Read: How to actually fix America’s police
He is far from alone. Police officers in the United States engage in all manner of bad behavior, such as excessive force, sexual misconduct, financial impropriety, and the manipulation of evidence. Holding them to account criminally, civilly, or professionally is extremely difficult, even in cases involving blatant malpractice and misconduct. Yet, even as bad cops evade punishment for wrongdoing, those who stand up to corruption, report negligence or abuse, or decline to comply with bad orders are frequently marginalized, demoted, or outright fired.
In May 2016, Stephen Mader, a police officer in Weirton, West Virginia, responded to a call by a distraught woman who said that her boyfriend, R. J. Williams, was threatening to harm himself with a knife. According to subsequent reporting on the case by ProPublica, she mentioned that Williams had a gun, but that it was unloaded, and she urged the police to intervene to save his life. When he arrived at the scene, Mader, a former marine, quickly surmised that Williams was not a threat and was trying to commit “suicide by cop.” He tried to talk Williams down, and was making progress—that is, until two other officers arrived on the scene and quickly shot Williams in the head. When officers inspected Williams’s gun, they found it was unloaded, as was indicated in the call to dispatch. Rather than sanctioning the other officers for using unnecessary force against someone with a weapon that they had been told was unloaded—for killing the very person they had been called upon to help—Weirton police fired Mader for exercising restraint. By failing to immediately shoot Williams, his superiors argued, he’d jeopardized his own life as well as the lives of his peers and any civilian bystanders. Mader sued for wrongful termination and ultimately settled for $175,000. However, he was not able to get his job back. He worked for a while as a truck driver before joining the National Guard, where he is now a military police officer.
In 2013, police officers in Auburn, Alabama, were assigned by their supervisor to a monthly quota of 100 “contacts”—that is, arrests, traffic tickets, warnings, and so on. Officer Justin Hanners spoke out against the policy, arguing that cops should interfere with people’s daily lives as little as possible, and only when they were needed. He insisted that the role of police should be to serve and protect, not to shake down civilians for money. According to the libertarian magazine Reason, Hanners was fired for expressing his opposition to quotas and refusing to comply with them. (Auburn police officials insisted they had imposed no quota, but Hanners produced recordings that appeared to back up his contentions.) Hanners filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the city of Auburn; it was dismissed partly on the grounds that, as a municipal employee, his whistleblowing actions were not covered by Alabama’s State Employee Protection Act. In the aftermath, unable to pay the bills, Hanners was forced to spend most of his retirement savings on keeping his family afloat. They ultimately lost their home to foreclosure and had to move in with relatives.