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