Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Of split-second decisions

Whenever an unarmed person is shot and killed by police we hear the same old tropes about officers having to make split-second decisions. Grand jurors get to play around with a simulator in which they have to make a decision whether or not to shoot whenever cases involving police killings of unarmed people are to be heard.

In West Virginia, an officer made a split-second decision NOT to pull the trigger and it cost him his job.

On the evening of May 6, 2016, Officer Stephen Mader of the Weirton (W.Va) Police Department answered a domestic disturbance call. A visibly disturbed man named Ronald Williams was at the scene.  Officer Mader ordered Mr. Williams to show him his hands. Mr. Williams was holding an unloaded handgun.

Officer Mader ordered Mr. Williams to drop the weapon. Mr. Williams said he couldn't and asked Officer Mader to shoot him. As it turned out, the 911 caller was Mr. Williams' girlfriend. She called police and told the dispatcher that Mr. Williams had threatened her with a knife. Before the police arrived he retrieved the unloaded gun from his car and told his girlfriend that he was going to make the police kill him. Suicide by cop as we call it.

Officer Mader made the choice not to shoot Mr. Williams who was shot and killed moments later when he waved his gun at two officers who came to the scene after Officer Mader.

One month later Officer Mader was fired from the Weirton Police Department. The police department maintained that Officer Mader was fired because he failed to meet probationary standards and because he had difficulties in critical incident reasoning. Local officials claimed that the incident involving Mr. Williams had nothing to do with the firing.

Mr. Mader sued the city, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for his decision not to shoot Mr. Williams.

Yesterday, the ACLU announced that the city and Mr. Mader had reached a settlement agreement and that the city would pay Mr. Mader $175,000 in exchange for him dismissing his lawsuit.

And this highlights one of the problems with police culture. Instead of shooting Mr. Williams as the result of a split-second decision, Mr. Mader made the decision not to act rashly. He didn't know the gun was unloaded - that fact wasn't revealed to any of the officers at the scene. He made the decision not to escalate the situation in hopes that it could be resolved peacefully. For that he was called a coward by a fellow officer. For that decision not to escalate, he was fired.

Just think about that for a second.

What does that tell us about other police killings of unarmed black men? If someone had exercised the restraint that Mr. Mader did on that May night in 2016, there would have been fewer killings.

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