PART I.Nine Minutes in Weirton
The dispatcher for the Weirton Police Department took the 911 call at 2:51 a.m. on May 6, 2016.
“Please send somebody to 119 Marie Ave., Weirton, West Virginia, right now,” a woman said. She sounded young and scared.
“Please right now. Please right now.”
The woman hung up. The dispatcher called her back, but no one answered.
Stephen Mader, a 25-year-old rookie officer with the Weirton Police Department, got the radio call from dispatch. It was 2:53.
“Had a female stating she was at 119 Marie Ave. She sounded hysterical, hung up the phone. Would not answer on call back.”
Weirton, a city of 20,000 in the state’s northern panhandle, was quiet at that hour. It took Mader, alone in his patrol car, just over three minutes to get close to 119 Marie. At first he overshot the address, and when he got to 130 Marie, he had to hit the brakes. Backing up, Mader caught sight of a young African-American man standing next to a car parked in the street.
“Where’s 119?” Mader asked.
“It’s right here,” the young man said. “Why, what’s up?”
The woman inside 119 Marie called 911 again. It was 2:57. Her name was Bethany Gilmer. R.J. Williams, her ex-boyfriend and the father of their baby, had a gun, she told the dispatcher. But the gun was not loaded, she said. He’d taken the magazine out. He was drunk.
“He doesn’t have a clip in the gun,” Gilmer told the dispatcher. “He said he was going to threaten the police with it just so they would shoot him.”
Mader by then had gotten out of his patrol car. The only light came from nearby streetlamps. Williams had his hands behind his back.
“Show me your hands,” Mader commanded.
“No, I don’t want to,” Williams said.
“Show me your fucking hands,” Mader said.
“Why you got to cuss at me?” Williams asked.
When Williams at last showed his hands, a silver and black Smith & Wesson pistol rested in his right palm. His arm hung at his side, the gun pointed at the ground. He started to back up along a narrow sidewalk leading to the house.
Mader drew his weapon and moved to take cover behind the car parked in front of 119 Marie.
“Put the gun down,” Mader said.
“I can’t do that,” Williams said.
“I don’t want to shoot you, brother,” Mader said. “Put the gun down.”
“Just shoot me,” Williams said.
To Mader, Williams sounded choked up. The Smith & Wesson didn’t move from his side. It was still pointed at the sidewalk. It was 2:58.
“Just shoot me,” Williams said again.
Mader was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, but grew up in Weirton. He went to the local high school and loved his early childhood — mostly, he said, because he got to spend lots of it outdoors. He wrestled and played soccer. For kicks, he’d tie a tractor to an old couch loaded up with friends and haul it through the fields.
If you lived in Weirton, Mader said, you worked in the steel mill, and so that’s what his dad did. In its boom days after World War II, the mill employed more than 10,000 workers, and shift changes seemed like great tidal migrations of dirty humanity.
But when Mader turned 10, the mill announced its latest round of layoffs. His father was one of the casualties, and he later had to find work as a card dealer at Mountaineer Casino. Things got tight in the household, and grandparents pitched in to help care for Mader and his brother and sister.
The Twin Towers in New York City were toppled that same year, and even for Mader, then a fifth-grader, the terrorist attack felt like a call to arms. His paternal grandfather had served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict; his mother’s father had been an Army drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, and an uncle was an Army vet, too. Mader’s father had been a Navy man, a jet technician on an aircraft carrier before he found work in the mill. His dad loved war movies, and he and Mader watched loads of them.
“I knew I wanted to serve in some type of military,” Mader said. “They told me the Marines was the most challenging, so that’s what I went for.”
Mader enlisted in 2009, and after boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, he wound up spending seven months in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He’d been trained as a dog handler, and with help from a faithful dog named Max, Mader’s job was to identify improvised explosive devices. Max was a golden Labrador, a dead ringer for JoJo, a dog Mader had growing up.
“They looked exactly alike,” Mader said with a smile, “except that Max was in shape.”
Mader was out one day in a convoy taking his Marine commander to a meeting with Afghan villagers. Mader said he was in the sixth truck when another, about 500 feet in front of his, struck an IED. Mader and the platoon sergeant in his vehicle jumped out to assess additional threats.
“How much do you trust Max?” the sergeant asked.
“With my life,” Mader said.
Max was sent out, and the convoy followed him the rest of the way.
“We didn’t blow up on our way there, so that must have been a good thing,” Mader recalled.
Mader later tried to adopt Max but was told he’d already been given away to another organization.
“It was hard getting over Max,” he said.
Once, when he was stateside at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Mader woke up next to his wife, Kaycie, and moved to put his boots on. Kaycie asked what he was doing.
“Going to feed Max,” he said.
“Max is gone,” Kaycie reminded him.
Mader had met Kaycie in high school. They had lunch period together, and they went as a couple to both homecoming and the prom. Their first child, Bruce, was born when Mader was still in Afghanistan. He’d left one forward operating base a nervous husband — the medic gave him pills for his anxiety — and arrived at his next base a new father. He posted a picture to his Facebook account of himself and his fellow Marines smoking cigars in honor of the birth of his son.
“I went over there and did my job as I was told,” Mader said of his four years in the Marines. “Whether or not I fixed anything, I don’t know.”
Mader had always loved the diesel engine in one of the trucks he’d had as a teen, and so when he returned to Weirton, he enrolled in school to be a diesel mechanic. But he eventually applied to join the Weirton Police Department. A friend’s dad was a cop on the force. Another friend was working an internship with the local sheriff’s office. Mader remembered fondly how local businesses used to hand out trading cards with the pictures of Weirton officers. And the structure and camaraderie of police work, Mader said, felt familiar, felt right.
Mader completed 16 weeks of training at the state police academy in Dunbar. He liked the work they did on de-escalating potentially volatile situations. The Marines had taught him how to eliminate targets, he said. In police work, the lethal option wasn’t the only one.
On the Weirton force, he said, “You’re not just there to kill and be killed.”
The 911 dispatcher for the Weirton Police Department that night in May 2016 was a woman who had been a high school science student of Mader’s grandmother. Most of the runs she sent the department’s officers on involved shoplifting or drunken behavior. There’s no record of any officer with the Weirton P.D. having been killed in the line of duty. Weirton’s leaders liked to boast that it was one of the safest small cities in America.
But there were plenty of domestic dispute calls, too. Cops everywhere tend to hate them. Unpredictable. Emotional. Sometimes hard to sort out the aggressor. Weapons are common.
Mader assumed that’s what was going on with the distraught woman the dispatcher had just radioed him about.
“Ten-four,” Mader responded. He said it took a conscious effort not to groan.
As he drove, Mader mentally drew up what he called a “personal checklist.” Do this, then that. Separate the parties. But he also reminded himself: Anything could happen.
“I just looked at it as, ‘Better to go in with a blank slate,’” Mader said. “I just tried to keep myself as calm as I could. I tried not to get too excited, because then it’s easier to make a mistake.”
In front of 119 Marie, Mader kept his gun trained on Williams. They stood perhaps 5 or 6 feet apart at first. After Williams backed up toward the house, the distance lengthened to maybe 10 or 15 feet. Mader had unholstered his weapon a couple of times since he’d hit the streets in December 2015. This, though, was the first time he’d drawn it with the chance that he might well use it.
The dispatcher, with the information given to her by Gilmer, had managed to radio a warning: “Watch out for weapon.” She did not include Gilmer’s claim that the gun was not loaded or that Williams might be suicidal.
“Got a gun here,” Mader radioed back.
The Weirton Police Department, like almost every other, has a policy on the use of lethal force: If someone is a threat to life — a civilian’s or an officer’s — an officer can shoot to kill.
Mader said it was scary in the dimly lit street. His adrenaline was pumping. It felt, he said, like it could be one of those “oh, shit” moments.
