PART I.
Nine Minutes in Weirton

The dispatcher for the Weirton Police Department took the 911 call at 2:51 a.m. on May 6, 2016.

“Please send somebody to 119 Marie Ave., Weirton, West Virginia, right now,” a woman said. She sounded young and scared.

“Please right now. Please right now.”

The woman hung up. The dispatcher called her back, but no one answered.

Stephen Mader, a 25-year-old rookie officer with the Weirton Police Department, got the radio call from dispatch. It was 2:53.

“Had a female stating she was at 119 Marie Ave. She sounded hysterical, hung up the phone. Would not answer on call back.”

Weirton, a city of 20,000 in the state’s northern panhandle, was quiet at that hour. It took Mader, alone in his patrol car, just over three minutes to get close to 119 Marie. At first he overshot the address, and when he got to 130 Marie, he had to hit the brakes. Backing up, Mader caught sight of a young African-American man standing next to a car parked in the street.

“Where’s 119?” Mader asked.

“It’s right here,” the young man said. “Why, what’s up?”

The woman inside 119 Marie called 911 again. It was 2:57. Her name was Bethany Gilmer. R.J. Williams, her ex-boyfriend and the father of their baby, had a gun, she told the dispatcher. But the gun was not loaded, she said. He’d taken the magazine out. He was drunk.

“He doesn’t have a clip in the gun,” Gilmer told the dispatcher. “He said he was going to threaten the police with it just so they would shoot him.”

Mader by then had gotten out of his patrol car. The only light came from nearby streetlamps. Williams had his hands behind his back.

“Show me your hands,” Mader commanded.

“No, I don’t want to,” Williams said.

“Show me your fucking hands,” Mader said.

“Why you got to cuss at me?” Williams asked.

When Williams at last showed his hands, a silver and black Smith & Wesson pistol rested in his right palm. His arm hung at his side, the gun pointed at the ground. He started to back up along a narrow sidewalk leading to the house.

Mader drew his weapon and moved to take cover behind the car parked in front of 119 Marie.

“Put the gun down,” Mader said.

“I can’t do that,” Williams said.

“I don’t want to shoot you, brother,” Mader said. “Put the gun down.”

“Just shoot me,” Williams said.

To Mader, Williams sounded choked up. The Smith & Wesson didn’t move from his side. It was still pointed at the sidewalk. It was 2:58.

“Just shoot me,” Williams said again.

Mader was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, but grew up in Weirton. He went to the local high school and loved his early childhood — mostly, he said, because he got to spend lots of it outdoors. He wrestled and played soccer. For kicks, he’d tie a tractor to an old couch loaded up with friends and haul it through the fields.

If you lived in Weirton, Mader said, you worked in the steel, and so that’s what his dad did. In its boom days after World War II, the mill employed more than 10,000 workers, and shift changes seemed like great tidal migrations of dirty humanity.

But when Mader turned 10, the mill announced its latest round of layoffs. His father was one of the casualties, and he later had to find work as a card dealer at Mountaineer Casino. Things got tight in the household, and grandparents pitched in to help care for Mader and his brother and sister.

The Twin Towers in New York City were toppled that same year, and even for Mader, then a fifth-grader, the terrorist attack felt like a call to arms. His paternal grandfather had served int he Air Force during the Korean conflict; his mother’s father had been an Army drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, and an uncle was an Army vet, too. Mader’s father had been a Navy man, a jet technician on an aircraft carrier before he found work in the mill. His dad loved war movies, and he and Mader watched loads of them.

“I knew I wanted to serve in some type of military,” Mader said. “They told me the Marines was the most challenging, so that’s what I went for.”

Mader enlisted in 2009, and after boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, he wound up spending seven months in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He’d been trained as a dog handler, and with help from a faithful dog named Max, Mader’s job was to identify improvised explosive devices. Max was a golden Labrador, a dead ringer for JoJo, a dog Mader had growing up.

