A Moral Luck-Riddled Ethics Quiz: The Compassionate, Correct, Fired Police Officer

man-pointing-a-gunI have solicited opinions from some police authorities , and have yet to receive an answer. Maybe that’s cheating, though.

On May 6 of this year,  Weirton, West Virginia police officer Stephen Mader confronted a distraught and armed man after responding to a domestic violence call. “I saw then he had a gun, but it was not pointed at me,”  Mader told reporters. A silver pistol was in 23-year-old Ronald Williams’ right hand, hanging at his side and pointed at the ground.

Officer Mader calmly told Williams to put down the gun. “Just shoot me, ” Williams  responded, and jerked his wrists, suggesting that he was preparing to raise his weapon. “I’m not going to shoot you brother, ” replied Mader.

“I thought I was going to be able to talk to him and de-escalate it. I knew it was a suicide-by-cop,” he said.

Then two other Weirton officers arrived on the scene. Williams walked toward them waving his gun, and one of Mader’s colleagues shot Williams in the head, killing him instantly.

A West Virginia State Police investigation later concluded that the shooting was justified. Mader, in the meantime, faced an investigation of his own. In a meeting with his chief and the city manager,  Mader was told that he was being placed on administrative leave, and that an investigation would determine if he would still be employed.  “You put two other officers in danger,” the police chief told him.

Following the investigation, Mader received a notice of termination stating that by not shooting Williams, Mader“failed to eliminate a threat.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Was it fair and responsible for the department to fire Officer Mader as a result of this incident?

I’m going to wait a bit longer to see what I hear back from local police while you puzzle this out. I will note  some moral luck and consequentialism considerations, however, as well as a couple of other observations.

1. The gun turned out not to be loaded. That’s irrelevant to the consideration, or should be. Mader didn’t know that. The fact that Williams could not have shot anyone doesn’t change the ethical or legal issues at all.

2. Mader said later that he “knew” the man was trying to commit suicide by prompting Mader to shoot him. Of course, he couldn’t know that. It may have been an informed guess, but he could have been wrong.

3. If Williams had gotten a shot off, had he shot one of the other officers, or if he injured a bystander, Mader would have been accountable. Still, the nature of his decision not to fire can only be judged at the time he made it. Everything else is moral luck and beyond his control.

4. I have no idea what the respective races of the officers and Williams are. It should not matter. But if Williams was black, it will.

5. I am pretty sure I recall episodes of “Blue Bloods” in which one of NYC Police Chief Tom Selleck’s son’s handled a similar situation exactly like Mader, and the man, spared by the officer’s  judgment, courage and compassion, survived. The Chief was proud, and the son was praised for his police work for not using deadly force.


Pointer: Res Ipsa Loquitur


16 thoughts on “A Moral Luck-Riddled Ethics Quiz: The Compassionate, Correct, Fired Police Officer

  1. The police are apparently informed to be like our foreign policy – use force whenever possible. A damed if you do or don’t situation. Tough job.

  2. Many, many an officer, in the course of a long career, has been presented with similar scenarios to the one described, and with others that would allow the officer to “justifiably” use deadly force. (There has actually been some research on how common this is.) I can name several individuals who are alive today because I and other officers I know gave armed subjects the benefit of the doubt and waited that extra split second before shooting to allow them to disarm and end an incident without violence. Every incident is “circumstances dependent,” however, and to clearly put others in jeopardy to extend grace to an armed subject is risky business. Considerations of distance, availability of cover, and officer experience/ ability would enter into any such decision. Luck would of course also play its customary role in the outcome. While I never had one of these situations go sideways, nor do I personally know of one that did, it is easy to see how it could. Personally, unless there were flagrant violations of tactical procedures or blatant negligence, it would be tough for me to fire an officer for choosing not to take a life. I’m glad I was never placed in that position. There is sometimes a difference between a shooting that is “justified” and one that is “necessary.” Just where the line lies between those two concepts is hard to clearly objectify in all circumstances.

  3. No he should not be fired. He did not put the other officers in danger Williams did.

    The officers role is to protect and serve the citizens first not necessarily other officers.

    • I agree with this sentiment. The LEOs of this country put themselves at risk every day and it is literally part of the their job description that to accomplish their mission of protect and serve they WILL risk their lives.

      I don’t think they get compensated well enough for the risks and responsibilities they take, but it is imperative that they continue to take them.

  4. From my point of view whether Mader knew that Williams was going to commit suicide is irrelevant. Cops have to make judgement calls every day. The Chief of Police was being a typical cya bureaucrat in terminating him. Hopefully Mader will get another job in another police force if he wants it.

  5. This one could go either way. The fact is that he was faced with a man with a gun and tried to talk it out rather than neutralize the threat. The police officer’s job is to uphold the law and keep the public safe, not necessarily to play social worker and take a kinder, gentler approach to danger. While he was trying to eke out a happy ending two of his colleagues showed up, as would be normal in a man with a gun situation and the suspect drew down, leaving them with no choice but to open fire.

    That said, firing him seems harsh. We don’t know his record and we haven’t been able to review the IA report. If this was a case of a de-escalating situation that re-escalated due to the clumsy arrival of backup, then he should not have been fired. If this was a case in which he misjudged the situation and tried to talk it out when decisive action was called for, and he was slow on the draw, then firing is appropriate.

    • ” The fact is that he was faced with a man with a gun and tried to talk it out rather than neutralize the threat.”