But Mader did not regard Williams as a threat. Williams seemed distraught. He avoided eye contact. He was looking around to see if anyone was watching. He wasn’t being belligerent. He was only repeating a single sentence:
The requests felt to Mader like pleadings.
“It’s a red flag,” Mader later said. “Suicide by cop.”
Williams had become a father for the first time just four months before the standoff. The child, a boy, was given the same name as his father and grandfather, and thus — as the third Ronald Dale Williams — was playfully called Tre. Tre turned out to be the first baby born in 2016 at Trinity Hospital in Steubenville, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Weirton, and his birth made for a cute segment on local TV.
“This is my first baby, so everyone will be excited,” Gilmer said on camera to the TV reporter. “I never expected to have him on New Year’s.”
But in the months since the birth, the relationship between Gilmer and Williams had become badly strained. Ida Poole, Williams’ mother, thought Gilmer’s moods had darkened after the baby’s birth. For his part, Williams had long battled anxiety, sometimes so acute that he required medication. Disputes flared regularly, and the house the couple shared at 119 Marie sometimes sat empty: Williams would retreat to his family, Gilmer and the baby to hers.
The Williams family says R.J. was torn up about how little access he had to his son. He’d been a doting young father, they said, taking on extra shifts at his job as a caregiver at a home for the mentally disabled in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, to pay for food and diapers and toys.
“He loved his son, and the baby loved the sound of his father’s voice,” said Heather Poole, one of R.J.’s sisters. “Being away from him weighed heavy on his heart.”
Gilmer offered a portrait of a more disturbed man. She told police both she and Williams’ own family recognized that his mental health issues were significant, often exacerbated by a problem with alcohol. Gilmer said Williams could be erratic and volatile, even paranoid about whether she was being faithful and whether Tre was his child. They’d fought a week before the standoff, and she’d gone to the Weirton Police Department to ask about an order of protection. But she filed no charges and sought no order.
The coining of the term “suicide by cop” is sometimes attributed to Karl Harris, a police officer turned psychologist, who came up with the phrase after manning a suicide hotline in the early 1990s. But there is little question that the phenomenon has existed for decades. Some researchers trace its rise to the emptying of America’s psychiatric hospitals and the growing problem of homelessness. But it’s not hard to find an array of examples that don’t easily fit those categories: people who’ve been laid off from work or seen a romantic relationship end.
One of the more rigorous studies of the phenomenon was done a decade ago, and it indicated that suicidal intentions could play a role in more than a third of all fatal police shootings. Those dying in this fashion were overwhelmingly male, typically young and frequently under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 16 percent of the cases involving suicide attempts, the civilians involved had tried to take their life at least once before, and in 15 percent the presumed suicides came amid an episode reported to the police as domestic violence. More than 80 percent of the incidents were spontaneous. In just under a third of the cases, the encounters with police lasted less than 10 minutes.
Seemingly every one of these cases comes with the potential for controversy. Was the suicidal person, sometimes brandishing a knife or pretending to have a weapon, really a threat? Was firing their guns the only option for the officers? What kind of training had the officers received in dealing with those who have a mental illness? Was the term “suicide by cop” — making an officer an actor in a painful, private choice — unfair to the officers, many of whom wound up deeply traumatized?
“This unique form of suicide has the potential to be a public health threat on a multitude of levels whenever and wherever it takes place,” said a recent journal article published by the American Psychiatric Association.
On May 5, the day before the standoff, Gilmer said she would allow Williams to spend a rare night with her and the baby at 119 Marie. She had to work the next morning, and Williams was going to mind the child. But he didn’t show up until after 2 a.m., Gilmer told police, and when he did, he told Gilmer he’d had a couple of beers.
Gilmer said Williams immediately became argumentative and accused her of bad-mouthing his family.
“So I came into the kitchen and sat on the floor and said we need to have a civil conversation,” Gilmer told the police.
“I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the same anymore,” she said. “And that I did not love him anymore.”
Yelling between the couple ensued, and Gilmer fled to the basement. Shoved by Williams, she punched him in the face and managed to get back upstairs. She had her cellphone in her hand and hit the green button for 911. She quickly asked that someone be sent to 119 Marie.
Williams went to his car and got the Smith & Wesson. Back in the house, Williams asked Gilmer if the police were coming. Gilmer now had Tre in her arms.
“He held the gun to his head and said he was going to kill himself in front of the baby and me.”
She said Williams then removed the magazine from the gun and racked the live round out of the weapon as well.
“After R.J. did that, he said he was going to go outside and wave the gun at police to make them shoot him because he wasn’t going to kill himself.”
She looked at her cellphone and saw she’d missed the callback from the dispatcher. She dialed again.
Suddenly, there were three officers yelling at Williams on Marie Avenue. It was 2:59.
Ryan Kuzma and Michael Baker, each in his own patrol car, had heard the radio call involving a frantic woman. They thought Mader, so new to the job, might need help, and only more so when they heard the dispatcher warn about a weapon and Mader confirm there was a gun at the scene. The two officers had driven through Weirton’s streets with their lights and sirens off, and when they arrived, they had nearly collided.
Like Mader, they had never been involved in a shooting and, again like Mader, didn’t know that Gilmer had said Williams’ gun was not loaded.
With the arrival of Kuzma and Baker, Williams began walking toward the driveway to the left of the house, again pleading to be shot. He raised his gun slightly, pointing it in the direction of Mader. Mader said the gun was aimed at the level of his torso but wide to his left.
Baker screamed at Mader to take cover, and all three officers continued to yell at Williams to drop the gun. Williams then raised the gun to shoulder height, walked toward the arriving officers, and swung the gun back and forth, from Mader to Kuzma and Baker and back to Mader again.
“I’m going to pull my trigger,” Baker declared.
Gilmer, still on the 911 call, heard the hollering and relayed it to the dispatcher. “They’re outside yelling right now,” she sobbed.
“Ma’am, just settle down,” the dispatcher responded.
“They’re firing, they’re firing, they’re firing. No. Please, please, please!”
Kuzma had opened fire. He stood some 30 feet from Williams, and his first three shots missed their target. One bullet was fired into the grass. Another struck a tree and then the door frame of a nearby house. A third bullet punctured the tire of a truck in a neighbor’s driveway. Mader could instantly hear the hissing of air.
Kuzma paused and refocused before his fourth shot. The bullet struck Williams behind and above his right ear and exited the left side of his forehead.
“What happened?” the dispatcher asked Gilmer.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. They fired. I don’t know.”
Baker reached the fallen man first. Williams was gasping for air. Baker said the desperate breaths then became more like gurgling. The Smith & Wesson was located, and it was clear that it lacked bullets.
Mader got on the radio. It had been roughly 10 seconds, he estimated, from the moment the two backup officers arrived at 119 Marie until the shooting started. Asked on the radio about the status of the “suspect,” Mader declared him “down and out.” An arriving lieutenant, per protocol, handcuffed Williams as blood pooled under his head in the driveway. Someone threw a white sheet over the body.
It was 3 a.m., nine minutes since Gilmer’s first 911 call.
The West Virginia State Police investigate all fatal shootings by officers in the state, and within hours five troopers were at the scene. Sgt. Jim Gibson of the state police was in charge. All three Weirton officers gave statements. Later, the Weirton police reached a work colleague of Ida Poole, who then informed Poole of her son’s death.
The killing of Williams had many of the combustible components of a controversial police shooting. An African-American man had been shot dead by a white officer. While there was a weapon, it wasn’t loaded, and the 911 dispatcher knew that could be so before the shooting started. Questions of mental health and suicide seemed in play.
There was, too, a tense scene when Williams’ family showed up at the state police barracks to pick up his belongings. A lawyer representing the family had emerged and raised questions about the necessity of the shooting. Several family members would later write to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation.
