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Cover Story

Suicide by Cop: Getting You to Pull the Trigger

The growing phenomenon of "suicide by cop" puts officers in unwitting role of assisting the death wishes of others.

November 01, 1998  |  by - Also by this author

Moment of Truth

Once the event has arrived, the suspect is generally keyed for a "GO" signal, a sign for him to take some final action and realize his goal.  In "suicide by cop" situations, this signal may be the arrival of police or any sign of proactive police intervention that might follow an officer's arrival.  But once the "GO" signal is perceived, the suspect's final assault is imminent.  The suspect's actions are often very aggressive, for this is his bid for annihilation and he does not want to be wounded.  This perhaps explains why many suspects will continue hopeless acts of aggression even after they've been incapacitated by gunfire.

As James Gilligan, author of the book, Violence notes, "For many, the only means capable of expressing, in a final catharsis, the rage that is within them, is the fantasy of dying in a shootout with the police in which they would at least take as many people as possible into death with them before they die-an acting our of the Bonnie and Clyde myth, the Gotterdammerung myth.  Every year in this country, hundreds of violent criminals go to their deaths in exactly that way.

Their implements may vary.  Suspects have been known to wield remote controls, blunt instruments, and water pistols with equal efficacy.  But despite what some might believe, the vast majority of the time the suspects are well armed: The knives are real; the guns, loaded.  Because of this, Sgt. Yarbrough cautions against the arbitrary use of less lethal weapons as their deployment may serve as the "GO" signal.

Indeed, in one Southern California shooting, officers attempted to disarm an elderly man who was wielding a revolver.  Firing shotgun-projected bean bags, they only succeeded in provoking the man to fire several shots, one which wounded an officer.   Another collateral concern is the possible presence of booby-traps on or about the subject's person or property.

Inevitable Occurrence

Virtually every cop at one time or another will encounter the loud and belligerent drunk who challenges the cop to shoot him.  Often, theses are drunks, confrontation junkies out to play "chicken" with a cop.

Often, they are only attempting to get a rise out of cops and see if they can scare them.  But some are more adept than others at the enterprise, and succeed beyond their dreams in escalating situations to points where the reasonable cop has no option other than to shoot him.  Such instances confuse the issue and cloud the already murky waters of officer-involved shootings.

Because of this uncertainty, Constable Rick Parent of the Delta Municipal Police Department, British Columbia, is cautious to delineate between the "victim-precipitated suicide" and those cases where the suspect may have other, more ambiguous motives.  Because many of the decedents of such incidents have a history of suicide attempts, Parent encourages the street cop to familiarize himself with the ideation of suicidal individuals.  Parent, an expert in the phenomenon, notes that "for cops who work the field, the more they know about suicide, the more they know about police work.

"For the dynamic of dealing with a suicidal person is quite different than dealing with a suspect wanted for a bungled robbery or burglary.  In the latter instances, the suspects are hoping to evade capture with their lives, even if it means jeopardizing the lives of others.  In these cases, they're begging us to kill them, even if it means taking others with them."

Trying to discern the true motive can sometimes be difficult.  When the suspect succeeds in getting himself killed, such questions are often left unresolved.  Sgt.

Yarbrough's examination has led him to the conclusion that at least 10 percent of all officer-involved shootings are police-assisted suicide.

The Choices

So when the choice comes down to one of taking them in, or taking them out, what should we do?  Some may opt for neither.  What if they had a shooting, and nobody came?

Tags: Suicide by Cop


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