      I respectfully disagree.

      It sounded to me that the officer was trying to neutralize the threat by talking it out. He explicitly said as much: “I thought I was going to be able to talk to him and de-escalate it. I knew it was a suicide-by-cop,”


  6. I guess my question is, did he violate procedure? If he did, and the result of that violation is potential loss of life, then perhaps he did deserve to be fired.

    On the other hand, this sends a terrible signal, a signal that compassion has no place in a police force in life-or-death situations. It says (to me, at least) that brandishing a gun, even in an obvious state of despair, is a death sentence. Finally, it suggests that the police would be okay with letting the suicide jumper take that long last step if the alternative is to risk their lives in any way.

    It’s easy to be sarcastic about this, but I can see the other side of the coin. If this man trying to commit suicide by cop had turned out to be a psycho and wounded or killed one or more officers, innocent lives would’ve been sacrificed for nothing. Perhaps the most important responsibility of leadership in professions where people are asked to offer up their lives to defend others is to make sure that the people that die in the performance of their duty don’t die for nothing.

    I am uncomfortable substituting my judgment for that of the professional officers/leaders involved. But as a citizen, I would wish that our officers could show compassion where possible. Perhaps, using that standard, firing this officer was not the right thing to do. But also, perhaps that standard just isn’t one we can afford to adopt in these days.

  7. Compassionate and courageous restraint or a failure to take necessary action required to keep others safe? It looks like it depends on who you ask, and we don’t have enough information to really know for sure. However, Mader asked at least two attorneys and neither made his argument. He was also a probationary (which probably means less than a year on the job) officer with previous discipline.

    As much as we might want to think restraint is always right and hope for a good outcome it is perilous to leave that control in the hands of the armed suicidal man waving his gun around. All life is valuable, but the higher the value being placed on his life the more the lives of those he can harm are devalued.

    I hope this officer has a route to appeal, but if it is the chief’s judgement of is that the officer is unable or unwilling to use deadly force when it is necessary, he has no ethical choice but to remove him from situations where he might be required to.

    • That last sentence should read: I hope this officer has a route to appeal, but if it is the chief’s judgement that the officer is unable or unwilling to use deadly force when it is necessary, he has no ethical choice but to remove him from situations where he might be required to.

  8. My opinion: One has to cut through the emotional gunk to get to the core of the issue. It is intensely simple. The man was deranged, he had a weapon, he might have shot someone.

    Therefor, and with no other consideration or debate required, he as threat should have been immediately eliminated. Could be by immobilizing him with Taser but if that is not practicable, yes, it is the duty of a police offier to shoot him.

    If in this situation some by-standing person had got shot, and the policeman might have acted preemptively, it seems that litigant would have a very good civil case. Again: therefor the police are required to eliminate a threat.

    What the officer did was unconscionable.

    My own experience of being robbed at gun-point led me to a simple reduction: If you pick up a gun and if you threaten someone with it, you have forfeited any claim to life. You have no rights.

    It is also relevant to mention that, presently, I reside in Colombia (where I was robbed BTW). The way the laws are structured is to protect the criminals. When you defend yourself from an attack, or from a likely or impending attack, you wind up with a lawsuit against you for ‘personal damages’ if you do physical harm, and should you kill the criminal in many cases they bring the charges against YOU. It happens lots.

    The American system is more pragmatic.

    I do think that getting fired was correct as well. One must look at it from the perspective of the fellow police officers, those he must work in team manner with. He did indeed endanger their lives.

    Reduce it to the simple elements and the case decides itself.

    • This is known as trying to see life in black and white by defeating the problem in detail.

      The trouble with that is, you can’t do that – life can’t be reduced to a series of discrete 0-1 pixels and solved that way. All you’ve really done is come up with a justification without addressing the compassion matter at all.

      • I think I well described the essence of the ethical and moral problem and the reduction that solves it. If you pick up a gun and threaten anyone with it, under any but the most soecial circumstances, you therewith forfeit any rights, any considerations.

        I think it is sound.

        Two persons with actual police experience said as much, but indicated they had excersized some modification in their work.

        And as long as their choices did not or were not seen to endanger any other, their choice seems sound.

    • In the last 48 hrs, it seems the new standard is to immobilise with taser, then shoot them when they’re on the ground.

      Charitably, the sound of a taser being fired by the police is probably difficult to distinguish from the sound of a small calibre gun being fired by the suspect, so will inevitably lead to a fusillade of panicked shots by police in fear of their lives.

  9. As far as the Oklahoma incident, and according to the CNN report, she had a Taser in hand but because of erratic movements she fired her service pistol not the Taser.

    You are doing what a whole nation is doing: seeing an incident through a specific lens. That is, with a pre-established understanding that the police are evil beings set on summary execution. My impression is that you (and they) are seeing through a psychological structure which is susceptible to hysteria. You project into this a whole mass of subjective content. But it is hard to say what this is since it is subjective, psychological and invisible. That is how such contagion operates. It seems to be a phenomenon of instant media and instant *framing*.

    At some point it does not seem to matter what the *truth* is or the *facts are*. What matters is what ‘you-plural’ wish to see, what you want to see, and what you WILL see (as an act of the psychological-hysterical will).

    Charlotte: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/21/us/charlotte-police-shooting/index.html#

    Tulsa: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/20/us/oklahoma-tulsa-police-shooting/

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