CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia police officer who was fired after he refused to shoot a black man who had a gun last year says he was just trying to uphold his oath to protect and serve the community.
Stephen Mader sued the city of Weirton this week, saying he did nothing wrong in May 2016 when he tried to persuade 23-year-old R.J. Williams of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, to put down his weapon. Another officer later saw Williams with his gun raised and shot him to death.
The gun that Williams was holding was later determined to be unloaded.
Officials in Weirton, an Ohio River community of 19,000 residents 36 miles west of Pittsburgh, officials declined immediate comment on the lawsuit, saying they had not received a copy of it.
City officials had previously said Mader, a probationary officer, was let go eight weeks after the shooting for conduct unbecoming of an officer in three separate incidents, not just for refusing to shoot Williams.
But the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, contends Mader was fired specifically for the Williams incident.
“To tell a police officer — when in doubt — either shoot to kill, or get fired, is a choice that no police officer should ever have to make and is a message that is wrong and should never be sent,” Mader’s lead attorney, Tim O’Brien of Pittsburgh, said in a statement.
In the statement, Mader said he believes he was fired for trying to uphold his oath to protect and serve.
“Even still, I would have done the same thing,” he said.
The lawsuit cites the state constitution, which prohibits a police officer from using deadly force unless the officer has reason to believe the target of such force poses an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others.
According to the lawsuit, Mader responded to a call from Williams’ girlfriend that he was threatening to hurt himself with a knife. Mader said his Marine Corps and police officer training taught him to assess a threat level. He said Williams was visibly upset but not aggressive or violent.
Mader believed Williams did not pose a risk of death or serious bodily injury to himself or others. After Mader ordered Williams to drop his unloaded gun, Williams responded, “I can’t do that. Just shoot me,” according to the lawsuit. Mader said he determined Williams wanted to die by “suicide by cop.”
Two other officers arrived at the scene, and when Williams raised his gun, one of the officers fatally shot Williams in the head. The lawsuit identified the officer who shot Williams as Patrolman Ryan Kuzma. The lawsuit didn’t disclose Kuzma’s race.
Investigations found the officer did nothing wrong.
The Associated Press previously obtained Mader’s personnel file through a Freedom of Information Act request. The file included an investigative report by a Weirton police captain who wrote that Williams presented “a clear and present danger” to others, and Mader’s “failure to react left himself and those around him in grave danger.” The report recommended Mader’s firing over several incidents.
In March 2016, Mader was issued a verbal warning for opening a car door to place a parking ticket inside without having a search warrant, leading to the arrest of the car’s owner for disorderly conduct, and cursing at the man’s wife. The charge against the man was dropped.
A month later, Mader responded to a call about a cardiac arrest and found a woman dead on a stairway. Mader determined the victim died of natural causes and that no further investigation was warranted. He didn’t fill out a police report, collected no evidence and the body was sent to a funeral home. Alexander called the handling of the suspicious death “unacceptable,” and an autopsy determined the victim sustained blunt force trauma to the neck and upper torso.
A letter from Alexander recommended 30-day suspensions without pay for Mader and a lieutenant, who was cited for failing to respond to the scene and properly supervise his subordinates. Mader later said his suspension was never carried out.