“I don’t want this incredible and tragic incident set aside and forgotten,” Ivory Williams, R.J.’s grandmother, wrote to Loretta Lynch, then the attorney general. “The family needs answers, and most of all we need justice for R.J.”
Just weeks after the shooting, Weirton and the Police Department did something almost unheard-of in America’s long and troubled history of police shootings: They quickly fired one of the officers for his actions in the fatal encounter.
PART II.You Should Never Have Been a Cop”
At 9:06 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2017, Rob Alexander, the chief of police in Weirton, took a seat in an office in downtown Wheeling. He was about to take part in a first for him: giving sworn testimony about his decision to fire one of the three officers involved in the death of Williams.
Alexander stated his name, swore to tell the truth and got the basics out of the way. He said he had been a member of the Weirton Police Department for 23 years, the last three as chief.
“What are your job duties in your current position as chief of police?” asked the lawyer taking Alexander’s deposition.
The chief took a stab at humor. “Babysitter,” he said.
The lawyer moved on. There was sensitive and complex ground to cover.
The officer Alexander had fired had been shocked by his dismissal. He had hoped to spend his entire working life on the Weirton force. Convinced he had done nothing wrong, the officer sued, and now, 17 months later, Alexander had to explain his decision under oath.
One of the officer’s lawyers, Maggie Coleman, wanted to explore the Police Department’s training on the use of force. Alexander acknowledged that fatal police shootings were not common in Weirton; he could remember just two in his more than two decades with the department. He later declared that the Williams case was the first he had overseen as the head of the force. Alexander said that he was sure his officers had received some training on the use of force while in the academy, but that he wasn’t sure how often or how specifically they had been trained on the issue once they were on the streets.
“When was the last time you received training specific to constitutional limitations on the use of force by police officers?” the lawyer asked Alexander.
“I couldn’t answer that,” Alexander said.
Coleman then asked if Alexander had ever been trained in how to conduct a review of an officer’s use of force.
“I do not, did not, have not,” the chief said. “Sorry.”
Coleman’s focus on the use of force was no surprise, of course. It was the issue her client had been fired over. A young man was dead.
But her full line of inquiry then took a startling turn.
“Do you routinely review officer uses of force to determine whether or not the officer did not use enough force in the particular situation?”
Alexander, it turns out, had not fired the officer who shot Williams. He had fired Stephen Mader, who had chosen not to shoot the young man.
Alexander had concluded that the young officer had frozen in a life-and-death moment. He had determined that Mader, in not eliminating what he said was the threat posed by Williams, had put the lives of fellow officers at risk. Kuzma, the officer who had killed Williams, thought Mader should have shot him first.
Mader’s actions at 119 Marie Ave. in May 2016 had instantly become the subject of analysis and gossip among the ranks of the tiny department. The word “coward” was being tossed around. Kuzma and Baker had taken the remarkable step of asking Alexander in writing never to assign them to work again with Mader. Two other members of the force signed on as well, and the memo was quietly slid under the chief’s door.
In his lawsuit, Mader said that, apart from his statement the night of the shooting , he had never had the chance to explain himself. He was never interviewed by anyone in the Police Department, including the captain who recommended his firing as well as Alexander, the chief who approved it.
“The Weirton Police Department terminated Mr. Mader’s employment because he chose not to use deadly force to shoot and kill an African-American man who was suicidal,” his lawsuit alleged.
Tim O’Brien, one of the lawyers representing him, contrasted the punishment of Mader with the numerous and often incendiary cases in which officers around the country had killed young men of color only to face no sanctions.
“Here,” O’Brien said at the time, “we have an officer who uses restraint and he gets punished. Something was wrong.”
O’Brien alleged that the punishment had a purpose. That the city and Police Department wanted to protect themselves from any claim by the Williams family that Kuzma had shot R.J. needlessly. Finding fault with Mader for not shooting Williams, then, might help the city defend itself against any such claim and the scrutiny it might attract.
“It’s a profound case,” O’Brien said in a recent interview. “Almost like a law professor made it up. It goes to the heart of when deadly force can be used.”
Mader was sworn in as a Weirton patrolman in July 2015. His training lay ahead of him, but being added to the force along with two others that month was newsworthy in Weirton. Alexander told a local television reporter that his force had lost a number of officers to retirement, and he was eager to replenish its ranks. The department was budgeted for 38 officers, and with Mader and the other two recruits coming aboard, it had at least clawed its way back to 35.
Mader, in jacket and tie, told the reporter he was ready to brush up on local laws and “do the best I can.” He said his starting pay was $16.53 an hour.
“There’s a lot involved in the testing process,” Alexander said into the camera. “And these three candidates aced all those.”
Mader hit the streets in late December 2015. He was assigned a training officer, and that officer’s report weeks later seemed encouraging. He complimented Mader’s handling of paperwork and the taking of statements from witnesses and victims. He did say that Mader could do a better job of learning the city’s streets and growing more comfortable talking on the radio, but didn’t doubt he would get the hang of it.
“Mader is not afraid to ask questions if he doesn’t know what to do and wants to improve in the duties of a patrolman,” the training officer wrote.
On one thing, the training officer was clear: “When it comes to officer safety, Prob. Ptlm. Mader knows the importance in all different situations,” he wrote. “And knows to always have a fellow officer’s back.”
Mader was becoming an officer at a raw moment for policing in America. Fatal police shootings of African Americans had roiled cities across the country, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Chicago to Cleveland to Charleston, South Carolina. At least two news organizations built databases to try to account for as many fatal police shootings as possible. The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts, and two of its central findings were that people with mental illnesses made up large numbers of those killed, and that very few officers were ever prosecuted for even the most questionable of fatal encounters.
The hundreds of incidents and the attention they received wound up having an impact on many of the men and women serving in uniform. One Pew Research Foundation national survey of police officers found that 75 percent of them felt the shootings had increased tensions with black members of the communities they policed. Some 85 percent said the net effect had been to make their jobs harder, and 93 percent said they worried more than in the past about their personal safety. The number of officers killed in the line of duty, the survey showed, had increased as protests gripped one part of the country after another.
The same survey also showed that the vast majority of officers never fire their weapons during the course of their careers. Just 27 percent said they had ever fired their weapons, whether intentionally or accidentally. Mader actually fit the profile of the officer most likely to fire his weapon: male with a military background.
But in his months on the street, Mader had had few occasions even to feel the need to draw his gun. He had done so while conducting a sweep of a suspicious building, for example, or carrying out a potentially problematic traffic stop. But that was about it. The only two incidents that had caught the attention of his superiors involved the arrest of a man after a dispute over a parking ticket and Mader’s response to a report of a woman in cardiac arrest.
In the first, Mader had opened a car door to place the parking ticket inside to keep it from getting wet in case of rain. The owner of the car came out of his house and began swearing at Mader over the ticket and his decision to put it inside the car. The man kept swearing, and after his wife emerged as well, Mader and his training officer arrested him. The department’s write up of the episode said Mader swore at the woman, telling her to “get back in the fucking house.” Mader only remembers being exasperated, and muttering, “All this over a fucking parking ticket.”
A sergeant later sorted things out. Mader told him his first training officer had said it was all right to place a ticket inside an unlocked car to protect it from rain. The sergeant told him he was wrong — that he shouldn’t have done it or sworn in front of the couple. The ticket and arrest were vacated, and the man and his wife said they were happy with the way the department had handled the matter.
The second incident involved Mader’s response to an April 12, 2016, call about a woman in cardiac arrest who eventually died. When Mader arrived at her home, emergency medical technicians were working unsuccessfully to revive the woman, and they had moved her to a staircase landing inside. Mader and two other officers who joined him regarded the incident as tragic, but in the end a medical call, and they soon left. A supervisor later determined that Mader had failed to deduce that the woman might have been the victim of foul play. Parts of her body, the senior officer said, were contorted in a way that might have suggested she had been assaulted.
