Military-Trained Police May Be Less Hasty To Shoot, But That Got This Vet Fired

Dec 8, 2016
Originally published on December 8, 2016 9:50 am

There are plenty of recent stories involving white police officers who have shot and killed black men, including some who are on trial for those shootings. Then there's the case of a white cop who did not shoot a black man holding a gun — and it may have cost him his job.

It started with a 911 call for help in Weirton, W.Va., on May 6 at 2:51 a.m. An emergency dispatcher in turn put out a call for an officer.

"Had a female stating they needed someone right now. She sounded hysterical," the dispatcher said. "Hung up the phone, will not answer on call back."

Nearest to the address was Stephen Mader, a 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran and rookie cop who was alone in his squad car. He got to the house and saw Ronald D. Williams, a 23-year-old black man, standing outside with his hands behind his back.

"And I say, 'Show me your hands,' and he's like, 'Naw, I can't do that,' " Mader told NPR. "I said, 'Show me your f'ing hands.' And then he brings his hands from behind his back and puts them down to his side. And that's when I noticed he had a silver pistol in his right hand."

Mader didn't know it, but Williams' girlfriend, who was inside the apartment with their infant son, had called 911 again. She told the dispatcher:

"My ex-boyfriend's here. He has a gun. He doesn't have a clip in the gun. There's no clip in the gun. He's drunk. He's drunk. He took the clip out of the gun and he said he was going to threaten the police with it just so they would shoot him. He does not have a clip in the gun."

On the 911 tape you hear Officer Mader on the radio saying, "We have a gun here." All the dispatcher said to the cops is this: "Watch out for a weapon."

Mader drew his weapon and told Williams to drop the pistol.

"Aim in on him, and I say, 'Drop your gun. Drop your gun,' " Mader told NPR. "And he said, 'I can't do that. Just shoot me.' And I told him, I said, 'I'm not gonna shoot you, brother — just put down the gun.' "

So even though Mader didn't know what Williams' girlfriend told 911 — that the gun was empty and the man was trying to commit "suicide by cop" — Mader didn't shoot.

Police get trained on de-escalation, but in that moment Mader was leaning more on training from the Marine Corps and experience in Afghanistan. That knowledge can be a key difference between police officers with military backgrounds and those without.

"Before you go to Afghanistan, they give you training," Mader said. "You need to be able to kind of read people. Not everybody over there is a bad guy, but they all dress the same. That's kind of what the situation was that night."

Backup arrives

In Afghanistan, the rules of engagement sometimes were stricter than use-of-force rules for civilian police in America. Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer who studied the military's rules of engagement in Afghanistan, said that especially was true in the later years of the war.

"There was an emphasis on winning hearts and minds, and focusing more on stabilizing communities and protecting the civilian population," Gaston said.

In Weirton, Mader still had those wartime rules in mind. The Marines had taught him to wait for clear hostile intent before opening fire, something he didn't see from Williams.

"For me, it wasn't enough to kind of take someone's life because they're holding a gun that's not pointed at me," Mader said.

But then — and this all happened in seconds — Mader's backup arrived. All they knew is that the dispatcher said there was a weapon. Mader remembers that Williams walked toward them as they drove up and got out of their cars.

"Their weapons are drawn, and they're screaming at him to drop the gun," Mader said. "At that point he starts waving the gun, back and forth between us."

One of the officers fired four shots, and a bullet hit Williams in the side of the head, leaving him on the pavement. The dispatcher called an ambulance, but the officers saw there was no hope in giving first aid. Mader went inside to check on the girlfriend and baby.

The gun did turn out to be empty, though Mader said the officers had no way of knowing that for sure.

He said that though he tried to talk to Williams one-on-one while he was there, when the other officers showed up, all they saw was someone waving a gun around.

"The one officer felt that his life was in danger, along with others', and he decided to fire at the subject," Mader said. "And I believe he was justified in what he did."

