Military-Trained Police May Be Less Hasty To Shoot, But That Got This Vet Fired A Marine-turned-cop was fired after he did not shoot a man who had a gun. His Marine training led him to believe there wasn't clear hostile intent; his bosses say he risked other officers' lives.
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Military-Trained Police May Be Less Hasty To Shoot, But That Got This Vet Fired

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Military-Trained Police May Be Less Hasty To Shoot, But That Got This Vet Fired

Military-Trained Police May Be Less Hasty To Shoot, But That Got This Vet Fired

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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There's a national debate happening right now over law enforcement. And as part of that debate, a phrase is being used a lot - this idea of police militarization. Sometimes, that refers to police using military-style gear, but it also reflects a worry about a certain military mindset, especially as war veterans come home and take jobs in law enforcement. Two of our reporters have been looking into whether military vets make for more aggressive cops. And first, we're going to hear from Martin Kaste. He covers law enforcement. Hi, Martin.


MARTIN: Tell us how this whole idea, this concern about vets being more aggressive as cops, how did it start?

KASTE: Well, what you need to keep in mind is that, for the last generation before this latest cycle of wars, American police forces were actually becoming more diverse, and police recruits were more likely to have college educations. And then, when the war started and then the veterans started coming home to work as police, there was some concern among reformers that some of that progress, as they saw it, would be lost and that these new police recruits who were coming out of war zones would be more likely to use force.

MARTIN: So what happened? Did it play out that way?

KASTE: In a word, no. In fact, some war veterans have shown more restraint than other police who don't have war experience. My colleague, Quil Lawrence, covers veterans, and he found such a case in the small town of Weirton, W.V. We have Quil's story here. And a word of warning - it does include a vivid description of a shooting. But the story begins with a call for help.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Hancock County 911. What is your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please send somebody to 119 Marie Avenue. We are in West Virginia. Right now - please, right now.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: On May 6 at 2:51 in the morning, the emergency dispatcher puts out a call on the radio.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: I got a female stating they needed someone right now. She sounded - sounded hysterical, hung up the phone, will not answer on call back.

LAWRENCE: Nearest to the address was Stephen Mader, a 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran and rookie cop.

STEPHEN MADER: Dispatch calls in and, you know, they come on the radio and, you know, they say, we got a woman on the phone. She's frantic. I say, you know, 10-4, and I'm on my way there.

LAWRENCE: Mader is alone in the squad car. He gets to the house and sees Ronald D. Williams, a 23-year-old black man, standing outside with his hands behind his back.

MADER: And I say, you know, show me your hands. And he's like, no, I can't do that. And I told him, I said, show me your F'ing (ph) hands. And then he brings his hands from behind his back and puts them down to his side. And that's when I noticed he had a silver pistol in his right hand.

LAWRENCE: Now, Officer Mader doesn't know it, but Ronald Williams's girlfriend, who was inside the apartment with their infant son, she's called 911 again.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My ex-boyfriend's here. He has a gun. He doesn't have a clip in the gun.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes. There's no clip in the gun. He's drunk. He's drunk. He took the clip out of the gun, and he said he was going to threaten the police with it just so they would shoot him, but he does not have a clip in the gun.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: OK, all right. I have an officer there now, OK? OK, just stay on the line with me, please. Hello?

LAWRENCE: On the 911 tape, you hear officer Mader on the radio saying, we have a gun here. All the dispatcher says to the cops is...


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Dispatch 31, watch out for a weapon.

LAWRENCE: And Mader has his weapon drawn, and he's telling Williams to drop the pistol.

MADER: I aim in on him and I say, you know, drop your gun, you know, drop your gun. And he said, I can't do that. Just shoot me. And, you know, I told him, I said, I'm not going to shoot you, brother, just, you know, put down the gun.

LAWRENCE: So even though officer Mader doesn't know what Williams' girlfriend told 911 - that the gun is empty and he's trying to commit suicide by cop - Mader didn't shoot. Police get trained on de-escalation, but right now Stephen Mader was leaning more on training from the Marine Corps and experience in Afghanistan, a key difference between police officers with military experience and those without.

MADER: Before you, you know, go to Afghanistan, they give you training on, you know, you need to be able to - to kind of read people. Not everybody over there is a bad guy, but they all dress the same. That's kind of what the situation was that night.

LAWRENCE: In Afghanistan, the rules of engagement called for clear, hostile intent before a Marine could open fire. Mader says he didn't have it.

MADER: For me, it wasn't enough to kind of take someone's life because they're holding a gun that's not pointed at me.

LAWRENCE: But then - and this all happened in seconds - officer Mader's backup arrives. And all they know is the dispatcher said...


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Dispatch 31, watch out for a weapon.

MADER: He starts walking towards them as they're driving up. They get out of their car.

LAWRENCE: Williams' girlfriend is still inside the house, on the line with the 911 dispatcher.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: You need to give it to the officer.

MADER: Their weapons are drawn, and they're screaming at him to drop the gun.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They're outside yelling right now. He said he'd put the gun down. (Unintelligible).


MADER: At that point, he starts waving the gun, you know, back and forth between us.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They're firing. They're firing. They're firing. No.