The department never determined if foul play was involved, and no one was ever arrested for the woman’s death. Still, a supervisor wrote a memo suggesting that Mader be disciplined for his handling of the call. Alexander, the police chief, later said under oath that Mader should have stopped the EMTs from trying to save the woman so as to preserve a potential crime scene.
Three weeks later, Mader was on the overnight shift, from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. “The weather was getting warmer — that’s when crime is higher,” he said.
“I was hitting up different neighborhoods. Making sure my presence was known,” he added. “I kept myself entertained as best I could.”
Then there was the call to get to 119 Marie. There, he sized up Williams. Mader was thickly built and still muscular from his years with the Marines. Williams was taller than Mader but slighter. His family liked to joke that they knew he had arrived home late at night by his light, telltale skips up the staircase.
To Mader, there was nothing intimidating or menacing about Williams’ demeanor.
“I was just trying to calm him down,” Mader said. “It was really just talking to him like he was a human being — talk to him like a guy who was in a wrong state of mind, like a guy who needed to be calmed down, who needed help.”
Mader had received no training in how to handle such situations. No one in the Weirton department had. But he was familiar with the phenomenon of suicide by cop, and aware that such shootings often proved controversial.
And so he waited.
“I didn’t want to shoot him,” Mader said. “I don’t want to say this, because it’s really corny, but I was kind of sacrificing my well-being for him. I’m not going to shoot this kid for my well-being. I’m going to wait to see more from him.”
That said, he would fire if it were warranted. He wasn’t interested in dying.
“I was ready to be first,” Mader said. “As bad as it sounds, I’m going home.”
When the backup officers, Kuzma and Baker, arrived, Mader said, it felt like a mixed blessing. He was grateful for the support, but fearful of what might happen. If Williams wanted someone to shoot him, two more people with guns had just turned up.
“Now this guy has a new option, he’s got a new way to get it done,” Mader recalled thinking. “That’s what scared me.”
When the standoff was over, Mader returned to headquarters. He gave his statement to a superior, and he replayed the events in his mind. It was amazing, he said, how quickly it all happened, but how long it felt in the moment. He said then what he still says today: he could not second-guess Kuzma’s decision to shoot Williams.
But the shooting was the talk of headquarters, and some officers began to openly imply that Mader might have been frozen by indecision or, worse, been afraid to shoot. Mader said he opted to keep quiet.
“I let them say what they needed to tell me,” Mader said.
Williams’ death shattered a fiercely loyal family. Ida Poole, the matriarch, was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. Her father was a maintenance worker at a local hospital, and her mother tended the home. Poole would have a succession of men in her life, and with them both heartbreak (two of them died young) and blessings (seven children).
The children were a mix of races — the “Tribe of Ida” was one of their nicknames — and they traveled together, first to Ohio and then the Pittsburgh area.
“They called us the rainbow family,” Heather Poole, the fifth child, said. “‘You’re all a bunch of blacks, Mexicans and whites.’ But it was funny; it was like we ourselves never had a concept of race.”
Natasha Ault, the fourth of Ida’s children, said that when people mentioned that she had stepsisters or stepbrothers, she was confused more than hurt. “To me, we were always full brothers and sisters.”
Williams was number six. His father, Ronald Dale Williams Sr., was an Army veteran in El Paso, and R.J. wound up spending parts of his childhood with his dad in Texas. R.J. had a talent for basketball and an affinity for the inner workings of cars. When R.J. was with him in El Paso, his father played the part of disciplinarian, pushing the boy enough that he attracted some interest from basketball programs at smaller colleges. When that didn’t pan out, his father said he enrolled R.J. in the Job Corps, where he earned some certificates as an auto mechanic.
“I had him doing chores and cutting grass and attending school,” his father said. “If I would tell him to do the dishes, he’d say, ‘I don’t have to do that with my mom.’”
Ida Poole, the family’s center, exerted a great gravitational force, and Williams was drawn back to her and his siblings. Poole, who for a decade had worked at the Allegheny Valley School, a large campus outside Pittsburgh that houses scores of mentally disabled residents, found Williams a job in the school’s laundry division. He was eventually promoted to caregiver. His father said Williams was proud of his steady employment and texted him photos of his paychecks.
Shawnae Sallie worked with Williams at Allegheny Valley. Together, they helped care for the 12 residents of Building 2A, feeding and bathing them, keeping them entertained and safe. Williams was a natural, and the residents warmed to him, Sallie said. One of the residents and Williams bonded over their love for the Dallas Cowboys, the team of Williams’ Texas youth.
But Poole and others in the family say Williams was also working at caring for himself. He’d spent part of his adolescence tortured by a bad case of acne, and he stayed at home for stretches to avoid embarrassment. Although he blossomed into a handsome and what his sisters said was an infectiously charming young man, Williams could still be deeply insecure — and anxious about his future. He sought out professional help for his anxiety and was prescribed medication. Feeling better, he declared himself cured.
“We always say that R.J. had probably one of the prettier smiles of all the siblings,” his sister Heather said. “And whenever he would laugh or he would smile, he always covered his mouth, like he was embarrassed, or he just wasn’t confident.”
For a spell, the birth of Williams’ first child, the boy nicknamed Tre, felt like the clarifying moment he was seeking. He had met Gilmer at work at Allegheny Valley. And he’d talked about going to school to become a respiratory therapist. His entire family was at the hospital when Tre was born. They looked through the window blinds of the nursery and saw the infant grab his father’s finger.
“He changed his son, he ate with his son, he slept with his son,” Natasha Ault said of her brother.
When the falling-out with Gilmer kept him from his son, Williams started to come undone. He worked extra shifts but ate little. He feared losing Tre and explored the idea of hiring a lawyer. He lost weight and showed signs of depression. He got the Smith & Wesson after he said he’d been held up at gunpoint.
Heather said she got a call from him one night at 3 a.m.
“I was startled by his phone call cause of how late it was, so I made sure to get up and answer it,” she recalled. “He just said that he was in so much distress and he was unleashing all these emotions that he was dealing with; the anxiety that he was dealing with because it had been a couple weeks since he had seen his son.”
His mother now regrets maybe she didn’t appreciate how unraveled her son was becoming.
“We got really smart over the years working with R.J.,” Ida Poole said. “We were like his own support unit. We were there for him, knew how to calm him. We knew how to work with him. When he did get emotional, we knew how to settle him.
“I think we might not have realized how desperate maybe R.J. was.”
Early on the morning of June 7, 2016, a month after Kuzma killed Williams in front of 119 Marie Ave., a lieutenant from the Weirton Police Department turned up at Mader’s home. He knocked twice before Mader opened the door.
“I advised him I had an envelope to deliver to him and the contents would be self-explanatory,” the lieutenant later wrote in a memo.
The cover letter in the envelope informed Mader that he’d been fired for failing to meet the standards of a probationary officer and for “apparent difficulties in critical reasoning incidents.”
An attached memo from a captain in the department was more specific and more damning: “It is the opinion of this officer that Ptlm. Mader should be dismissed from employment by the City of Weirton Police Department before the close of his probationary period due to negligence on his part during the incident that occurred on May 6, 2016, in which a fellow officer had to react and unfortunately take the life of the suspect, Ronald D. Williams, Jr., to ensure the safety of the victim and her young son at 119 Marie Avenue, Weirton, West Virginia, Hancock County, as well as other officers on scene and other citizens residing in the immediate area.
“Ptlm. Mader was negligent in the fact that he failed to engage the suspect to end the threat of any further violence or potential loss of life as the suspect presented a clear and present danger to all people in the immediate area.
“The unfortunate reality of police work is that making any decision is better than making no decision at all.”
