very difficult situation and had only a few seconds to make vital decisions. Even though Stephen attempted to calm the situation down, the man ended up losing his life – and Stephen needing a new job.
Stephen is a 27-year-old veteran of the Marines. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Once he retired from the military, Stephen decided to try out law enforcement. He was hired by the Weirton Police Department in 2015 as a probationary office, while he completed his training at the West Virginia State Police Academy. Stephen was only on the force for a year when he had to face an extremely tough situation.
Stephen responded to a call of domestic violence at the home of 23- year-old Ronald D. Williams Jr. on May 6th, 2016. Williams’ girlfriend called 911 because Williams was threatening to kill himself using a knife. Stephen immediately went to the scene after being contacted by dispatch. He was the first officer on the scene.
Williams had found out that his girlfriend had called the police before they arrived. He went to his car to grab an unloaded handgun. Williams told his girlfriend that he was going to try to get the police officer to shoot him. His girlfriend called 911 to let them know that he had an unloaded gun, but Stephen was never given that important information.
As soon as Stephen got to the house he could tell that Ronald was in distress. Stephen asked Williams to show him his hands, so he did. That’s when Stephen saw the gun. Stephen ordered him to drop the gun, but Williams refused. He said, “I can’t do that.” Stephen quickly realized that he wasn’t in immediate danger.
“He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t aggressive, he didn’t seem in a position to want to use a gun against anybody. He never pointed it at me,” said Stephen in an interview with the Guardian. Instead of shooting, Stephen tried to de-escalate the situation using skills he had learned in the armed forces. Sadly, Williams had a different plan.
“Just shoot me,” Williams told Stephen over and over again. “I’m not going to shoot you, brother. So just put the gun down,” Stephen told him. After some time, two other officers showed up to the home. They also didn’t know the gun was unloaded. When they entered, Williams raised his gun and the two officers fired their weapons. He died immediately. A few days later, Stephen would get some news that would blow his mind.
A month after the incident, without being debriefed or interviewed about what happened, Stephen was fired. He was told that he “failed to meet probationary standards of an officer” and had “apparent difficulties in critical incident reasoning.” He was told by the police chief that he was fired for putting the lives of the other officers in danger. Stephen decided he was going to fight the decision.
With the ACLU on his side, Stephen filed a suit for wrongful termination against the Weirton Police Department. In the lawsuit, Stephen claimed that Williams was trying to “commit suicide by cop” and that he had an unloaded handgun. That was when the police department changed their minds and said he was fired for two unrelated incidents, instead. But it didn’t work.
Stephen’s attorney proved that Stephen had been fired for not shooting Williams, and the two unrelated incidents weren’t even serious enough to get fired for. They went to court for months, but finally, the police department caved and decided to settle with Stephen for $175,000. It was over.
“At the end of the day, I’m happy to put this chapter of my life to bed,” said Stephen. “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.” Even though they were happy it was over, too, the police department still refuses to admit that they were wrong.
Travis Blosser, Weirton city manager, said that the city was “pleased to see that the matter is over with.” They also went on to say that they stand by their decision, and the only reason they settled was because of their insurance provider. Stephen’s lawyer was disappointed in the police department, especially because of how Stephen was treated for speaking out.
As soon as Stephen filed the lawsuit, the Weirton Police department tried to run his name through the mud by saying that he was incompetent and “froze” when he needed to make such a vital decision. Ryan Kuzma, the officer who killed Williams, called Stephen a coward and sent him angry text messages calling him a “loudmouth piece of s—” because he spoke with reporters. Regardless of all that, though, Stephen just wants a lesson to be learned.
“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,” Stephen’s attorney 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.” Civil rights groups from all over the country agree.
The executive director of West Virgina’s ACLU, Joseph O’Brien, said the case was “yet another incident exposing the toxic culture that infects far too many police departments in America.” “We need to give law enforcement officers tools to effectively serve their communities,” he stated. “Hopefully, the resolution of this lawsuit will send a message to the City of Weirton and police departments across the country that our communities deserve thoughtful, compassionate, transparent law enforcement.”