"A better understanding of rules of engagement"

What Mader thinks was not justified happened a few days later: Police Chief Rob Alexander told Mader that he was being fired for putting his fellow officers' lives in danger.

"When the officers arrived on the scene, they seen these two in a standoff pointing guns at each other, and that officer froze," Alexander said at a press conference in September.

But what Alexander characterizes as hesitation others may see as experience. Around the country, police chiefs who've hired war veterans have commented on their maturity and self-control when facing danger.

Dave Wilson, chief in the Wisconsin town of Shell Lake, an Iraq War veteran himself, said the vets he has hired make for ideal cops.

"If anything else, they have a better understanding of rules of engagement and use of force than others might," Wilson said. "They're used to seeing people holding guns, and they take the time to assess the real danger of the situation."

Researchers are starting to look at this, too. At Washington State University, Stephen James is part of an effort to test law enforcement officers' reactions in simulators, and one of the factors they're tracking is whether the officers are veterans. The data haven't been compiled, yet, but he said other studies of how the brain operates under pressure would suggest that veterans are more "patient."

"Combat vets who've been exposed to extreme violence have a different 'threat threshold,' " James said, "which means that they're in more control of their physiology, and they're not allowing this fight-or-flight response to drive them into action."

But in Weirton, officials said it wasn't just Mader's failure to shoot that got him fired. City Manager Travis Blosser said other reasons included "illegal searches in a vehicle, to the use of profanity with citizens and then also contaminating a crime scene of a potential homicide investigation."

The city manager and police chief would not comment further for this story.

West Virginia State Police Sgt. Jim Gibson, who led an investigation of the shooting, told NPR that he thought Mader believed he was doing the right thing — but that the town of Weirton was justified in deciding that for a variety of reasons, Mader wasn't cut out to be a policeman.

Mader said he still wants to be a cop and wishes things hadn't happened so quickly that night.

"If I had maybe 30 more seconds, maybe it would've went different," Mader said. "Maybe I could have talked him down and just put him in handcuffs that night."

The ACLU has been in touch with Mader, and he's considering legal action. In the meantime, he's supporting his wife and their two kids as a commercial truck driver.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a national debate happening right now over law enforcement. And as part of that debate, a phrase is being used a lot - this idea of police militarization. Sometimes, that refers to police using military-style gear, but it also reflects a worry about a certain military mindset, especially as war veterans come home and take jobs in law enforcement. Two of our reporters have been looking into whether military vets make for more aggressive cops. And first, we're going to hear from Martin Kaste. He covers law enforcement. Hi, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Tell us how this whole idea, this concern about vets being more aggressive as cops, how did it start?

KASTE: Well, what you need to keep in mind is that, for the last generation before this latest cycle of wars, American police forces were actually becoming more diverse, and police recruits were more likely to have college educations. And then, when the war started and then the veterans started coming home to work as police, there was some concern among reformers that some of that progress, as they saw it, would be lost and that these new police recruits who were coming out of war zones would be more likely to use force.

MARTIN: So what happened? Did it play out that way?

KASTE: In a word, no. In fact, some war veterans have shown more restraint than other police who don't have war experience. My colleague, Quil Lawrence, covers veterans, and he found such a case in the small town of Weirton, W.V. We have Quil's story here. And a word of warning - it does include a vivid description of a shooting. But the story begins with a call for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Hancock County 911. What is your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please send somebody to 119 Marie Avenue. We are in West Virginia. Right now - please, right now.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: On May 6 at 2:51 in the morning, the emergency dispatcher puts out a call on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: I got a female stating they needed someone right now. She sounded - sounded hysterical, hung up the phone, will not answer on call back.

LAWRENCE: Nearest to the address was Stephen Mader, a 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran and rookie cop.

STEPHEN MADER: Dispatch calls in and, you know, they come on the radio and, you know, they say, we got a woman on the phone. She's frantic. I say, you know, 10-4, and I'm on my way there.