“They looked exactly alike,” Mader said with a smile, “except that Max was in shape.”

Mader was out one day in a convoy taking his Marine commander to a meeting with Afghan villagers. Mader said he was in the sixth truck when another, about 500 feet in front of his, struck an IED. Mader and the platoon sergeant in his vehicle jumped out to assess additional threats.

“How much do you trust Max?” the sergeant asked.

“With my life,” Mader said.

Max was sent out, and the convoy followed him the rest of the way.

“We didn’t blow up on our way there, so that must have been a good thing,” Mader recalled.

Mader later tried to adopt Max but was told he’d already been given away to another organization.

“It was hard getting over Max,” he said.

2:58 a.m.
They’re firing,they’re firing, no, no…
2:58 a.m.
Shots fired. Shots fired.
3:00 a.m.
…down and out.

“Please right now. Please right now.”

The woman hung up. The dispatcher called her back, but no one answered.

Stephen Mader, a 25-year-old rookie officer with the Weirton Police Department, got the radio call from dispatch. It was 2:53.

“Had a female stating she was at 119 Marie Ave. She sounded hysterical, hung up the phone. Would not answer on call back.”

Weirton, a city of 20,000 in the state’s northern panhandle, was quiet at that hour. It took Mader, alone in his patrol car, just over three minutes to get close to 119 Marie. At first he overshot the address, and when he got to 130 Marie, he had to hit the brakes. Backing up, Mader caught sight of a young African-American man standing next to a car parked in the street.

“Where’s 119?” Mader asked.

“It’s right here,” the young man said. “Why, what’s up?”

The woman inside 119 Marie called 911 again. It was 2:57. Her name was Bethany Gilmer. R.J. Williams, her ex-boyfriend and the father of their baby, had a gun, she told the dispatcher. But the gun was not loaded, she said. He’d taken the magazine out. He was drunk.

“He doesn’t have a clip in the gun,” Gilmer told the dispatcher. “He said he was going to threaten the police with it just so they would shoot him.”

Mader by then had gotten out of his patrol car. The only light came from nearby streetlamps. Williams had his hands behind his back.

“Show me your hands,” Mader commanded.

“No, I don’t want to,” Williams said.

“Show me your fucking hands,” Mader said.

“Why you got to cuss at me?” Williams asked.

When Williams at last showed his hands, a silver and black Smith & Wesson pistol rested in his right palm. His arm hung at his side, the gun pointed at the ground. He started to back up along a narrow sidewalk leading to the house.

Stephen Mader’s police cruiser at 119 Marie Ave. (West Virginia State Police)

Mader drew his weapon and moved to take cover behind the car parked in front of 119 Marie.

“Put the gun down,” Mader said.

“I can’t do that,” Williams said.

“I don’t want to shoot you, brother,” Mader said. “Put the gun down.”

“Just shoot me,” Williams said.

To Mader, Williams sounded choked up. The Smith & Wesson didn’t move from his side. It was still pointed at the sidewalk. It was 2:58.

“Just shoot me,” Williams said again.

Mader was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, but grew up in Weirton. He went to the local high school and loved his early childhood — mostly, he said, because he got to spend lots of it outdoors. He wrestled and played soccer. For kicks, he’d tie a tractor to an old couch loaded up with friends and haul it through the fields.

If you lived in Weirton, Mader said, you worked in the steel mill, and so that’s what his dad did. In its boom days after World War II, the mill employed more than 10,000 workers, and shift changes seemed like great tidal migrations of dirty humanity.

But when Mader turned 10, the mill announced its latest round of layoffs. His father was one of the casualties, and he later had to find work as a card dealer at Mountaineer Casino. Things got tight in the household, and grandparents pitched in to help care for Mader and his brother and sister.

