Disputing Radley Balko’s Story, “Cop Fired for Not Killing Suicidal Man”

02Oct16

On September 12, the Washington Post published an article by Radley Balko titled West Virginia cop fired for not killing a man with an unloaded gun. Balko is author of a book titled Rise of the Warrior Cop; the Militarization of America’s Police Forces, and frequently writes about police misconduct. His WP article was about a police officer fired for not killing a man he suspected was trying to commit suicide by cop.

The incident began when a woman called 911 to say her boyfriend was threatening suicide. The first officer to arrive, Stephen Mader, found the man holding a pistol in his hand pointed at the ground; Mader, a Marine Afghanistan veteran, deduced that the man was indeed trying to commit suicide by cop. Mader didn’t shoot, even when the man “flicked” the pistol at him. Two other officers arrived and shot the man. The suicidal man’s pistol was found to be unloaded, so Mader’s decision not to shoot seems to have been correct. Even so, Mader was later fired after his chief decided he didn’t trust his judgment.

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Balko, of course, credits Mader for not firing at the suicidal man, and praises him as the type of person who should be a police officer. He faults the two other officers for shooting the man, and the chief for firing an officer who did the right thing. Balko’s article concludes with, “Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the longstanding problem in which even the rare bad cops who do get fired are often able to quickly find work at another policy agency. Mader, who served a tour in Afghanistan and has two sons under five-years-old, told the Post-Gazette that he’s now studying for a commercial truck driving license, but he’d consider another job in law enforcement if he were offered one. I hope that happens. I hope he’s given the same second chance that corrupt, trigger-happy cops are given. My hunch is that he’ll be driving trucks.”

Balko mentions that the chief had other complaints about Mader. He doesn’t mention that Mader allegedly escalated the situation by cursing at the suicidal man, “froze” on the scene, and failed to communicate with other officers. He also doesn’t mention that the suspect reportedly threatened his girlfriend, not just himself.

I don’t have anything against Radley Balko. As far as I know he’s a good writer, makes good points, and understands policing fairly well. I agree with some of what he writes, and get the feeling I’d enjoy a conversation with him about police issues. I don’t think Balko is wrong in saying that Mader shouldn’t have been fired – I agree with that, if he was fired solely because he didn’t shoot – but I do think he’s wrong to suggest the other officers shouldn’t have shot the man, or that the chief shouldn’t have questioned Mader’s judgment.

I think Balko is wrong for several reasons. First. Mader wasn’t fired for not killing the suicidal man. He was fired for not shooting him (or shooting at him). That’s a big difference. Despite a misconception among much of the public, we cops don’t “shoot to kill”. We shoot to stop a threat. The best way to do that is to make multiple center-mass hits, which quickly incapacitate the suspect. Sometimes those multiple hits kill the suspect, oftentimes they don’t. Had Mader hit the suspect and put him down without killing him, or even fired and missed but still caused the suspect to drop his gun and surrender, I see no reason to believe Mader would have been fired.

Even Balko admits, “As it turns out, [the suicidal man’s] gun wasn’t loaded. There’s no way any of the police officers could have known that.” Mader chose not to shoot, which was the only way he could have stopped the threat; he was fired for not stopping the threat, not for failing to kill the man.

Second, someone holding a gun in his hand pointed downward is still dangerous. Another common misconception is that a gun in someone’s hand isn’t a threat if it’s not pointed at you. It actually is, and if he’s “flicking” the weapon toward you, it’s a bigger threat. In a recent debate I had online about this incident someone said, “If the flicker [person flicking a gun] is able to get a shot before the cop then that cop is not worthy enough to be a cop.” That makes great sense to people who have no actual training or experience, not so much to those of us who have dealt with real lethal force encounters. In the real world, we all have reaction times, and a gun can go from down to up and shooting faster than we can recognize the motion and pull the trigger. Even if we shoot first, that doesn’t mean the suspect won’t get a shot off.