None of what was in the envelope was self-explanatory to Mader. None of it made sense of any kind. He’d never once spoken with the supervising captain who had written up the paperwork recommending his firing. He believed he had made a conscious decision not to shoot Williams, and Kuzma had fired only when Williams had raised his gun and the three officers were at risk.
The day after Mader received the letter, things got stranger. The Hancock County prosecutor, Jim Davis, called a news conference to announce the results of the inquiry into the shooting death of Williams. Alongside Davis at the conference were Alexander, the police chief, and Gibson, who had led the investigation for the state police.
Davis announced that none of the officers involved could be blamed in the shooting, and certainly not criminally charged. Indeed, he offered nothing but sympathy for the three officers.
“They didn’t seek this out,” he said. “This was foisted upon them.”
Asked directly by a reporter if the officers were blameless, Davis said: “Yes. Absolutely. It was tragic for everyone involved. I don’t think any officer wants to be in that situation.”
As a result, the names of the officers would not be made public, Davis said.
Mader was watching the broadcast of the news conference with his wife, Kaycie, at his mother’s home. What he heard next stunned him.
Alexander announced that all three officers involved in the shooting were doing well and back at work. To Mader, Alexander’s aim was clear: Make the shooting go away, and bury the fact that he had fired the one officer who had accurately read the scene at 119 Marie as a bid for suicide by cop.
“It was jaw-dropping,” Mader said. “Kind of like a punch in the face.”
Mader — baffled, incensed, unsure what to do — declared his intention to file an appeal of his termination and have a formal arbitration hearing. A lawyer he initially contacted thought his chances of prevailing were slim, since the city had wide latitude to fire a probationary officer, and suggested that resigning would be better. Ultimately, Mader decided that appealing was the right thing to do. His request for his hearing to be delayed was rejected, however, and the city made his firing final. He said the lawyer he had consulted told him he would no longer represent him.
The city never announced Mader’s firing, and there was no local news coverage. For months it appeared that the incident at 119 Marie was over and done with. Mader, now with two children and no job, enrolled in a nearby truck driving school.
“It was like as soon as I was handed that letter, it was just like a wall went up,” Mader said. “No one talked to me. I was an outcast, just like that. No one tried to contact me to see if I was OK. No one tried to say, ‘Hey, man, try and fight it.’ It was like I didn’t exist to them anymore.”
Then, on Sept. 11, 2016, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article about Mader’s firing. It included Mader’s recounting of the shooting of Williams and the murky circumstances around Mader’s termination. It quoted Jack Dolance, the lawyer who had spoken on behalf of the Williams family back in May. Dolance said it was “pretty clear” how the Weirton authorities had viewed the fatal shooting.
“Not only do they think he should have been shot and killed,” Dolance said of Williams, “but shot and killed more quickly.”
The article provoked a jarring response from Alexander, the police chief, and the Weirton city manager, Travis Blosser. The men called a news conference. They sat themselves in armchairs in front of the cameras, and behind them stood four officers, including the only two black officers in the Weirton Police Department. A modest gathering of local reporters turned out.
The men, without evidence, said that the Post-Gazette article was full of mistakes. But they saved their harshest comments for Mader. They repeatedly called him a disgruntled employee. The men claimed that Mader’s actions at 119 Marie were, in fact, “not a direct reason” for his firing. He’d been on his way out anyway, they made clear.
The men claimed that Mader’s two prior missteps involved in one case an “illegal search” (the parking ticket placed inside a car) and in the other “contamination of a crime scene” (his handling of the woman’s heart attack). The men described the two incidents as possibly even graver than his conduct during the shooting.
Mader was unfit to be a cop, they had determined, and they wouldn’t stand by and see another bad apple somehow find a way to stay on a police force.
The Post-Gazette article turned out to also have infuriated Kuzma, who thought it had made him look like a racist killer cop.
Kuzma still had Mader’s telephone number. He had texted Mader hours after the May 6 shooting to check in on him. “How you holding up?” he had asked Mader.
On Sept. 13, Kuzma’s text to Mader was less warm. “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 bullshit article.”
“Had more respect for you,” Kuzma added, “if you would of just fessed up to your lack of action and moved on.”
Days later, Kuzma confronted Mader in person. Kuzma, in uniform, had responded to a call at the training school where Mader was taking classes to become a long-haul truck driver. Kuzma chose to videotape the encounter, later saying he wanted evidence in case anyone questioned what took place.
“Mader, you get my texts?” Kuzma asked.
“I did,” Mader responded.
“Pretty accurate?” Kuzma asked.
Kuzma angrily accused Mader of having sought to cover up his own failings. Kuzma recalled that Mader had said “I don’t know” when Kuzma had asked him what happened right after the shooting. To Kuzma, Mader’s “I don’t know” was evidence he had lacked the courage to act.
Mader did his best to explain himself. He told Kuzma that he’d said “I don’t know” in an effort to spare Kuzma. In the moment, Mader said, he had wanted to protect Kuzma from the knowledge that, in killing Williams, he had just given a suicidal man the exact and awful outcome he had desired.
Kuzma wasn’t impressed. “You still did shit,” he said. “You fucking sat there.”
Kuzma suggested that Mader might have tackled Williams. Or just shot him.
“It was within seconds, dude,” Mader said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kuzma replied.
The raw, spontaneous shouting match in a West Virginia truck lot got at the heart of so many police shootings — the duty to protect. The duty for cops to protect each other. And their duty to protect citizens, even disturbed and dangerous ones. Could a cop decide not to shoot if he or she feared most for the life of the civilian holding the gun or knife or bat?
In front of Kuzma, Mader stood his ground.
“If I were to have shot that kid,” he said, “I wouldn’t have felt justified.”
“Well, then you should never have been a cop,” Kuzma said.
In the late 1970s, when the film director Michael Cimino was looking for locations to film “The Deer Hunter,” his epic Vietnam War drama, he became taken with Weirton. Almost 800 West Virginians had died in the war, and Weirton, like many of the steel towns around it, had sent many of its boys to Southeast Asia. To this day, its enlistment rates are high.
The city, in turn, has worked hard to pay tribute to its soldiers. In January 2016, representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2716 in Weirton helped come up with the latest idea for honoring the community’s warriors.
Thus was born the Weirton Military Banner Program. Banners, measuring 2 feet by 3 feet and displayed around the city each year from Memorial Day to Veterans Day, carry the names, service information and photos of local veterans. Chris Connell, a resident who had pitched in to help the VFW post get the program going, noted proudly that Weirton was the first West Virginia city to do so.
“This is a project to honor the men and women who have bravely given their time, and even their lives, to protect our country here and abroad,” Connell told the local paper.
At least two of the banners that have since been hung honor Mader’s relatives. But now Mader, a former Marine, had in the early fall of 2016 come to occupy a more complicated place in the city’s regard.
For some supporters of the Police Department, the article in the Pittsburgh paper left them viewing Mader as either a coward or a rat, a malcontent who had put himself ahead of the city’s good name.
Mader still lived in Weirton, and he had no desire to leave. He and Kaycie had had a second boy three days before the article was published. He’d adopted Susie, a black Labrador who had seen duty overseas like Max. He had begun training to become an MP with the National Guard. The military, it seemed, was still happy to have him carry a gun.
“I love Weirton,” he said, adding that friends, family and many locals he encountered while an officer had lent their support. “But what happened — it’s always dangling over me.”
In the end, the Post-Gazette article did shake loose something good for Mader.
“I first learned about Stephen Mader and his case when I was on the bus riding home one evening, and I was reading the news on my phone,” said Maggie Coleman, a lawyer in Pittsburgh. “This story popped up about an officer who had been fired for not shooting someone. I was aghast.”
Coleman called her partner, Tim O’Brien.