The Twin Towers in New York City were toppled that same year, and even for Mader, then a fifth-grader, the terrorist attack felt like a call to arms. His paternal grandfather had served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict; his mother’s father had been an Army drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, and an uncle was an Army vet, too. Mader’s father had been a Navy man, a jet technician on an aircraft carrier before he found work in the mill. His dad loved war movies, and he and Mader watched loads of them.

“I knew I wanted to serve in some type of military,” Mader said. “They told me the Marines was the most challenging, so that’s what I went for.”

Mader enlisted in 2009, and after boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, he wound up spending seven months in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He’d been trained as a dog handler, and with help from a faithful dog named Max, Mader’s job was to identify improvised explosive devices. Max was a golden Labrador, a dead ringer for JoJo, a dog Mader had growing up.

“They looked exactly alike,” Mader said with a smile, “except that Max was in shape.”

Mader was out one day in a convoy taking his Marine commander to a meeting with Afghan villagers. Mader said he was in the sixth truck when another, about 500 feet in front of his, struck an IED. Mader and the platoon sergeant in his vehicle jumped out to assess additional threats.

“How much do you trust Max?” the sergeant asked.

“With my life,” Mader said.

Max was sent out, and the convoy followed him the rest of the way.

“We didn’t blow up on our way there, so that must have been a good thing,” Mader recalled.

Mader later tried to adopt Max but was told he’d already been given away to another organization.

“It was hard getting over Max,” he said.

Once, when he was stateside at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Mader woke up next to his wife, Kaycie, and moved to put his boots on. Kaycie asked what he was doing.

“Going to feed Max,” he said.

“Max is gone,” Kaycie reminded him.

Mader had met Kaycie in high school. They had lunch period together, and they went as a couple to both homecoming and the prom. Their first child, Bruce, was born when Mader was still in Afghanistan. He’d left one forward operating base a nervous husband — the medic gave him pills for his anxiety — and arrived at his next base a new father. He posted a picture to his Facebook account of himself and his fellow Marines smoking cigars in honor of the birth of his son.

“I went over there and did my job as I was told,” Mader said of his four years in the Marines. “Whether or not I fixed anything, I don’t know.”

Mader had always loved the diesel engine in one of the trucks he’d had as a teen, and so when he returned to Weirton, he enrolled in school to be a diesel mechanic. But he eventually applied to join the Weirton Police Department. A friend’s dad was a cop on the force. Another friend was working an internship with the local sheriff’s office. Mader remembered fondly how local businesses used to hand out trading cards with the pictures of Weirton officers. And the structure and camaraderie of police work, Mader said, felt familiar, felt right.

Mader completed 16 weeks of training at the state police academy in Dunbar. He liked the work they did on de-escalating potentially volatile situations. The Marines had taught him how to eliminate targets, he said. In police work, the lethal option wasn’t the only one.

On the Weirton force, he said, “You’re not just there to kill and be killed.”


The 911 dispatcher for the Weirton Police Department that night in May 2016 was a woman who had been a high school science student of Mader’s grandmother. Most of the runs she sent the department’s officers on involved shoplifting or drunken behavior. There’s no record of any officer with the Weirton P.D. having been killed in the line of duty. Weirton’s leaders liked to boast that it was one of the safest small cities in America.

But there were plenty of domestic dispute calls, too. Cops everywhere tend to hate them. Unpredictable. Emotional. Sometimes hard to sort out the aggressor. Weapons are common.

Mader assumed that’s what was going on with the distraught woman the dispatcher had just radioed him about.

“Ten-four,” Mader responded. He said it took a conscious effort not to groan.

As he drove, Mader mentally drew up what he called a “personal checklist.” Do this, then that. Separate the parties. But he also reminded himself: Anything could happen.

“I just looked at it as, ‘Better to go in with a blank slate,’” Mader said. “I just tried to keep myself as calm as I could. I tried not to get too excited, because then it’s easier to make a mistake.”

