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Cover Story

Suicide by Cop

Self-destructive subjects seeking an easy exit can get cops and innocent bystanders killed.

April 30, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

It's 23:05 on a Sunday night in smalltown America. One of the local citizens has been suffering from a bout of the blues. And drinking. He's now in the middle of the street waving around a revolver and threatening to shoot anyone who comes near. He spouts expletives and urges the responding officers of the law: "Come on, you cowards. Shoot me!"

Such is the inexplicable behavior associated with people who attempt to get themselves shot at the hands of a law enforcement officer. It is a phenomenon common enough that it has become a part of the collective police consciousness and the American vernacular: It's known as "suicide by cop."

Rebecca Stincelli, author of "Suicide by Cop: Victims on Both Sides of the Badge," ultimately considers the phrase something of a misnomer.

"Suicide by cop is ultimately just that: suicide," Stincelli says. "We don't call other forms of suicide 'suicide by exhaust' or 'suicide by barbiturates.' We call them suicides."

Yet the term persists, much to the disgust of officers who are labeled "killers" by the press and the public. Stincelli finds the appraisal an unfair one. "When a person jumps to his death, we don't persecute the sidewalk," she explains. "But time and again, society will blame the cop."

Taking Others With Them

The first thing you learn when you delve into this topic is that most agencies do not classify officer-involved shootings. Suicide by cop statistics are compiled by forensic psychologists who study and evaluate officer-involved incidents.

Dr. Kris Mohandie published a study of officer-involved shootings that occurred between 1998 and 2006 in the Journal of Forensic Science. Mohandie determined that of 707 OIS incidents, 36 percent resulted from suicide by cop situations.

Mohandie found that suicide by cop is a very effective means of ending it all. In about 97 percent of the cases studied, the subject was killed. But Mohandie's research also reveals something that every good cop knows in his heart: These incidents are dangerous for the responding officer and the public. Mohandie's research says there is a one-in-three chance that some party other than the perpetrator will be injured or killed in any suicide by cop incident.

Bringing Them Back Alive

When you consider that 80 percent of the time the suicidal person is armed with a weapon—and 60 percent of the time the weapon of choice is a firearm—it is a wonder that officers are able to resolve any of these situations without the use of deadly force, let alone establish the appropriate psychiatric intervention.

A confluence of factors has successfully mitigated many of these incidents: Officers are trained to recognize such situations, they have developed better tactical communications skills, and they possess a wider variety of less-lethal weaponry.

But as the saying goes, you don't bring a knife—or a TASER—to a gunfight. And when confronted with either a knife or a firearm at close range, no matter how empathetic or patient the officer is, his hand may be forced and he will have to act to protect himself or others.

Unfortunately, the officer who acts will soon have to defend him or herself in a court of law or in the court of public opinion. He or she will also face personal doubts over the incident. And of course, the officer's personal questions will soon be joined by many questions from the public and from the agency he or she works for. Everything from racial demographics, to the number of rounds fired, to the commands made will be Monday morning quarterbacked.

When Alonzo Heyward stalked about his Chattanooga, Tenn., neighborhood ranting about suicide while carrying a rifle, it set off a series of confrontations with local law enforcement. It culminated with six officers firing a cumulative 59 rounds at Heyward, who suffered 43 bullet wounds to his chest, face, arms, hands, legs, buttocks, and groin.

Local activists raised questions about the number of shots and levied accusation at the cops. In response, Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who is now a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, told the Associated Press that there is "no magic number," when it comes to officers firing at a suspect.

"When you send the police, they bring deadly force with them. They come armed and they come predisposed to use force," O'Donnell told the AP.

That predisposition to use force may have had some play in the shooting death of Barbara Schneider at the hands of Minneapolis PD officers inside her apartment in June 2000.

Bill Palmer, a senior officer at the scene, recalls the event. "There was a collective 20 or 30 years of law enforcement experience at that door," Palmer reflects. "But none of us had ever had an experience where we faced a person with an edged weapon who wouldn't do exactly what we told them to do. Our paradigm was that we're going to open this door and we're going to engage in a dialogue and we're going to sort it out.

"This resulted in overconfidence. I don't think we understood exactly what the problem was that we were dealing with. And we didn't have a lot of mental health training to prepare for this incident," Palmer says.

Bottlenecked beyond the threshold of the apartment with no room for retreat, Palmer and his fellow officers found themselves having to shoot Schneider when she advanced upon them with a knife.

CONTINUED: Suicide by Cop «   Page 1 of 3   »

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