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.
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?
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?"
The taking of another's life can become psychologically debilitating for the involved officers. Denotatively, "suicide by cop" means a cop who killed himself; connotatively, it refers to an individual who has himself killed by an officer. Sometimes, it can mean both.
Tuscon P.D.'s Danaher is familiar with one officer whose excessive interest in suicide obsession stemmed from an incident in which he'd killed a man bent on committing suicide. The officer's growing fascination found him going out of his way to roll to morbid situations, and culminated with a particularly traumatic episode where a subject shot himself in the head as the officer was talking with him. Within 18 months of taking the life of another, the officer took his own life as well.
Danaher notes that those who are able to objectively reconcile their involvement in such incidents are less likely to come to such drastic ends. A common appraisal among such officers is the following: "I showed up to help. I can live with having to kill him; I made sure that he didn't take anybody with him." The psychological fallout in the aftermath of such a tactical situation can be far-reaching. Incident commanders who have ordered someone to take a shot may have as difficult a time dealing with the trauma as if they were actively involved-perhaps more so.
Obviously, there are those who, despite doing everything they can, may be faced with the prospect of taking a human life, and until the day comes when we can set phasers to stun, we'll have to fight fire with fire. Moe Pergament, the collegian, realized this and in a final written note appealed to the shooting officer to forgive him for what he'd forced the officer to do.
Inside his car was a note addressed: "To the officer who shot me." Inside the envelope was a Hallmark card with a personal inscription:
"Officer, "It was a plan. I'm sorry to get you involved. I just needed to die. Please remember that this was all my doing. You had no way of knowing...Moe Pergament."
Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a regular contributor to POLICE. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His web page can be found at www.concentric.net/~comicdet.