In front of 119 Marie, Mader kept his gun trained on Williams. They stood perhaps 5 or 6 feet apart at first. After Williams backed up toward the house, the distance lengthened to maybe 10 or 15 feet. Mader had unholstered his weapon a couple of times since he’d hit the streets in December 2015. This, though, was the first time he’d drawn it with the chance that he might well use it.

The dispatcher, with the information given to her by Gilmer, had managed to radio a warning: “Watch out for weapon.” She did not include Gilmer’s claim that the gun was not loaded or that Williams might be suicidal.

“Got a gun here,” Mader radioed back.

The Weirton Police Department, like almost every other, has a policy on the use of lethal force: If someone is a threat to life — a civilian’s or an officer’s — an officer can shoot to kill.

Mader said it was scary in the dimly lit street. His adrenaline was pumping. It felt, he said, like it could be one of those “oh, shit” moments.

But Mader did not regard Williams as a threat. Williams seemed distraught. He avoided eye contact. He was looking around to see if anyone was watching. He wasn’t being belligerent. He was only repeating a single sentence:

“Shoot me.”

The requests felt to Mader like pleadings.

“It’s a red flag,” Mader later said. “Suicide by cop.”


Williams had become a father for the first time just four months before the standoff. The child, a boy, was given the same name as his father and grandfather, and thus — as the third Ronald Dale Williams — was playfully called Tre. Tre turned out to be the first baby born in 2016 at Trinity Hospital in Steubenville, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Weirton, and his birth made for a cute segment on local TV.

“This is my first baby, so everyone will be excited,” Gilmer said on camera to the TV reporter. “I never expected to have him on New Year’s.”

But in the months since the birth, the relationship between Gilmer and Williams had become badly strained. Ida Poole, Williams’ mother, thought Gilmer’s moods had darkened after the baby’s birth. For his part, Williams had long battled anxiety, sometimes so acute that he required medication. Disputes flared regularly, and the house the couple shared at 119 Marie sometimes sat empty: Williams would retreat to his family, Gilmer and the baby to hers.

The Williams family says R.J. was torn up about how little access he had to his son. He’d been a doting young father, they said, taking on extra shifts at his job as a caregiver at a home for the mentally disabled in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, to pay for food and diapers and toys.

“He loved his son, and the baby loved the sound of his father’s voice,” said Heather Poole, one of R.J.’s sisters. “Being away from him weighed heavy on his heart.”

Gilmer offered a portrait of a more disturbed man. She told police both she and Williams’ own family recognized that his mental health issues were significant, often exacerbated by a problem with alcohol. Gilmer said Williams could be erratic and volatile, even paranoid about whether she was being faithful and whether Tre was his child. They’d fought a week before the standoff, and she’d gone to the Weirton Police Department to ask about an order of protection. But she filed no charges and sought no order.

The coining of the term “suicide by cop” is sometimes attributed to Karl Harris, a police officer turned psychologist, who came up with the phrase after manning a suicide hotline in the early 1990s. But there is little question that the phenomenon has existed for decades. Some researchers trace its rise to the emptying of America’s psychiatric hospitals and the growing problem of homelessness. But it’s not hard to find an array of examples that don’t easily fit those categories: people who’ve been laid off from work or seen a romantic relationship end.

One of the more rigorous studies of the phenomenon was done a decade ago, and it indicated that suicidal intentions could play a role in more than a third of all fatal police shootings. Those dying in this fashion were overwhelmingly male, typically young and frequently under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 16 percent of the cases involving suicide attempts, the civilians involved had tried to take their life at least once before, and in 15 percent the presumed suicides came amid an episode reported to the police as domestic violence. More than 80 percent of the incidents were spontaneous. In just under a third of the cases, the encounters with police lasted less than 10 minutes.

Seemingly every one of these cases comes with the potential for controversy. Was the suicidal person, sometimes brandishing a knife or pretending to have a weapon, really a threat? Was firing their guns the only option for the officers? What kind of training had the officers received in dealing with those who have a mental illness? Was the term “suicide by cop” — making an officer an actor in a painful, private choice — unfair to the officers, many of whom wound up deeply traumatized?

