Many in the conflict resolution and law enforcement communities are talking about an event that took place in Weirton, West Virginia this past May. What happened has implications for recognizing the experiences of veterans, considering choices that law enforcement make “in the moment,” and evaluating the usefulness of negotiations during crisis situations.
On May 6, 2016, Weirton police officer and former Marine Stephen Mader was called to a domestic incident where an individual, later identified as Ronald Williams, Jr., was agitated and brandishing a gun. When Mader arrived, Williams asked Mader to shoot him, commonly referred to as “suicide by cop.” Instead, Mader engaged in a conversation with Williams attempting to deescalate the situation. Mader, as reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (9/11/16) (http://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2016/09/11/Weirton-fired-officer-who-did-not-fire-at-man-with-gun/stories/201609090080), used his “calm voice” and tried to talk him down. During Mader’s engagement with Williams, other officers arrived on the scene. Interpreting the situation differently, one shot Williams in the back of the head killing him. It was later determined that Williams’s firearm was unloaded.
Afterwards, Mader was put on leave by the Weirton Police Department, and upon returning to work, was dismissed for “failing to eliminate a threat.” Mader’s lawyer suggested that he might be able to resign, but Mader was insistent that he did nothing wrong, and felt resigning would be sending the wrong message. While Mader feels he did the right thing, he also feels that his fellow officers were not at fault.
The American Association of Colleges and Universities (2011) (https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/enhancing-veteran-success-higher-education) anticipates that college enrolment of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan will surge in the next coming years. And many of them will be pursuing degrees in the criminal justice field. Increasingly, a college degree is required before someone can go on for formal police training. In my own work with colleges, particularly community colleges, I see large numbers of veterans seeking careers in law enforcement. As more and more senior police retire, they will inevitably be replaced with men and women whose experiences in battle would have been a major preparative experience for their law enforcement careers. Their frame of reference in dealing with hostile situations – much like in Officer Mader’s case – might very well have been assessing the threat of the potential suicide bomber at an Iraqi and Afghan checkpoint.
Law enforcement professionals with these experiences are likely to have heightened observational skills, and recognize the value of engaging in dialogue to reduce a threat. This is not to suggest that police officers not having military experience are ill equipped to deal with these types of situations. I asked a colleague who served a number of years as a director of a police academy about the extent of negotiations training that recruits get. He indicated that new recruits are given little training. The reason for this is that they have so little experience in the field with which to apply it. But as they mature as professionals, more advanced crisis intervention training is available to them. It would be wrong then to assume that new police graduates – possibly the first to arrive at the scene of a domestic altercation - are trained in negotiations skills.
How then do we value the experiences of a veteran who has possibly been in situations where he or she has had to assess a hostile threat? Officer Mader was likely pulling from his time in Afghanistan, where he served in Helmand province. Using his “calm voice,” he recognized that his ability to persuade and assure Williams could very well deescalate the situation without loss of life. Mader did what we should expect: he reflectively evaluated in the moment and made a decision that sought to assure his safety and that of the person who potentially could do him harm.
In the end, using appropriate and effective negotiation skills to defuse a situation is something all law enforcement professionals should be able to do. Assessing a situation, and making a choice between using their skills of persuasion or their firearm is what we should expect. The fact that decisions need to be made in the moment, doesn’t preclude the necessity for weighing options, and this means giving equal weight to the benefits of negotiating. We have been exposed to an increase in altercations where police are seen as using excessive and at times lethal force often against people of color. How many of those situations might have been diffused if the police officer had been more comfortable with his or her skill at negotiation and ability to use their “calm voice”?