Watch this video of a recent shooting in Kingman, Arizona. This suspect, with several police guns on him, was still able to raise his weapon, fire multiple rounds, hit one officer and nearly hit another. The officer who was hit was seriously wounded. The other officer had a round go through his shirt.

Humans cannot eliminate reaction time. We can work to reduce it, we can train ourselves to recognize pre-assault indicators, we can put ourselves through simulations so we’re not stunned into inaction when we find ourselves facing an armed threat. But we can’t eliminate reaction time any more than we can teach ourselves to flap our arms and fly. Reaction time is built in, and the person initiating action will always have an edge on the person reacting to him.

Third, a 911 call reporting a suicidal man doesn’t mean that man can’t be a threat to others. Information relayed to officers from dispatch is often incomplete or incorrect, as I noted in my analysis of the Tamir Rice shooting. Officers can’t accept initial reports as gospel truth; even if the information was true when reported, it can change. Someone can go from suicidal to homicidal in a fraction of a second, as we see in this video of police responding to a “suicidal man” call last year in California.

I’ve heard complaints about officers killing people who were reportedly suicidal. Sometimes that’s just a silly criticism. If an officer shoots someone trying to hang himself, or kills a guy for overdosing on pills, yes that’s unreasonable. But a guy threatening to shoot himself can easily change his mind and shoot someone else.

Fourth, two officers can make different decisions, and both be justified. I was involved in a shooting years ago. I knocked on a door to investigate a report of a man pointing a gun at someone, and the man pointed a gun at me through a window. I got the hell out of the way and drew but didn’t shoot; another officer in the courtyard below me shot the man. I was right to not shoot, the other officer was right to shoot.

How could we both be right? Because I would have been shooting sideways into an apartment possibly occupied by innocent people, but the other officer was aiming upward so any missed rounds would go into the ceiling. As we found out later, several uninvolved people, including women and children, were in the apartment. Nobody but the suspect was hit. I was happy the other officer fired, and he was happy I didn’t. Same scene, same incident, one decision to fire and one not to. And we were both right.

Here’s another example of officers on the same scene making different decisions. Watch this video of an officer ramming a suspect carrying a rifle down a street. The first officer who followed him chose not to hit him, but a second officer sent the suspect flying.

The first officer, after seeing the suspect pointing the rifle at himself, apparently decided the man was only suicidal and chose not to hit or shoot him even after the suspect fired a shot into the air. I don’t agree with his decision, but I can understand it. The second officer, realizing an armed man was walking in the area of passing vehicles and pedestrians, and heading toward a busy highway, decided to take immediate action to end the threat. Whether you agree with his actions or not (I do), they’re reasonable.

What does this have to do with Mader’s shooting? Balko says Mader was right to not shoot, and suggests the other officers were wrong for shooting. He seems to base this on facts learned only after the shooting, like the suicidal man’s gun being unloaded. But that’s not the information the officers had when they arrived. Mader took in the entire scene, and made a decision not to fire. He wasn’t wrong. The other officers arrived, saw an armed man making threatening gestures toward an officer, and fired. They weren’t wrong either.

If you think police work lends itself to perfectly clear right and wrong choices, please stick to cop movies and TV shows. The grey, messy reality of what we do isn’t for you.

Last, risking your life to save a possibly suicidal man’s life is noble, but could also lead to more innocent deaths. In another celebrated police refusal to shoot, an officer who also happened to be a Marine combat vet refused to shoot a double murder suspect . The suspect charged him after a chase, acted like he was drawing a gun and yelled “Shoot me!” The officer kept the suspect at gunpoint, backpedalled, tripped and fell, and eventually got the suspect into custody when backup arrived.