“This unique form of suicide has the potential to be a public health threat on a multitude of levels whenever and wherever it takes place,” said a recent journal article published by the American Psychiatric Association.

On May 5, the day before the standoff, Gilmer said she would allow Williams to spend a rare night with her and the baby at 119 Marie. She had to work the next morning, and Williams was going to mind the child. But he didn’t show up until after 2 a.m., Gilmer told police, and when he did, he told Gilmer he’d had a couple of beers.

Gilmer said Williams immediately became argumentative and accused her of bad-mouthing his family.

“So I came into the kitchen and sat on the floor and said we need to have a civil conversation,” Gilmer told the police.

“I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the same anymore,” she said. “And that I did not love him anymore.”

Yelling between the couple ensued, and Gilmer fled to the basement. Shoved by Williams, she punched him in the face and managed to get back upstairs. She had her cellphone in her hand and hit the green button for 911. She quickly asked that someone be sent to 119 Marie.

Williams went to his car and got the Smith & Wesson. Back in the house, Williams asked Gilmer if the police were coming. Gilmer now had Tre in her arms.

“He held the gun to his head and said he was going to kill himself in front of the baby and me.”

She said Williams then removed the magazine from the gun and racked the live round out of the weapon as well.

“After R.J. did that, he said he was going to go outside and wave the gun at police to make them shoot him because he wasn’t going to kill himself.”

She looked at her cellphone and saw she’d missed the callback from the dispatcher. She dialed again.

“Drop it!”

“Drop it!”

“Drop it!”

Suddenly, there were three officers yelling at Williams on Marie Avenue. It was 2:59.

Ryan Kuzma and Michael Baker, each in his own patrol car, had heard the radio call involving a frantic woman. They thought Mader, so new to the job, might need help, and only more so when they heard the dispatcher warn about a weapon and Mader confirm there was a gun at the scene. The two officers had driven through Weirton’s streets with their lights and sirens off, and when they arrived, they had nearly collided.

Like Mader, they had never been involved in a shooting and, again like Mader, didn’t know that Gilmer had said Williams’ gun was not loaded.

With the arrival of Kuzma and Baker, Williams began walking toward the driveway to the left of the house, again pleading to be shot. He raised his gun slightly, pointing it in the direction of Mader. Mader said the gun was aimed at the level of his torso but wide to his left.

Baker screamed at Mader to take cover, and all three officers continued to yell at Williams to drop the gun. Williams then raised the gun to shoulder height, walked toward the arriving officers, and swung the gun back and forth, from Mader to Kuzma and Baker and back to Mader again.

“I’m going to pull my trigger,” Baker declared.

Gilmer, still on the 911 call, heard the hollering and relayed it to the dispatcher. “They’re outside yelling right now,” she sobbed.

“Ma’am, just settle down,” the dispatcher responded.

Then gunshots.

“They’re firing, they’re firing, they’re firing. No. Please, please, please!”

Kuzma had opened fire. He stood some 30 feet from Williams, and his first three shots missed their target. One bullet was fired into the grass. Another struck a tree and then the door frame of a nearby house. A third bullet punctured the tire of a truck in a neighbor’s driveway. Mader could instantly hear the hissing of air.

Kuzma paused and refocused before his fourth shot. The bullet struck Williams behind and above his right ear and exited the left side of his forehead.

“What happened?” the dispatcher asked Gilmer.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. They fired. I don’t know.”

Baker reached the fallen man first. Williams was gasping for air. Baker said the desperate breaths then became more like gurgling. The Smith & Wesson was located, and it was clear that it lacked bullets.

Mader got on the radio. It had been roughly 10 seconds, he estimated, from the moment the two backup officers arrived at 119 Marie until the shooting started. Asked on the radio about the status of the “suspect,” Mader declared him “down and out.” An arriving lieutenant, per protocol, handcuffed Williams as blood pooled under his head in the driveway. Someone threw a white sheet over the body.

