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Getting You to Pull the Trigger

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

November 1997: 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 his motive, the suspect will set out to 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.

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.

Comments (1)

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Marie Fishman @ 2/2/2014 1:01 AM

Tried to email Sgt Dean Scoville at email provided and it was returned. What is proper email address?

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