The growing phenomenon of "suicide by cop" puts officers in unwitting role of assisting the death wishes of others.
Nineteen-year-old Moshe Pergament is spotted driving erratically by a Nassua County, N.Y., police officer who pulls over the college student's car. As the officer exits his patrol vehicle, Pergament gets out of his car and approaches the police officer with what appears to be a firearm. Despite the officer's repeated pleas for him to drop the weapon, Pergament continues to advance. Faced with the prospect his own impending death, the officer fires three times, killing Pergament. Only later does the officer learn the brutal truth: the weapon wielded by the suspect is nothing more than a toy gun.
January 1998: A 36-year-old man walks into a central Tuscon, Ariz., convenience store. Slamming a gun on the counter, he demands that the clerk call police to come kill him. An hour later, he lies dying in an empty lot with two bullets in his body: one in the chest from a police officer's gun; the other, a self-inflicted head wound.
May 1998: Daring a Belleville, Ill. officer to shoot him, a 21-year-old man lunges at the officer with a 10-inch hunting knife. The officer fires. The suspect falls, a bullet in his chest.
Each of these incidents was an attempt by the suspect to have himself killed at the hands of a police officer. In two of the three cases, the suspect succeeded. Taken together, these incidents are representative of a national phenomenon referred to as "suicide by cop."
While the term "suicide by cop" has joined media-friendly phrases like "road rage" and "going postal" in an ever-growing American lexicon, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Homicide Sgt. John Yarbrough doesn't feel it's an accurate description. "Throughout history, there have been numerous instances of agency-assisted suicide: medical, judicial, etc.," Yarbrough told POLICE.
"Basically, it's a means of getting someone else to do it for you," said Yarbrough about "suicide by cop."
But he feels that "suicide by cop" is a disingenuous misnomer at best, and a dangerous one, at worse. "It's a means of passing the buck on behalf of the victim. It tries to make the officer accountable for the person's death; when in fact, it is the suicidal individual who is responsible. The perpetrator has the death wish, not the officer, who is merely reacting to a situation."
Because of this, Yarbrough-who participated in perhaps the only known detailed study of the phenomenon-prefers to call such incidents as "police-assisted suicides."
An Emerging Concern for Police
By any name, the incidence of a suicidal person confronting police officers in a manner likely to provoke a defensive reaction, is a growing concern for law enforcement agencies. Police agencies have historically shied away from discussing the phenomenon for the very realistic fear that publicity might generate copycat episodes.
A "suicide by cop" study that Yarbrough worked on, included researchers from Harvard and USC and profiled a number of officer-involved shootings that occurred in Los Angeles County between 1987-1996. Each case study had to fit established criteria, among them that before, during, or after the incident, the suspect made it explicitly known that he wanted to be shot by officers.
Of the 384 cases studied, at least 10 percent were determined to fit the "suicide by cop" phenomenon. Some commonalities emerged in the Los Angeles County study. In almost all instances, the victims were male; an overwhelming majority were whites or Latino. There were also high incidences of prior domestic violence, alcohol or chemical abuse, and prior suicide attempts.
The most easily recognized catalyst was the dissolution of a relationship: a break-up with a girlfriend or a divorce. Feeling helpless and hopeless, the suspects came to believe the only way out was death. Unable to commit suicide themselves, they looked to cops to emancipate them from their pain and set out to execute some plan that would culminate in their being killed.
The motives for orchestrating such a scenario are myriad. Whereas suicide is deemed an act of honor in Japan, it still carries a negative stigma in the United States. Thus, the victim may be opting to skirt the sociological stigma that suicide is weak. Or he may be trying to reconcile the desire to kill himself with the theological belief that suicide is a sin; so he somehow distances himself from the act by being shot by another. Whatever precipitate a shooting by preying on an officer's defensive responsiveness.
Sgt. Yarbrough describes this step as "the outrageous event": an action taken by the suspect that will guarantee police presence. This may be a sudden act of property damage such as vandalism or arson or an assault against another. It may be the random brandishing of a firearm against fellow pedestrians or passing motorists. In any instance, it will find an informant and possibly the suspect himself calling police to advise them of a crime in progress.
This "outrageous event" usually follows a period of anxious vacillation by the suspect. But once he's committed to having himself killed, the suspect may actually experience a period wherein he acts in a calm and methodical manner. No longer distracted by the probable consequences of his actions, the suspect can constructively commit his attentions and energies toward orchestrating events so that responding officers will find themselves in the position of defending their lives or the lives of others.