“It was a completely unique set of facts for me,” she said. “If this were true, we could not be creating that kind of incentive for police officers. Standing there on the bus, the very first thing I did was call Tim and say: ‘Did you hear about this? I think we need to represent this guy.’”
Mader said Coleman contacted him via Facebook Messenger. She wanted to talk. The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, not a frequent advocate for the police, became intrigued with Mader’s situation as well.
In the weeks after his firing, Mader had sought to find a local lawyer to take up his case. He said he was repeatedly turned down. Some of the lawyers he approached had the city as a longtime client. Others said they couldn’t imagine what kind of claim he could make. He counted 20 rejections.
But the Pittsburgh firm, along with the ACLU, eventually signed on. O’Brien, the lead lawyer, likes to say that his firm has both sued and represented more cops than any other in western Pennsylvania. It was his litigation that helped lead to a 1997 federal consent decree governing reform of widespread misconduct in the Pittsburgh Police Department.
In a recent interview, O’Brien said Mader met “every one of the criteria for who should be a police officer in Weirton, West Virginia. He’s from there. He’s married. He’s raising kids. He’s a Marine veteran. He’s joined the West Virginia National Guard. And up until he did not shoot and kill this young African-American man, he was accepted as someone who should be on that police force.”
The law firm spent weeks searching to find some precedent for Weirton’s actions: dismissing an officer for not firing his gun during a fatal shooting. Cases, opinions, law journal articles — the lawyers came up empty.
Nonetheless, on May 9, 2017, Mader’s lawyers filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. He had been unfairly fired, his lawyers wrote, and then targeted for retaliation by city officials out to destroy his reputation.
O’Brien and Coleman said they spent a long time deciding how to frame the case for the public. There was some support for making it a Black Lives Matter issue, focusing on Williams.
But Mader was adamant: He would not question Kuzma’s right to shoot, based on what was going on and how little Kuzma knew about the situation. Mader said he wanted to make the case solely about “honoring the prerogative of a police officer not to use deadly force.”
Mader said he felt the Weirton chief had not honored that prerogative.
“The Weirton cops were extremely uncomfortable with the idea that any one of them would accept any risk whatsoever to another cop’s life,” Coleman said. “I think that’s really what it came down to: the fact that Mader was willing to wait even those couple of seconds to assess the situation that could potentially be dangerous before he shot somebody. That was too much risk for them. They expect that if a cop’s life is implicated in any way, the cop will always shoot first. I think they want to depend on that.”
“It’s the Blue Lives Matter More theory of policing,” he said. “When in doubt, shoot. If you can shoot, you should shoot. If you have the choice of waiting that one second to see if you could protect the citizen’s life and put your own life at risk, you must take the citizen’s life.”
In pressing their case, O’Brien and Coleman were not at all sure the legal claim they were making would prevail. But then they were handed what amounted to a gift.
The city of Weirton filed a response to the lawsuit, denying the claims. But it never opted to do what O’Brien thought was routine and expected — and perhaps perilous to his case. The city never filed a motion to dismiss the suit, a customary step that would have required a fairly vigorous testing of the merits of Mader’s claims.
When the city chose not to, it became clear that Mader’s lawyers would be able to compel police and city officials to provide what Mader long had waited to hear: a sworn account of how and why he had been fired, and what it was he should have done differently at 3 a.m. in front of 119 Marie Ave.
For Poole and her children, the hours and days after Williams’ death were a nightmarish blur. She said the authorities treated them more as relatives of a criminal suspect than as the grieving kin of a suicidal young man, dead at 23.
Williams car, parked in front of 119 Marie, was impounded. State police investigators compiled records of every brush he might have had with the law: a DUI that was dismissed; a purported role as a getaway driver during an assault in Ohio. The official state police report included a claim by authorities in Ohio that had they encountered Williams when he was alive, they would have arrested him. What possible relevance, the family wondered, did the unsubstantiated claim have to an investigation of whether the Weirton officers had acted properly in a fatal shooting?
Family members said they had difficulty getting any information about the shooting and were taken aback when a Weirton officer, apparently frustrated with their questions, sarcastically wished Poole a happy Mother’s Day. The family had called the state police but was told that Gibson, who was conducting the investigation, had gone on vacation days after the incident.
Fearing that the investigation was less than objective, the family decided to tape-record some of the interactions with the state police.
“We’re calling because we would really like to pick up my brother’s belongings,” Natasha Ault said in one call.
The trooper on the phone, exasperated, said he had explained that Gibson was on vacation. “Calling in every day isn’t going to change the fact that he’s still on vacation,” the trooper said.
Natasha took a breath and tried again. “I have questions, understandably,” she said. “So if you could be understanding enough to let his sister, who loved him dearly, ask you a couple of questions. I’m sure you have a brother. Please just put yourself in my shoes for a second and have some compassion.”
She waited. The line was silent. The trooper had put her on hold. He never came back to the call.
Dolance, the family’s lawyer, saw no mystery in it all. A veteran trial lawyer — he’d also clerked for the West Virginia Supreme Court after law school — he had been introduced to the family by a friend. Dolance said he thought the authorities, in Weirton and at the state police, feared that Kuzma’s killing of Williams was questionable. It was in their interests, he said, to withhold information and dig up dirt on Williams so they would have a consistent story to go public with eventually.
Dolance saw the shooting this way: The two backup officers raced to the scene full of fear, adrenaline and a readiness to shoot; that their two patrol cars almost crashed was evidence of their eagerness. Screaming at Williams to drop the gun and advancing on him and Mader fundamentally altered the dynamic at 119 Marie. And Kuzma wasted no time taking charge and taking action. While his concern might have been legitimate, Dolance said, it didn’t authorize him to use deadly force as a first option.
“The problem for the police is that there was an officer who’d showed up first, Officer Mader, and that officer had been there, de-escalating the situation,” Dolance said. “He saw that R.J. Williams was not a threat. Which, as it turns out, he was absolutely correct about. He was holding an unloaded gun, and was having, from all accounts, the worst night of his life.
“The problem for the police is that the situation was under control, until the other two officers showed up” Dolance argued. “They rolled up, almost hit each other, and jumped out of their cars. Within five to eight seconds, one of them started firing wildly into the night, in a residential neighborhood, and hit somebody’s vehicle next door, hit a house next door and then, eventually, one of his shots eventually hit this young man in the back of the head, and killed him. And it could have been avoided. That’s a problem.”
Davis, the Hancock County prosecutor, scoffed at Dolance’s interpretation of the events. Davis, who has held the job since 1992, said his practice is to rely on state police investigations when weighing any possible charges against an officer in a shooting. He said each of the three other fatal police shootings he could remember reviewing were deemed justified. His finding that the shooting at 119 Marie was justified as well, he said, “was an easy call.”
“He was in the presence of a weapon presumed to be ready to go,” Davis said of Kuzma. “An officer’s safety is important.”
When the story of Mader’s firing came out months later, Ida Poole and her children were hopeful that Mader might back them in their belief that the shooting was unjustified. They had been touched by the accounts that Mader had recognized Williams’ distress. That Mader referred to Williams as “brother” made them smile. His restraint felt distinctive and powerful. They thought he might become a kind of spokesman for the better handling of police shootings.
“It seemed like such a great moment for change,” Natasha Ault said.
Mader said he felt terribly for Williams’ family. But he made clear that he would be of no help in any effort by the family to sue Kuzma or the department. His choice not to shoot did not mean Kuzma’s decision to shoot was wrong.
Dolance was both disappointed and admiring. He said Mader struck him as honest and honorable.