LAWRENCE: Mader is alone in the squad car. He gets to the house and sees Ronald D. Williams, a 23-year-old black man, standing outside with his hands behind his back.

MADER: And I say, you know, show me your hands. And he's like, no, I can't do that. And I told him, I said, show me your F'ing (ph) hands. And then he brings his hands from behind his back and puts them down to his side. And that's when I noticed he had a silver pistol in his right hand.

LAWRENCE: Now, Officer Mader doesn't know it, but Ronald Williams's girlfriend, who was inside the apartment with their infant son, she's called 911 again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My ex-boyfriend's here. He has a gun. He doesn't have a clip in the gun.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Did you say he has a gun?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes. There's no clip in the gun. He's drunk. He's drunk. He took the clip out of the gun, and he said he was going to threaten the police with it just so they would shoot him, but he does not have a clip in the gun.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: OK, all right. I have an officer there now, OK? OK, just stay on the line with me, please. Hello?

LAWRENCE: On the 911 tape, you hear officer Mader on the radio saying, we have a gun here. All the dispatcher says to the cops is...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Dispatch 31, watch out for a weapon.

LAWRENCE: And Mader has his weapon drawn, and he's telling Williams to drop the pistol.

MADER: I aim in on him and I say, you know, drop your gun, you know, drop your gun. And he said, I can't do that. Just shoot me. And, you know, I told him, I said, I'm not going to shoot you, brother, just, you know, put down the gun.

LAWRENCE: So even though officer Mader doesn't know what Williams' girlfriend told 911 - that the gun is empty and he's trying to commit suicide by cop - Mader didn't shoot. Police get trained on de-escalation, but right now Stephen Mader was leaning more on training from the Marine Corps and experience in Afghanistan, a key difference between police officers with military experience and those without.

MADER: Before you, you know, go to Afghanistan, they give you training on, you know, you need to be able to - to kind of read people. Not everybody over there is a bad guy, but they all dress the same. That's kind of what the situation was that night.

LAWRENCE: In Afghanistan, the rules of engagement called for clear, hostile intent before a Marine could open fire. Mader says he didn't have it.

MADER: For me, it wasn't enough to kind of take someone's life because they're holding a gun that's not pointed at me.

LAWRENCE: But then - and this all happened in seconds - officer Mader's backup arrives. And all they know is the dispatcher said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Dispatch 31, watch out for a weapon.

MADER: He starts walking towards them as they're driving up. They get out of their car.

LAWRENCE: Williams' girlfriend is still inside the house, on the line with the 911 dispatcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: You need to give it to the officer.

MADER: Their weapons are drawn, and they're screaming at him to drop the gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They're outside yelling right now. He said he'd put the gun down. (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: OK, ma'am. Just settle down.

MADER: At that point, he starts waving the gun, you know, back and forth between us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They're firing. They're firing. They're firing. No.

MADER: One of the officers fired four shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, please, please, please, please, please.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Shots fired, dispatch. Shots fired.

LAWRENCE: It's been just 36 seconds since Mader told dispatch there's a gun. One of the bullets hit Ronald Williams in the side of the head, and he's on the pavement. The dispatcher has already called an ambulance, but the officers see there's no hope of giving first aid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Thirty-one, just stay here with the suspect in the driveway. He's down (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Tony's with him. He's down and out.

LAWRENCE: On the 911 tape, you can hear Mader go inside to make sure the girlfriend and child are OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADER: Are you hurt?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, I'm OK.

MADER: Is your son OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He had - he had me downstairs, and he wouldn't let me leave.

LAWRENCE: The gun did turn out to be empty. Though, Mader says, to be fair, the officers had no way of knowing that for sure.

MADER: I show up. It's a suicidal man with a handgun. Put down the gun, and we can talk about it. But when they show up, the first thing they see is this young man waving a gun around him. You know, the one officer felt that his life was in danger along with others, and, you know, he - he decided to fire at the subject. And I believe he was justified in what he did.