It was 3 a.m., nine minutes since Gilmer’s first 911 call.

The West Virginia State Police investigate all fatal shootings by officers in the state, and within hours five troopers were at the scene. Sgt. Jim Gibson of the state police was in charge. All three Weirton officers gave statements. Later, the Weirton police reached a work colleague of Ida Poole, who then informed Poole of her son’s death.

Ryan Kuzma’s and Michael Baker’s police cruisers a block from 119 Marie Ave. (West Virginia State Police)

The killing of Williams had many of the combustible components of a controversial police shooting. An African-American man had been shot dead by a white officer. While there was a weapon, it wasn’t loaded, and the 911 dispatcher knew that could be so before the shooting started. Questions of mental health and suicide seemed in play.

There was, too, a tense scene when Williams’ family showed up at the state police barracks to pick up his belongings. A lawyer representing the family had emerged and raised questions about the necessity of the shooting. Several family members would later write to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation.

“I don’t want this incredible and tragic incident set aside and forgotten,” Ivory Williams, R.J.’s grandmother, wrote to Loretta Lynch, then the attorney general. “The family needs answers, and most of all we need justice for R.J.”

Just weeks after the shooting, Weirton and the Police Department did something almost unheard-of in America’s long and troubled history of police shootings: They quickly fired one of the officers for his actions in the fatal encounter.

PART II.
You Should Never Have Been a Cop”

AT 9:06 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2017, Rob Alexander, the chief of police in Weirton, took a seat in an office in downtown Wheeling. He was about to take part in a first for him: giving sworn testimony about his decision to fire one of the three officers involved in the death of Williams.

Alexander stated his name, swore to tell the truth and got the basics out of the way. He said he had been a member of the Weirton Police Department for 23 years, the last three as chief.

“What are your job duties in your current position as chief of police?” asked the lawyer taking Alexander’s deposition.

The chief took a stab at humor. “Babysitter,” he said.

The lawyer moved on. There was sensitive and complex ground to cover.

The officer Alexander had fired had been shocked by his dismissal. He had hoped to spend his entire working life on the Weirton force. Convinced he had done nothing wrong, the officer sued, and now, 17 months later, Alexander had to explain his decision under oath.

One of the officer’s lawyers, Maggie Coleman, wanted to explore the Police Department’s training on the use of force. Alexander acknowledged that fatal police shootings were not common in Weirton; he could remember just two in his more than two decades with the department. He later declared that the Williams case was the first he had overseen as the head of the force. Alexander said that he was sure his officers had received some training on the use of force while in the academy, but that he wasn’t sure how often or how specifically they had been trained on the issue once they were on the streets.

“When was the last time you received training specific to constitutional limitations on the use of force by police officers?” the lawyer asked Alexander.

“I couldn’t answer that,” Alexander said.

Coleman then asked if Alexander had ever been trained in how to conduct a review of an officer’s use of force.

“I do not, did not, have not,” the chief said. “Sorry.”

Coleman’s focus on the use of force was no surprise, of course. It was the issue her client had been fired over. A young man was dead.

But her full line of inquiry then took a startling turn.

“Do you routinely review officer uses of force to determine whether or not the officer did not use enough force in the particular situation?”

Alexander, it turns out, had not fired the officer who shot Williams. He had fired Stephen Mader, who had chosen not to shoot the young man.

The unloaded Smith & Wesson pistol R.J. Williams waved at police. (West Virginia State Police)

Alexander had concluded that the young officer had frozen in a life-and-death moment. He had determined that Mader, in not eliminating what he said was the threat posed by Williams, had put the lives of fellow officers at risk. Kuzma, the officer who had killed Williams, thought Mader should have shot him first.

