In America, Cops Are Fired for Not Shooting

There are legitimate reasons a cop might be let go for not firing their gun. Perhaps there is an active shooter, and the cop freezes up. Perhaps . . . actually, that is the only scenario I can think of where a cop might be let go for not firing their gun, and even there the root problem is freezing up, not failing to discharge a weapon. And that is not what happened to Stephen Mader, an ex-marine fired by the Weirton, West Virginia, Police Department for not shooting a suicidal man holding an unloaded gun.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

After responding to a report of a domestic incident on May 6 in Weirton, W.Va., then-Weirton police officer Stephen Mader found himself confronting an armed man.

Immediately, the training he had undergone as a Marine to look at “the whole person” in deciding if someone was a terrorist, as well as his situational police academy training, kicked in and he did not shoot.

“I saw then he had a gun, but it was not pointed at me,” Mr. Mader recalled, noting the silver handgun was in the man’s right hand, hanging at his side and pointed at the ground.

Mr. Mader, who was standing behind Mr. Williams’ car parked on the street, said he then “began to use my calm voice.”

“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.’ Then he starts flicking his wrist to get me to react to it.

“I thought I was going to be able to talk to him and deescalate it. I knew it was a suicide-by-cop” situation.

To be perfectly clear, the “report of a domestic incident” that brought Mader to the scene was a 911 call placed by R.J. William’s girlfriend, who reported that Williams was suicidal, and threatening to kill himself, but not that he was a threat to anyone else. Mader recognized this and refused to shoot Williams. Instead, he began to talk him down.

According to the New York Daily News:

While Mader says he was trying to deescalate the situation, two more cops arrived and shot R.J. Williams dead as he allegedly walked toward them, waving his gun. The gun he had was unloaded. What he needed was help. What he needed was a man who knew how to assess a problem and bring in skilled support to resolve it. Stephen Mader was that man, but this is America, not Afghanistan. Here, our police don’t give a damn about your depression or suicidal tendencies or your young children or your future. If they deem you a threat, you’re dead.

Mader was subsequently fired. Why? Because he “failed to eliminate a threat.” Take a moment to take this in. Mader’s military training and experience in Afghanistan led him to conclude that the threat Williams posed was limited and that that threat was best eliminated by talking him down. In contrast, police protocol within the United States held that the threat Williams posed was dire and that the best way to eliminate that threat was to shoot him dead. I am by no means saying our military training is perfect. But if nothing else, this should make it very, very clear that there is something wrong with the way we train our police.

I do think we have to bring guns into this discussion more fully than I have seen thus far. Williams was holding a gun. He was not pointing it at police, but it seems that the very act of holding a gun ought to have been enough reason for Mader to shoot Williams, according to Mader’s superiors (who fired him for not doing so). We’ve seen this before. Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun. John Crawford III was carrying a BB gun. Neither were pointing their guns at police, nor did they intend to do so. Both were shot within seconds of cops appearing on the scene.

Race plays a role here too. Many states allow open carry. Ostensibly, the mere fact of having a gun on your person, even visibly on your person, should not be enough reason to be arrested, let alone enough reason to be shot dead. But in the case of both Rice and Crawford, a white person saw them holding guns while black, felt threatened, and made a call to police. Black men carrying guns are perceived as more threatening than white men carrying guns, both by the general public and by police—and the consequences are deadly.

Let’s return for a moment to the prevalence of guns in our society. Police in the U.S. know full well that they are operating in a country awash with guns. They have to deal with guns in the hands of civilians on a day-to-day basis at a level that is unprecedented among developed nations. Indeed, there are twenty-four times more guns per person in civilian hands in the U.S. than in Afghanistan. There are more guns per person in civilian hands in the U.S. than in any other country by far.

When should cops be permitted to shoot a person carrying a gun? When should they, instead, take more time to ascertain the nature of the threat, or attempt to talk the person down?

Mader was fired for not shooting a suicidal African American man holding an unloaded gun. What does this say about our nation’s priorities? What does this tell us about the training and procedures used by our police force? What does this communicate about the value we place on African American lives, and on the lives of those suffering from mental illness or suicide ideation? And perhaps most importantly, how does this situation help us understand what needs to change?

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