Yes, the officer spared the man’s life even though he would have been justified shooting him. Yes, the man had just murdered his girlfriend and best friend and was trying to get killed. No, the officer had no reason to believe the man was unarmed and not a deadly threat. Had the man drawn a gun and shot the officer in the head after he tripped, then what? We’d have a triple murderer, armed with his own weapon, an officer’s pistol and maybe even a shotgun or AR-15 taken from the officer’s car, free to murder more cops or innocent citizens in the area. What happens when that murderer barges into a home and takes a family hostage? Would anyone praise the officer who chose to spare the murderer, at the expense of his own and other innocent people’s lives?

I get Balko’s criticism of the chief for firing Mader. I don’t think Mader should have been fired either. But I also understand the chief’s concern about Mader’s judgment, and understand why the other officers used deadly force. I also understand why officers treat allegedly suicidal people as deadly threats: because they are, or at least we have to treat them like they are until proven otherwise. Radley Balko should know enough about police work to understand this as well as I do.

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Chris Hernandez is a 22 year police officer, former Marine and recently retired National Guard soldier with 27 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com and Iron Mike magazine and has published three military fiction novels, Proof of Our ResolveLine in the Valley and Safe From the War through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at chris_hernandez_author@yahoo.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).

 

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6 Responses to “Disputing Radley Balko’s Story, “Cop Fired for Not Killing Suicidal Man””

  1. 1 Phil B

    Well, that third video clip should cue the inevitable “stopping power” debate (9mm vs .45) but emphatically a ton or so of patrol car was a one shot stopper right there …

  2. 4 Yrro

    I would love to read a review of Balko’s book from a cop who knows the history and the rules of use of force. I’ve read it and followed his work for a while, and I agree with you that his spin of this incident is unfair, but I found many of his criticisms *sounded* valid.

    I’ve read cops attacking him personally, or saying that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But I’ve never read a cop with a good sense of civil rights go through and review what he gets right and wrong. The best I’ve seen mostly harp on his misuse of the term “SWAT” for any dynamic entry team with rifles.

    If you were interested, it could be a real contribution to the continuing debate about police militarization and use of force.

  3. I’ve grown skeptical as to the size of the difference between “shoot to stop” and “shoot to kill”. Well, there is one big difference: if you’re truly shooting to kill, after the guy is down and not moving you may put an extra bullet or two into his brain just to make sure. But before that? Okay, yes, you shoot to stop (that is indeed the objective), and yes, that doesn’t always kill… but then it doesn’t always stop, either. And if it does stop the person, it does so via massive blood loss or via hitting the central nervous system. I don’t think there’s any way you can have massive enough blood loss to quickly stop someone without it being lethal; even lethal levels of blood loss often leave someone free to act for tens of seconds. As for hitting the central nervous system, that is quite likely to be lethal. Even if it isn’t, leaving someone a paraplegic or quadriplegic takes away most of what most people value in life.

    In any case, if you were shooting to kill, you’d shoot at the same targets (center of mass and maybe head); the difference is when you’d stop shooting. And as regards that, it often takes more damage to stop someone quickly than it does to be lethal, so if you stop shooting when he gets stopped by bullet damage he’s quite likely to die. (An exception I’ve heard of is a bullet to the head which doesn’t penetrate but instead just delivers a knockout blow like one a fist could deliver; but how common is that?)

    Now, there is also the case of someone who abruptly changes his mind about his misbehavior when he feels bullets ripping through his flesh, rather than being stopped in any mechanical fashion by those bullets. Such people can save their lives by collapsing early when shot. Perhaps there are enough such cases to make a big difference between “shooting to stop” and “shooting to kill”?

    • Most people shot with a pistol don’t die, and as far as I know that includes most people shot by police pistols (I can’t swear to that, I just think it’s true). You’re probably right that most people get non-fatally shot once or twice and suddenly decide to make other plans. In cases like Michael Brown, again as you said, “shooting to stop” meant creating enough damage to kill him because he wasn’t stopping otherwise. Still though, as police our objective emphatically is not to kill people. Unfortunately, in a deadly force situation that’s hard to avoid sometimes.


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