Mader’s actions at 119 Marie Ave. in May 2016 had instantly become the subject of analysis and gossip among the ranks of the tiny department. The word “coward” was being tossed around. Kuzma and Baker had taken the remarkable step of asking Alexander in writing never to assign them to work again with Mader. Two other members of the force signed on as well, and the memo was quietly slid under the chief’s door.

In his lawsuit, Mader said that, apart from his statement the night of the shooting , he had never had the chance to explain himself. He was never interviewed by anyone in the Police Department, including the captain who recommended his firing as well as Alexander, the chief who approved it.

“The Weirton Police Department terminated Mr. Mader’s employment because he chose not to use deadly force to shoot and kill an African-American man who was suicidal,” his lawsuit alleged.

Tim O’Brien, one of the lawyers representing him, contrasted the punishment of Mader with the numerous and often incendiary cases in which officers around the country had killed young men of color only to face no sanctions.

“Here,” O’Brien said at the time, “we have an officer who uses restraint and he gets punished. Something was wrong.”

O’Brien alleged that the punishment had a purpose. That the city and Police Department wanted to protect themselves from any claim by the Williams family that Kuzma had shot R.J. needlessly. Finding fault with Mader for not shooting Williams, then, might help the city defend itself against any such claim and the scrutiny it might attract.

“It’s a profound case,” O’Brien said in a recent interview. “Almost like a law professor made it up. It goes to the heart of when deadly force can be used.”


Mader was sworn in as a Weirton patrolman in July 2015. His training lay ahead of him, but being added to the force along with two others that month was newsworthy in Weirton. Alexander told a local television reporter that his force had lost a number of officers to retirement, and he was eager to replenish its ranks. The department was budgeted for 38 officers, and with Mader and the other two recruits coming aboard, it had at least clawed its way back to 35.

Mader, in jacket and tie, told the reporter he was ready to brush up on local laws and “do the best I can.” He said his starting pay was $16.53 an hour.

“There’s a lot involved in the testing process,” Alexander said into the camera. “And these three candidates aced all those.”

Mader hit the streets in late December 2015. He was assigned a training officer, and that officer’s report weeks later seemed encouraging. He complimented Mader’s handling of paperwork and the taking of statements from witnesses and victims. He did say that Mader could do a better job of learning the city’s streets and growing more comfortable talking on the radio, but didn’t doubt he would get the hang of it.

“Mader is not afraid to ask questions if he doesn’t know what to do and wants to improve in the duties of a patrolman,” the training officer wrote.

On one thing, the training officer was clear: “When it comes to officer safety, Prob. Ptlm. Mader knows the importance in all different situations,” he wrote. “And knows to always have a fellow officer’s back.”

Mader was becoming an officer at a raw moment for policing in America. Fatal police shootings of African Americans had roiled cities across the country, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Chicago to Cleveland to Charleston, South Carolina. At least two news organizations built databases to try to account for as many fatal police shootings as possible. The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts, and two of its central findings were that people with mental illnesses made up large numbers of those killed, and that very few officers were ever prosecuted for even the most questionable of fatal encounters.

The hundreds of incidents and the attention they received wound up having an impact on many of the men and women serving in uniform. One Pew Research Foundation national survey of police officers found that 75 percent of them felt the shootings had increased tensions with black members of the communities they policed. Some 85 percent said the net effect had been to make their jobs harder, and 93 percent said they worried more than in the past about their personal safety. The number of officers killed in the line of duty, the survey showed, had increased as protests gripped one part of the country after another.

The same survey also showed that the vast majority of officers never fire their weapons during the course of their careers. Just 27 percent said they had ever fired their weapons, whether intentionally or accidentally. Mader actually fit the profile of the officer most likely to fire his weapon: male with a military background.

But in his months on the street, Mader had had few occasions even to feel the need to draw his gun. He had done so while conducting a sweep of a suspicious building, for example, or carrying out a potentially problematic traffic stop. But that was about it. The only two incidents that had caught the attention of his superiors involved the arrest of a man after a dispute over a parking ticket and Mader’s response to a report of a woman in cardiac arrest.

