By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN
Reports of police officers killing young black men point to a seemingly never-ending American tragedy.
The situation became so serious that The Washington Post and The Guardian started daily tracking the killings and the trends remain grim. The Guardian reported that at least 136 blacks were killed by police in 2016.
At least 90 of the 354 people overall killed by police so far this year were black, The Washington Post said. Those figures indicate that 34 percent of unarmed people shot and killed by police last year were black men, though African American men are only six percent of the U.S. population.
Perhaps one of the most significant factors producing such statistics is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upholds the right of the police to reasonably use deadly force.
“The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, rather than with 20/20 vision of hindsight,” the Court ruled, adding that “allowance must be made for the fact that officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
That opinion makes it almost impossible for officers to be prosecuted, much less convicted, in the killing of suspects and it is the primary line of defense used by police unions to justify the use of deadly force.
What it does not do is take away the discretion of the police not to use deadly force, which is what Stephen Mader, then an officer with the Weirton, West Virginia, police department, did – and he paid a price for it.
A May 10, 2017, a report in The Guardian said Mader was responding to a report of a disturbance at the home of RJ Williams on May 6, 2016. He said when he arrived Williams had his hands behind him.
Mader ordered him to show his hands and Williams lowered them to his sides; it turned out he was holding a pistol.
At this point, Mader said, he drew his own weapon and Williams screamed, “Just shoot me.”
Mader said his response was: “‘I don’t wanna shoot you, brother, just put down the gun.’”
Just about then, two police cruisers drove up and, according to Mader, the suspect “starts to wave his gun at me and the other officers and, within seconds of the officers getting out of their cruisers there were four shots fired.”
Those shots killed Williams, a black 23 year-old father suffering from mental illness; his gun was not loaded.
What makes this story even more unusual is that the city of Weirton fired Mader for “negligence,” saying that his “failure to react left himself and those around him in grave danger.”
“The unfortunate reality of police work is that making any decision is better than making no decision at all,” the city said.
The killing is in the news again, a year after the confrontation happened, because Mader has sued the city of Weirton claiming wrongful termination. In his lawsuit, he rejects the city’s claim, saying he did make a decision, based on what he saw of Williams’ body language and his mental state. Williams did not present a threat and in his view de-escalating the situation was the appropriate response, he said.
“He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t aggressive. He didn’t seem in position to want to use a gun against anybody. He never pointed it at me. I didn’t perceive him as an imminent threat,” said Mader, a former U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan. His attorney, Tim O’Brien, put it this way: “When a police [officer] exercises restraint – and sometimes we don’t see that as much as we like to – that’s something that should be praised rather than punished.”
In this era of “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” differing sentiments can cloud the public’s perception of what it means to be a police officer. The police have to deal with critical, life-and-death situations daily but surely there must be very many other instances of officers refraining from shooting to kill as the first resort to end a confrontation.
Mader’s case should not discourage officers from continuing to use their discretion and the city of Weirton must not be allowed to make him a scapegoat for doing the right thing.