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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

Changing Tactics

For many agencies, the playbook for how to handle potential suicides has begun to change. In the aftermath of Barbara Schneider's death, the Minneapolis PD began to deploy a Crisis Intervention Team along the lines of that formulated by the Memphis Police Department.

"One of the biggest things was we went to Memphis and picked up a CIT program and implemented it," says Palmer. "We keep 150 officers trained in the crisis intervention team model. Every officer on the department has had at least an awareness level module on mental health response."

Palmer himself now trains officers to deal with the mentally ill in the hopes that another Barbara Schneider tragedy can be averted. Minneapolis PD CIT officers are called upon to de-escalate a variety of situations, not only mental health emergency response. The department has also invested heavily in less-lethal weapon options, including TASERs.

Palmer notes that one of the biggest keys to the success of the department's CIT lies in how it selects its members. "We pick officers who we think will do well in the program and who will spend time to work with people to calm them down and get them the help they need."

At the same time, Palmer says the department remains realistic about the prospect for deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill, and has increased sensitivity for officers who may find themselves having to deploy it.

Cop Killers

Schneider's death was tragic, but no more so than the deaths of officers who have been killed while trying to mitigate suicide by cop situations. Indeed, it may even be problematic for cops to realize they are facing a suicide by cop situation, until it's too late.

When Lt. Billy Ray Jiles of the Carroll County (Ga.) Sheriff's Department set up outside a house wherein a domestic violence suspect had killed the owner before barricading himself, the last thing he might have expected was for the man to exit the house with two guns blazing. But that's exactly what happened and Jiles was killed. A suicide note recovered from the suspect's body after an ensuing gunbattle left little doubt that the man's intent had been suicide by cop.

Suicidal Cops

No suicide by cop incident is more difficult for officers to face than a fellow officer or former officer who chooses to use his or her colleagues to make an exit.

Capt. Dan Barnett of the Columbia County (Ga.) Sheriff's Office found himself on a phone negotiating with a distraught former deputy who'd been fired a short time before. Just before putting the phone down and stepping outside, the former officer told Barnett, "I don't have the balls to do it myself; I'm going to make you do it."

Looking back on the incident, Barnett offers food for thought to other officers faced with a similar situation.

"Really, we let him get too close," Barnett says. "We gave him too much leeway because we knew him. One of our counter-snipers should have got him the moment he stepped off the porch. He wasn't but about 20 feet away when they finally shot him."

Barnett recalls another situation wherein a woman who'd previously fired rounds over deputies' heads announced that she was about to step outside.

"She said, 'I know that when I come outside and point my gun at those deputies they're going to have to shoot me.' She was correct."

Officer Mindset and Obligations

Assigning officers to specialized units tasked to deal with emotionally compromised individuals is a huge step in addressing suicide by cop situations. But often it is the first responder's initial approach to the situation that will dictate its conclusion.

Many officers go above and beyond what is reasonably expected of them to intervene on another's behalf. Some have paid the ultimate price. Often, this obligation is self-imposed. If anything, courts have encouraged an almost laissez faire attitude on the matter of protecting others.

In Adams v. Fremont, the appeals court asserted that officers are not always obligated to intervene on behalf of some suicidal other. An appeals court ruled in Adams that officers "owed no legal duty of care" to a suicidal subject and they were immune from liability under Government Code section 820.2. "We hold that police officers responding to a crisis involving a person threatening suicide with a loaded firearm have no legal duty under tort law that would expose them to liability if their conduct fails to prevent the threatened suicide from being carried out," the judges wrote.

For officers, dealing with a suicide by cop attempt means containing the problem to the best of their abilities, having a realistic sense of their mission, adopting the requisite mindset, and relying on the best tactics and personnel available. For the departments, it means affording officers the training and resources with which to execute those responsibilities and the courage to support their officers' actions thereafter.

CONTINUED: Suicide by Cop «   Page 2 of 3   »


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