MADER: One of the officers fired four shots.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, please, please, please, please, please.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Shots fired, dispatch. Shots fired.

LAWRENCE: It's been just 36 seconds since Mader told dispatch there's a gun. One of the bullets hit Ronald Williams in the side of the head, and he's on the pavement. The dispatcher has already called an ambulance, but the officers see there's no hope of giving first aid.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Thirty-one, just stay here with the suspect in the driveway. He's down (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Tony's with him. He's down and out.

LAWRENCE: On the 911 tape, you can hear Mader go inside to make sure the girlfriend and child are OK.


MADER: Are you hurt?


MADER: Is your son OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He had - he had me downstairs, and he wouldn't let me leave.

LAWRENCE: The gun did turn out to be empty. Though, Mader says, to be fair, the officers had no way of knowing that for sure.

MADER: I show up. It's a suicidal man with a handgun. Put down the gun, and we can talk about it. But when they show up, the first thing they see is this young man waving a gun around him. You know, the one officer felt that his life was in danger along with others, and, you know, he - he decided to fire at the subject. And I believe he was justified in what he did.

LAWRENCE: What Mader thinks was not justified happened a few days later. Police Chief Rob Alexander told Mader that he was being fired for putting his fellow officers' lives in danger.


ROB ALEXANDER: When the officers arrived on the scene, they see these two in a standoff, pointing guns at each other. And that officer froze.

LAWRENCE: The chief held a press conference in September after some negative stories in the newspaper. City Manager Travis Blosser said Mader was fired for reasons besides failing to shoot.


TRAVIS BLOSSER: Both illegal searches in a vehicle to the use of profanity with citizens and then, also, contaminating a crime scene of a potential homicide and investigation.

LAWRENCE: The city manager and police chief would not comment further for this story. State Police Sergeant Jim Gibson, who led an investigation of the shooting, told NPR he thought Mader believed he was doing the right thing. But Gibson said the town of Weirton was justified in deciding that, for a variety of reasons, Mader wasn't cut out to be a policeman. Mader says he still wants to be a cop and wishes things hadn't happened so quickly that night.

MADER: If I had maybe 30 more seconds, you know, maybe it would have went different. Maybe, you know, I could have talked him down and, you know, just put him in handcuffs that night.

LAWRENCE: The ACLU has been in touch with Mader, and he's considering legal action. In the meantime, he's supporting his wife and their two kids as a commercial truck driver. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

MARTIN: So we're back in studio with our law enforcement correspondent, Martin Kaste, after listening to Quil's piece. Pretty remarkable piece. Martin, you get the impression from that story that Officer Mader - that police officer's experience in war made him less likely to use force. Have you seen that anywhere? It is kind of counterintuitive, to some degree.

KASTE: Yes, it is. And yet, I hear it - certainly anecdotal, but police chiefs tell me this, too. Dave Wilson is a police chief in a small town in Wisconsin called Shell Lake. He's also an Iraq war veteran. And we talked about those early fears - about a decade ago - that some of these veterans would come home and be violent cops.

DAVE WILSON: It's actually about 180 from what the perception was. Oh, my God, you know, all these trigger-happy grunts coming back from a war zone, going to be shooting our citizens in the street - simply not the case. In fact, if anything else, they have a better understanding of rules of engagement and use of force than others might.

KASTE: Now, you heard him talk about the rules of engagement, which are obviously the rules for when to use force in a war zone. Those varied a lot depending on where soldiers and Marines were deployed and when in the war they were there. And I talked about this with Erica Gaston. She's a human rights lawyer who studied the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. And she said, you really have to look at when someone served.

ERICA GASTON: So for example, in Afghanistan, for - especially in the later years of engagement, there was an emphasis on winning hearts and minds and focusing more on stabilizing communities and protecting the civilian population. And what that meant was that they really tightened up a lot of the rules of engagement.

KASTE: She says, for example, during the hearts-and-minds period in Afghanistan, soldiers on patrol might have actually been required to call back to their commanders for permission before shooting someone. That's certainly not the rule for cops here at home.

MARTIN: So does that mean those combat vets are more hesitant to pull the trigger than other cops are?

KASTE: That word, hesitant, is one I used, too, in talking to them about this, and they didn't like that word. They don't like the idea of them being hesitant so much as patient. And science is starting to to look at this question, too. Stephen James is a fellow I talked to about this. He's a researcher at Washington State University. He's also a combat vet. And he says there is some reason to think that veterans might be more likely to control their reactions when there's a perception of danger.

STEPHEN JAMES: One possible explanation is that combat vets who have been exposed to extreme violence have a different threat threshold, which means that they're in more control of their physiology, and they're not allowing this fight-or-flight response to drive them into action.

KASTE: Now, this is all still theory. One of the things Stephen James is doing with his research group is actually putting officers through simulators to look at their quick reaction time and then looking as well at their background to see whether or not they're veterans. We don't know definitively whether veterans are different when it comes to this, but it certainly seems like a likely factor.

MARTIN: NPR's Martin Kaste covers law enforcement. Thanks so much, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome.

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