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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

Suspect Creates Incident

August, 1998: Deputies from the Los Angeles County Antelope Valley Station respond to a campground to find a distraught 28-year-old man pointing a rifle at his head and threatening to kill himself.  After the deployment of shotgun projected bean bags and hours of negotiations fail to coerce the subject's surrender, the deputies simply leave.  No one is seriously injured.

This incident is perhaps a best-case scenario, and while some argument may be made later for the suspect posing a threat to others, officers can only deal with what they are faced with at any given moment, all the while reconciling their tactical decisions with the reverence for human life.  In this particular situation, the decision to leave the scene was feasible, given the isolated area, the fact that the subject posed no threat to other persons, and deputies had done all they could to coerce a surrender.

But no matter how patient we are or how well-trained we may be to deal with a distraught individual, there will be instances wherein the officer will have to fire that shot.  And while these incidences are certainly tragic, it is imperative to remember that it is the suspect who invariably sets the series of events in motion.  That they should choose officers to help them in this endeavor should be of no surprise.

At all times, we are responding to their actions: It's what they're counting on.  Officers have historically been well-armed, and suspects generally believe officers will fire until a threat is removed.  And in every instance, the suspect gives little consideration to the officer who is placed in the role of judge, jury, and executioner.  Nor will the decedent dictate the spin the local news media may put on the outcome of such a situation.

"It's a very selfish act on the part of the person doing it," explains Kevin Danaher, a veteran of the Tuscon (Ariz.) Police Department SWAT team.  "He (suspect) never considers the impact on the officer.  He only envisions the positive impact on him.  He can become a martyr, with his name and picture in the paper.  He is letting his girlfriend know that if 'I can't have you, I'll have you know I died a victim.'

And if he survives, he can always sue the officers involved.  For him, it's a win-win situation."

Obviously, the likelihood of minimizing the odds that we'll have to kill a suicidal man depends largely on the suspect's determination, his weapons, and the direct threat he poses to those who about him.  As Danaher notes, "The most effective thing we've ever used is negotiation.  These are the toughest situations to deal with.  You're dealing with a person who's at the end of his rope and, quite possibly, at the end of the line.

"Officers are confronting a different dynamic than the inadvertent hostage situation that evolves out of a bungled robbery.  These people want to die.  How are you about to change their minds?"

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