When it comes to policing, officers who are military trained might be better equipped to handle escalating suspect encounters compared to average officers who are quick to pull the trigger.
Such was the case of Weirton, West Virginia, police officer Stephen Mader, who was fired from the force after refusing to shoot an African-American suspect armed with a gun.
Mader, a 25-year-old Marine Corp veteran, said he utilized his prior military training to deescalate the situation with Ronald D. Williams, a 23-year-old father looking to commit “suicide by cop.” The former officer said he was attempting to talk the young man into dropping his weapon when backup officers arrived and fired four shots, killing Williams.
Mader was placed on administrative leave, investigated by the department and ultimately fired for “putting two other officers in danger” by refusing to shoot the young father. But human rights experts have asserted that police departments across the U.S. actually need more military vets like Mader — ones who are trained to deescalate rather than shoot. For some, such a change could be the start to reducing instances of police brutality in America
“Before you go to Afghanistan, they give you training,” Mader explained. “You need to be able 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 [with Williams] that night.”
Human rights lawyer Erica Gaston, who studied the U.S. military’s rules of engagement during wartime in Afghanistan, told NPR that the rules of engagement were sometimes stricter than the use-of-force rules for civilian law enforcement in America. She said U.S. forces put an emphasis on “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, while working to stabilize and protect communities from the bad guys.
Mader applied that same empathetic training during his ill-fated encounter with Williams, which ultimately cost him his job and still ended up costing the young man his life. The ex-officer said Williams’ never pointed the gun at him, so he didn’t feel the need to shoot.
“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,” he said.
Though Mader was terminated for hesitating to shoot his weapon, Shell Lake, Wisconsin police chief Dave Wilson (an Iraq war vet himself) said the former officer’s hesitance was actually a sign of experience and maturity. According to NPR, Wilson has hired numerous military veterans to his department and said they make for “ideal” police officers.
“If anything else, they have a better understanding of rules of engagement and use of force than others might,” the police chief said. “They’re used to seeing people holding guns, and they take the time to assess the real danger of the situation.”
Researchers at Washington State University echoed Wilson’s sentiments. Analyst Stephen James, who has worked on tests examining police officers’ reactions to simulators, found that military-trained officers tend to be more “patient” than those who are not. James said the reason for this could be that combat vets who’ve seen or experienced extreme levels of violence have a different “threat threshold,” and thus have better control over their fight-or-flight response.
While there are clearly benefits to having a military-trained veteran on the force, some civil rights advocates have argued that demilitarizing the police, not increased training, is the key to combating police brutality. Atlanta Black Star reported that a 2016 Ruderman Family Foundation report examining disability and policing provided little evidence that more police training would reduce deadly incidents of police use of force.
In contrast, other civil rights proponents have called for the abolition of police forces altogether, asserting that citizens should look at creating community-based solutions for transformative justice.