Ex-Marine Fired As W.Va. Cop After Failing To Shoot Troubled Citizen
On July 24, 2015, the Weirton, W.Va., Police Department announced the hiring of three new officers for the force. All three men were celebrated for bringing some much needed youth to an aging department in the sleepy rural city 35 miles outside of Pittsburgh.
Zach Springer was just 20.
Adam Mortimer was 21.
And the old head among them was Stephen Mader, who was 24.
Maybe they knew it. Maybe they didn’t. But Stephen Mader was a find, a gem, a blessing for that little department.
Even though he was just 24 when they hired him, Stephen Mader was already a bonafide hero — one of the good guys.
Mader had spent four years in the Marines.
In the announcement that he was hired by the Weirton Police Department, I noticed that it said Mader was a Marine. I took a chance and Googled “Stephen Mader Marines” and immediately found several stories of a Marine named Stephen Mader who served in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. A special report was done on him and his amazing explosive-sniffing dog, Maxx. This Stephen Mader joined the Marines in 2009 and became an improvised explosive device dog handler with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 6.
I couldn’t verify for sure if it was the same man. It definitely looked like him. Then I searched his name on Facebook and there he was — Stephen Mader from Weirton, West Virginia, a Marine, with his trusted dog Maxx. It was him — except now, Mader is no longer a police officer. He got fired.
While his hiring made the local news there in Weirton, his termination has gone national.
Bad police officers are known for keeping their jobs in spite of brutality, corruption, harassment and even murder. The Chicago Police Department has hundreds of officers with 20 or more brutality complaints. Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who used a deadly chokehold on Eric Garner, not only avoided prosecution, but has kept his job and received raises and overtime pay over the past two years. He’s somehow bringing in a salary two to three times the average schoolteacher in spite of his actions in Garner’s death, as well as costing New York City in several other lawsuits before that.
It’s a rare thing to see a police officer get fired. When it happens, it’s normally for two reasons — they’ve committed a crime that they will likely be found guilty of or they are bucking the system somehow and have seriously pissed off their bosses.
In the case of Stephen Mader, he committed no crime. What he did do, though, was so compassionate and counter-cultural in the day and age where police so often shoot first and ask questions later, that his actions threatened to disturb the status quo.
By the time Stephen Mader suited up with a gun and a badge for Weirton, he had not only been trained for several years on how to safely and accurately assess life and death threats, he had actually done the work in a war zone as a Marine. His very job was to safely and carefully identify IED’s in Afghanistan so that they could be disarmed without harming our troops or the communities they were in. By definition, particularly because he did this work alongside Maxx, the specially trained 4-year-old Labrador, who would feed off his energy, Mader had the gift of calmness.
So, after serving nearly a year on his local police force, when Stephen Mader was dispatched to the home of a suicidal man on May 6, he did so with the precision and patience he had become known for.
Ronald “RJ” Williams, Jr, a 23-year-old black man and young father, was suicidal. Stephen Mader, the Marine turned cop, was a 24-year-old white man, and a young father himself. When Mader arrived on the scene, he did exactly what every activist and advocate for safer policing has begged officers all over the nation to do — he took his time and saw Williams as a human being. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette described the scene:
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.
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.
The shooting remains under investigation by the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union, as well was Williams’ family.
Eleven days after the shooting, when Mader returned to work, he was reportedly told by Police Chief Rob Alexander and City Manager Travis Blosser that he was being placed on administrative leave while they completed an investigation to “see if you are going to be an officer here. You put two other officers in danger.”
Three weeks later, Stephen Mader received his termination letter. In it, it said he was fired because he “failed to eliminate a threat.”
Except R.J. Williams was not an actual threat to anyone. And even if he had been, Mader had the training, skill, and experience to expertly handle the situation. It’s highly doubtful that the cops who shot and killed Williams had ever been under the pressures that Mader faced with grace in Afghanistan.
At a time when bad cops seem harder to get rid of than corruption and greed on Wall Street, that an American war hero was fired for trying to save a man’s life is America in a nutshell right now.
To prevent from having the blemish on his record, Mader was advised to resign in silence, but he’s not that type of guy. He refused — as he should have.
“To resign and admit I did something wrong here would have ate at me,” he told the Post-Gazette. “I think I’m right in what I did. I’ll take it to the grave.”
Here’s to hoping that Stephen Mader has a long life in law enforcement somewhere else. We need men like him on our streets.