In the first, Mader had opened a car door to place the parking ticket inside to keep it from getting wet in case of rain. The owner of the car came out of his house and began swearing at Mader over the ticket and his decision to put it inside the car. The man kept swearing, and after his wife emerged as well, Mader and his training officer arrested him. The department’s write up of the episode said Mader swore at the woman, telling her to “get back in the fucking house.” Mader only remembers being exasperated, and muttering, “All this over a fucking parking ticket.”

A sergeant later sorted things out. Mader told him his first training officer had said it was all right to place a ticket inside an unlocked car to protect it from rain. The sergeant told him he was wrong — that he shouldn’t have done it or sworn in front of the couple. The ticket and arrest were vacated, and the man and his wife said they were happy with the way the department had handled the matter.

The second incident involved Mader’s response to an April 12, 2016, call about a woman in cardiac arrest who eventually died. When Mader arrived at her home, emergency medical technicians were working unsuccessfully to revive the woman, and they had moved her to a staircase landing inside. Mader and two other officers who joined him regarded the incident as tragic, but in the end a medical call, and they soon left. A supervisor later determined that Mader had failed to deduce that the woman might have been the victim of foul play. Parts of her body, the senior officer said, were contorted in a way that might have suggested she had been assaulted.

The department never determined if foul play was involved, and no one was ever arrested for the woman’s death. Still, a supervisor wrote a memo suggesting that Mader be disciplined for his handling of the call. Alexander, the police chief, later said under oath that Mader should have stopped the EMTs from trying to save the woman so as to preserve a potential crime scene.

Three weeks later, Mader was on the overnight shift, from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. “The weather was getting warmer — that’s when crime is higher,” he said.

“I was hitting up different neighborhoods. Making sure my presence was known,” he added. “I kept myself entertained as best I could.”

Mader early in his career with the Weirton Police Department. (Courtesy of Stephen Mader)

Then there was the call to get to 119 Marie. There, he sized up Williams. Mader was thickly built and still muscular from his years with the Marines. Williams was taller than Mader but slighter. His family liked to joke that they knew he had arrived home late at night by his light, telltale skips up the staircase.

To Mader, there was nothing intimidating or menacing about Williams’ demeanor.

“I was just trying to calm him down,” Mader said. “It was really just talking to him like he was a human being — talk to him like a guy who was in a wrong state of mind, like a guy who needed to be calmed down, who needed help.”

Mader had received no training in how to handle such situations. No one in the Weirton department had. But he was familiar with the phenomenon of suicide by cop, and aware that such shootings often proved controversial.

And so he waited.

“I didn’t want to shoot him,” Mader said. “I don’t want to say this, because it’s really corny, but I was kind of sacrificing my well-being for him. I’m not going to shoot this kid for my well-being. I’m going to wait to see more from him.”

That said, he would fire if it were warranted. He wasn’t interested in dying.

“I was ready to be first,” Mader said. “As bad as it sounds, I’m going home.”

When the backup officers, Kuzma and Baker, arrived, Mader said, it felt like a mixed blessing. He was grateful for the support, but fearful of what might happen. If Williams wanted someone to shoot him, two more people with guns had just turned up.

“Now this guy has a new option, he’s got a new way to get it done,” Mader recalled thinking. “That’s what scared me.”

When the standoff was over, Mader returned to headquarters. He gave his statement to a superior, and he replayed the events in his mind. It was amazing, he said, how quickly it all happened, but how long it felt in the moment. He said then what he still says today: he could not second-guess Kuzma’s decision to shoot Williams.

But the shooting was the talk of headquarters, and some officers began to openly imply that Mader might have been frozen by indecision or, worse, been afraid to shoot. Mader said he opted to keep quiet.

“I let them say what they needed to tell me,” Mader said.