LAWRENCE: What Mader thinks was not justified happened a few days later. Police Chief Rob Alexander told Mader that he was being fired for putting his fellow officers' lives in danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB ALEXANDER: When the officers arrived on the scene, they see these two in a standoff, pointing guns at each other. And that officer froze.

LAWRENCE: The chief held a press conference in September after some negative stories in the newspaper. City Manager Travis Blosser said Mader was fired for reasons besides failing to shoot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRAVIS BLOSSER: Both illegal searches in a vehicle to the use of profanity with citizens and then, also, contaminating a crime scene of a potential homicide and investigation.

LAWRENCE: The city manager and police chief would not comment further for this story. State Police Sergeant Jim Gibson, who led an investigation of the shooting, told NPR he thought Mader believed he was doing the right thing. But Gibson said the town of Weirton was justified in deciding that, for a variety of reasons, Mader wasn't cut out to be a policeman. Mader says he still wants to be a cop and wishes things hadn't happened so quickly that night.

MADER: If I had maybe 30 more seconds, you know, maybe it would have went different. Maybe, you know, I could have talked him down and, you know, just put him in handcuffs that night.

LAWRENCE: The ACLU has been in touch with Mader, and he's considering legal action. In the meantime, he's supporting his wife and their two kids as a commercial truck driver. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

MARTIN: So we're back in studio with our law enforcement correspondent, Martin Kaste, after listening to Quil's piece. Pretty remarkable piece. Martin, you get the impression from that story that Officer Mader - that police officer's experience in war made him less likely to use force. Have you seen that anywhere? It is kind of counterintuitive, to some degree.

KASTE: Yes, it is. And yet, I hear it - certainly anecdotal, but police chiefs tell me this, too. Dave Wilson is a police chief in a small town in Wisconsin called Shell Lake. He's also an Iraq war veteran. And we talked about those early fears - about a decade ago - that some of these veterans would come home and be violent cops.

DAVE WILSON: It's actually about 180 from what the perception was. Oh, my God, you know, all these trigger-happy grunts coming back from a war zone, going to be shooting our citizens in the street - simply not the case. In fact, if anything else, they have a better understanding of rules of engagement and use of force than others might.

KASTE: Now, you heard him talk about the rules of engagement, which are obviously the rules for when to use force in a war zone. Those varied a lot depending on where soldiers and Marines were deployed and when in the war they were there. And I talked about this with Erica Gaston. She's a human rights lawyer who studied the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. And she said, you really have to look at when someone served.

ERICA GASTON: So for example, in Afghanistan, for - especially in the later years of engagement, there was an emphasis on winning hearts and minds and focusing more on stabilizing communities and protecting the civilian population. And what that meant was that they really tightened up a lot of the rules of engagement.

KASTE: She says, for example, during the hearts-and-minds period in Afghanistan, soldiers on patrol might have actually been required to call back to their commanders for permission before shooting someone. That's certainly not the rule for cops here at home.

MARTIN: So does that mean those combat vets are more hesitant to pull the trigger than other cops are?

KASTE: That word, hesitant, is one I used, too, in talking to them about this, and they didn't like that word. They don't like the idea of them being hesitant so much as patient. And science is starting to to look at this question, too. Stephen James is a fellow I talked to about this. He's a researcher at Washington State University. He's also a combat vet. And he says there is some reason to think that veterans might be more likely to control their reactions when there's a perception of danger.

STEPHEN JAMES: One possible explanation is that combat vets who have been exposed to extreme violence have a different threat threshold, which means that they're in more control of their physiology, and they're not allowing this fight-or-flight response to drive them into action.

KASTE: Now, this is all still theory. One of the things Stephen James is doing with his research group is actually putting officers through simulators to look at their quick reaction time and then looking as well at their background to see whether or not they're veterans. We don't know definitively whether veterans are different when it comes to this, but it certainly seems like a likely factor.

MARTIN: NPR's Martin Kaste covers law enforcement. Thanks so much, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.