“Mader was not willing to say the other officers did anything wrong. He’s not saying that what they did was right. He’s just saying that he can’t say that what they did was wrong because he didn’t see it through their eyes,” Dolance said in a recent interview. “And of course, it would have been better for the family if we could have gotten some, you know, some sort of statement that the other officers clearly screwed up: ‘I did everything right; they did everything wrong.’ But that’s not the kind of person that Stephen Mader is. He tells it how it is, and he had no agenda. Sometimes you have to accept the facts as they are, not as you would like them to be.”
Without Mader, Dolance concluded, there could be no case against Kuzma and the Weirton police.
Informing Ida Poole and her children that Mader would not aid their cause, Dolance said, was excruciating. “I tried to be upfront,” he said. “But it was the most difficult news I’ve had to deliver in my career.”
In the year since his firing, Mader had made headway in navigating a new life in his hometown.
He’d learned to avoid contact of any kind with members of the Weirton police — at the supermarket or at the school their children attended together — and he’d found work as a truck driver hauling hazardous waste. He covered 3,000 miles a week and spent five nights away from his family. He’d had more time with his family as a police officer, but driving a truck paid better.
Still, there was the matter of his good name. To clear it, he had won the right to take sworn accounts from his accusers. Kuzma, the officer who had shot Williams and who had called Mader a coward, went first.
The questioning, on Oct. 9, 2017, would last 3 1/2 hours.
It began, as almost all depositions do, with some simple biography. Kuzma said he was in his 12th year on the Weirton force. He had never finished college and had worked for a couple of summers with Weirton’s Sanitation Department before joining the police. He was married, with children.
The lawyers then set about exploring Mader’s history with the department. The police chief and city manager had claimed in their news conference a year earlier that Mader had been a problem officer. If he had been, Kuzma should have known. The two men had spent weeks working the same shifts, and on a force as small as Weirton’s, that meant they spent a lot of time answering the same calls.
Asked if, before the shooting, Kuzma had ever thought Mader was not suited to be an officer on the Weirton force, Kuzma said he had not.
O’Brien, the lawyer taking the deposition, then turned to the May 6 shooting. The questioning led Kuzma through a second-by-second recounting of the events in front of 119 Marie. And when they were done, Kuzma wound up in a place he likely could not have expected.
Kuzma told the lawyer he first saw Mader with his gun pointed at something, and only later saw that he was pointing it at Williams. Under questioning, Kuzma said that if Mader had not regarded Williams as a threat, perhaps he should have tackled him. Or moved to stand between Williams and the arriving officers. Maybe he could have shouted something about his belief that Williams was suicidal, Kuzma said.
Kuzma, though, said he was dead certain what Mader should have done once Williams raised his gun and started walking toward the officers: He should have shot him.
“Mr. Williams was pointing a gun at me. I can’t attest to what Mr. Mader had with him prior to me arriving, but I can say very confidently that once Mr. Williams left Officer Mader and focused on me and started pointing the gun at me, I think the realm of decision making for Mr. Mader changes rapidly, and that he would have a duty to protect me.”
Mader’s lawyers sensed an opening, and, question by careful question, made the most of it.
“The only real bone of contention that you have with Mr. Mader is that he did not use deadly force at the first instant that you believe it should have been used, correct?”
“And the first instant when it should have been used by him is at the moment when Mr. Williams raised the gun from his side and started going back and forth?”
The lawyer persisted.
Wasn’t the requirement the same for Kuzma? O’Brien asked the officer. He had a gun. He recognized the threat. He had a duty to protect — himself and Baker.
“And we can agree that in that particular instance, however much time elapsed in what you have described here, you didn’t use deadly force even though it should have been used?”
“And one of the reasons that you didn’t use deadly force instantaneously is because that was the first time in your entire career that you had ever been confronted with that situation?”
“You then yelled for the male to ‘drop it.’”
“Instead of using deadly force at that instant when it should have been used, you chose the option to issue another command.”
“And that is the exact same thing that Officer Mader was doing?”
The lawyer then presented Kuzma with his statement from the night of the shooting. In it, Kuzma noted that when he saw Williams pointing the gun at Mader, he did not fire.
“That is another instance where, based upon your statement of when deadly force was required to be used, that you should have used deadly force?
O’Brien then asked Kuzma to explain himself. Why hadn’t he fired?
O’Brien seized on the admission.
“So you recognized that an officer, even one with 12 years of experience, when confronted for the first time with somebody pointing a weapon at them, may not act in accordance with what should be done because of the shock of being confronted with that situation?”
“And that same analysis did apply to Officer Mader under the circumstances because he was confronted with the exact same situation. True?
Well, if Mader was a coward for not using lethal force when required, the lawyer asked Kuzma, wasn’t he one as well?
“In that second, you could say I was.”
“Has anyone called you a coward on account of that?”
“Have you ever said to anyone, ‘I believe myself to be just as much a coward as I believe Mr. Mader to be?’”
“Did anyone in the chain of command tell you that they believe that they would have responded differently than either you or Officer Mader responded under the circumstances?”
“No, not that I recall.”
Weirton’s police chief, Rob Alexander, was deposed the very next day.
Alexander said Mader hadn’t been fired for not shooting Williams, and denied that he had let him go to protect Kuzma and the department. But Alexander admitted that he had never talked with Mader about the incident before terminating him. He also said he had he never talked to the captain who had written a memo recommending Mader’s firing.
As for what Mader might have done differently, Alexander said he, too, thought Mader might have tackled Williams, but then conceded that it would have been unwise to try tackling someone with a gun.
He suggested that Mader might have used a Taser, then acknowledged he didn’t even know if Mader had one.
He said he thought Mader might have shouted, “Hey, this is suicide by cop,” but then admitted it was unlikely that would have been heard over the screaming of the officers for Williams to drop his gun.
Coleman took great care with the next set of questions.
She pointed out that if Mader did not regard Williams as a threat, he was explicitly prohibited from shooting him, according to the Weirton Police Department’s own use of force policy.
“Consistent with the Constitution and the Weirton use of force policy, Mader was only permitted to shoot Williams if he believed that Williams represented an immediate risk of harm, serious harm, to himself or others, correct?”
It was now midafternoon on Oct. 10, 2017, roughly six hours into what became more than eight hours of questioning for Alexander. He had conceded much: that he had never run an investigation of a fatal police shooting; that he had never spoken with Mader about the conduct he had fired him for; that he didn’t really have an answer for what Mader might have done differently; that he had produced no evidence that what he had made clear to the public — he had been preparing to fire Mader even before the shooting — was, in fact, true.
And now, almost a year and a half after the death of Williams, he seemed to concede the point at the center of Mader’s suit for wrongful termination.
The lawyer then made sure of that.
“OK. So if Mader didn’t believe that R.J. Williams posed an immediate threat of harm to himself or others, he would not have been permitted to shoot him under either the Constitution or Weirton’s use of force policy; is that correct?”
Alexander took his time. In the video of the deposition, he seems resigned, even defeated. He waits before answering with a single word.
“Yes,” he said.
Michael Julian was a young New York City police officer in 1973 when he confronted a robbery suspect with a metal pipe in his hand. When Julian pulled his gun and said “Stop, police,” the man began to chase him around a car parked on the street.
“I could have easily shot him,” Julian said recently, “but he looked mentally ill and I could avoid him.”
After four to five times around the car, other officers arrived, and along with Julian tackled and arrested the man. As Julian got up off the ground, one of the officers said: “You are a coward. He attacked a cop. You should have shot him.”
Julian was in court later that day as the man’s arrest was processed. Two women seated next to him asked if he was Officer Julian. They were the man’s mother and sister. He had recently returned from combat in Vietnam, mentally ill, and used the pipe to dig in a nearby park. They had been at their tenement window watching their loved one chase Julian, waiting for the shot that never came.
They said, “Thank you,” and then cried on his shoulder.
Julian went on to hold a series of senior positions in the New York City Police Department, and to make training on the use of force one of the defining aspects of his career. Armed with a law degree, Julian was appointed to the NYPD’s legal bureau, and he spent years both defending and prosecuting officers who had fired their guns in the line of duty. In 1993, he rewrote the department’s policy on deadly physical force, and then, 22 years later, he joined a team to rewrite it again.
For Julian, the tragedy in Weirton — the death of R.J. Williams and the firing of Stephen Mader — highlights an urgent challenge for police departments across the country: training officers that it is OK to not shoot, even when shooting is justified.
Julian thinks Ryan Kuzma was within his rights to shoot Williams when he did. But he thinks Mader, rather than being fired, needed to be supported for making the decisions he did.
“Punishments contribute to a police culture,” Julian said. “In that West Virginia department, the lesson for the other officers was that not shooting may result in termination.”
To be sure, police officers are occasionally disciplined for bad shootings, even criminally charged and convicted. This fall, a Chicago officer was convicted of murder in a case involving the shooting of a teen. But for Julian, there’s more to improving police performance than occasionally meting out even stiff punishment.
“Rewards also influence police culture,” he added. “Most police departments are missing the influence of rewards on the decision to use deadly force. They mistakenly encourage a shoot-first culture when they do not strongly acknowledge and reward officers who de-escalate and employ nonlethal devices, or who do not fire to avoid shooting an innocent bystander. Police officers should be taught to shoot only because they have to, not because they can. Compassion is not cowardice.”
Absent that kind of training — rigorous, creative, repeated — police departments nationwide are unlikely to win more trust in the communities they patrol, Julian said. And they are just as unlikely to best serve the officers in their ranks.
Chuck Wexler has been the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum since 1993. The nonprofit organization has been at the forefront of efforts to reform policies, training and equipment involved in the use of force by police. Wexler said some departments have taken steps to reward restraint. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, now awards Preservation of Life medals. Philadelphia’s gives out the Medal of Tactical De-escalation.
Wexler said the accepted police credo — “the most important thing for cops is to go home at night” does not square with an officer’s true responsibility: to honor the sanctity of human life.
“Every human life,” Wexler said. “Everyone coming out alive is the goal.”
In Weirton, Rob Alexander, the police chief, would not discuss the case — not his decision to fire Mader or the legal fight that followed. Neither would Blosser, the city manager. The two other officers involved in the incident at 119 Marie Ave. did not respond to phone calls, emails or written notes left at the Police Department or their homes. Calls to the dispatcher that night and her supervisors went unreturned. The West Virginia State Police also did not respond to repeated requests for comment as well as a detailed set of questions about their investigation and their dealings with the Williams family.
Blosser had been scheduled to be deposed the day after Alexander. Mader’s lawyers were eager to ask him under oath whether Mader’s firing was meant to somehow insulate the department from legal action from the dead man’s family. But Blosser abruptly canceled his appearance, and lawyers for the city asked that a mediator be brought in to work out a settlement. The city ultimately paid Mader $175,000, while acknowledging no wrongdoing.
In a brief exchange with a reporter months before the settlement, Blosser said he still wasn’t sure the incident at 119 Marie was in fact a suicide by cop. After the settlement, Blosser told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he felt the city had made the right decision in firing Mader, and labeled any suggestion that he had terminated him over worry about the city being sued by the Williams family “extreme speculation.”
Outside Pittsburgh, Williams’ family is doing its best to carry on. Its appeal to the Justice Department resulted in nothing more than a form letter from the department’s Mail Referral Unit.
Ronald Williams Sr. and his family, from Texas and Oklahoma both, made the journey for R.J.’s funeral. Poole and her children try hard to keep Williams’ memory alive, and there are pictures and paintings of him everywhere in their homes. They have come to realize they are, sadly, not alone as a family left angry and confused by a fatal police shooting.
Shortly after Williams’ death, a family in California contacted them to share a similar story. Last June, a 17-year-old boy was shot in the back and killed by an officer in a small community outside Pittsburgh. There were days of protests. The officer had been sworn in just hours before the shooting. Then, in October, two Pittsburgh police officers were hailed for their restraint after a standoff with a suicidal man with a fake gun ended without gunfire. The dispatcher had relayed reports that the man was said to be bent on having police kill him.
The Williams family still contends that Kuzma’s shooting of Williams was improper, or at least unnecessary. And Mader’s disagreement on that point remains, to them, a frustrating contradiction.
Heather Poole, a registered nurse, said she is sometimes asked if she hates cops, and it makes her crazy. “Why would anyone presume to think I hate cops?” she said. But she feels that the investigation of the shooting was inadequate, even biased. And she remains enraged at how her family was treated.
“They never even said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’” she said.
Gilmer cut off almost all contact with Ida Poole and her surviving children after the shooting. She felt the family had blamed her for calling the police and thereby triggering Williams’ death. She has not spoken with reporters, and her father declined again on her behalf this year.
“Something was taken away from me that was inhumane,” Gilmer wrote in a note to the family. “I wanted what everyone in life wants. Fall in love, buy a house, raise a kid. But then I was made to feel like I didn’t have the right to feel the heartache.”
The $175,000 settlement changed life for Mader and his family. They bought a house on a handsome piece of property in neighboring New Cumberland, West Virginia. Mader is an MP with the state National Guard, and he was among the troops sent to keep order during vast flooding in 2017.
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.”
How We Reported This Story
“I Don’t Want to Shoot You, Brother” is based on initial reporting by Deborah Sontag as well as interviews and a review of a wide array of records, scholarship, surveys, recordings and other communications.
Interviews were done with Stephen Mader and his lawyers; the family of R.J. Williams and their lawyer; the Hancock County prosecutor, and Michael Julian and Chuck Wexler, experts on police use of force policies. The police records used in the reporting included records of the 911 calls; the Weirton Police Department’s use of force policy; evaluations of Officer Mader, material in his personnel file, including the memos dealing with his firing, as well as his statement to investigators after the shooting at 119 Marie Avenue.
Other records used include statements given by the other two officers involved in the shooting; a note to the chief of police in Weirton from members of the department asking not to be assigned to work with Mader after the shooting; the complete report on the shooting done by the West Virginia State police; the results of a private autopsy done for the family of R.J. Williams; correspondence from the family of R.J. Williams with the U.S. Department of Justice; the statement to police given by Bethany Gilmer; the video-recorded sworn depositions of Ryan Kuzma, Rob Alexander and Lieutenant Eric Patterson; a recording made by Ryan Kuzma of his encounter with Stephen Mader months after the shooting; the lawsuit filed by Stephen Mader against Weirton, the city manager and its police officials; the response to the suit filed in court by the City of Weirton; the settlement papers resolving that lawsuit; results of a 2017 survey of police done by the Pew Research Center;
A variety of news accounts and academic papers on the phenomenon of suicide by cop, chiefly a 2009 entry in the Journal of Forensic Science; an interview with Vivian Lord, a criminologist in North Carolina and an expert on suicide by cop; a number of news articles by Sean D. Hamill in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and one in the Weirton Daily Times; a local WTOV9 news broadcast reporting the hiring of three new police officers in Weirton in 2015; portions of a news broadcast of a press conference held by the Hancock County prosecutor, the Weirton chief of police and the lead investigator for the West Virginia State Police in June 2016; a video recording of a news conference held by the Weirton city manager and the chief of police in September 2016; a news release issued by the Weirton town manager the day of that news conference, and a local WTOV9 news segment on the first 2016 birth at Trinity Hospital in Steubenville, Ohio.
Correction, Nov. 30, 2018: This story originally misstated the circumstances surrounding the shooting of a teen in Chicago. An officer was convicted of murder for shooting a 17-year-old, who had a 3-inch knife in his hands, as he walked away from police; the teen was not unarmed. The earlier version also incorrectly gave the age of a teen killed by police last June in a small community outside Pittsburgh. The teen was 17, not 15.