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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

Coping With It

Beyond the immediacy of the threat, there is the aftermath of the incident. This may be simply a matter of the blessed relief of knowing that officers and citizens are still in one piece. Or it may be the realization that the officer has taken a human life.

Stincelli notes that of the many factors having sway on the officer's ability to deal with shooting another, perhaps none are stronger than the officer's own life experiences. "The young cop who's living at home with his mom is probably going to have a more difficult time than the officer who has prior military experience," she says.

The prospect of successfully coping with having taken a life can be difficult, and support may come from unexpected sources.

Eric Weaver was a corporal with the Durham (N.C.) Police Department when he received a call of a mother-son disturbance.

"I was a backup officer," explains Weaver. "When we arrived, the guy was sitting in the driveway with a gun. Every other time when I'd pointed my sidearm at subjects, they gave up. But this guy just kept coming at us with the gun until I shot him. His mother witnessed the whole thing and told me I did exactly what I had to do. 'You didn't have any choice.' "

Such understanding offers unique comfort for the involved officer. Unfortunately, it is rarely encountered from the deceased person's loved ones or other prospective litigants.

In November 1997, Sgt. Shawn O'Leary of the Brunswick (Maine) Police Department rolled on a disturbance call. The involved parties had been drinking and acting up. Upon seeing the officers, a paraplegic-who'd ended up wheelchair-bound as the result of an ill-fated armed robbery of a store a couple of years earlier-pulled out a knife and stabbed himself in the stomach. After stabbing himself a second time, he moved on the officers, coming within striking distance of O'Leary. O'Leary shot him three times, killing him.

"TV and newspapers were all over the story," recalls O'Leary. "They interviewed the suspect's family, who portrayed him as an all around good guy who'd been wronged. This continued until I was cleared internally and by the district attorney's office. I was on paid admin leave for about five weeks. I came back and some of our reliable locals would come up and ask me why I wasn't out shooting guys in wheelchairs. This wasn't so bad because I was kind of young but thick-skinned.

"But then I was sued civilly in federal district court under 1983 [civil rights] violations-and that was very stressful. I'd just purchased a home, had a newborn..."

O'Leary eventually emerged from the situation with his domestic situation and sanity intact. But it was both a literal and figurative trial he would not wish upon another.

Controlling the Story

Having seen officers who have lost their careers and lives incident to suicide by cop shootings, Stincelli feels that agencies can do better when it comes to helping those officers who've been involved in suicide by cop incidents. Counseling is one approach. Demanding parity from the news media is another.

"'Man Gunned Down by Police.' That's the headline they splash across the front page just to get readers to read the article," Stincelli says. "But nine times out of 10, the involved officer is going to read that same article. Editors often don't bother to recognize that the officer is a victim, as well. Then, when the shooting's been cleared, they'll bury the eventual exoneration in the middle or the back of the paper."

Stincelli suggests police departments take a page from her book. "When people get on my black list, they can kiss my ass," says Stincelli. "There were some news networks and print media that have treated my support officers poorly. I let them know: I can't work with your editors—they're dishonest."

Fortunately, police departments now have their own media. They can fulfill their obligations to the community by releasing information through their own Websites, allowing them to have some say in how an incident is colored in the minds of readers. Another option is to deal with the media candidly.

When a suicidal man confronted Officer Brandon Franke of the Charles City (Iowa) Police Department with a firearm, he shot the man. One of the things that helped Franke in the aftermath of the incident was the decisive nature in which his chief, Mike Wendel, dealt with the news media.

Rather than allowing reporters to put their spin on the event, Chief Wendel went out of his way to lay down a clear and detailed account of the shooting. He let it be known that Franke had gone into the location with a reasonable belief that the man was not armed given the information that had been communicated to him. "Franke went into this thing in a life-saving or counseling mode, not a self-defense mode," Wendel said.

The Bottom Line

As noted, there are often collateral casualties to these incidents. These injured or killed parties may be innocent bystanders or officers themselves. When one suicidal man stepped out of a motel room and engaged officers with a realistic pellet gun, Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy Mike Arruda was killed by friendly fire. Other officers have been stabbed or shot by the perpetrators themselves.

Ideally, the officer confronted with a suicide by cop situation will have an easier time reconciling antagonistic goals: Saving another's life or taking it, if the officer is prepared to do either.

Lt. Alex Behnen of the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department trains officers to deal with suicide by cop situations. He quotes a fellow veteran on the officer survival mindset: "Treat everyone like Mother Teresa, but have a plan to kill her if she turns against you."

Lt. Behnen believes that most officers today are at least intellectually prepared to deal with the prospect of responding with an appropriate degree of force.

"Nearly every place that I travel to police officers can tell you what Graham v. Connor is and how it impacts their job and they can apply the principles of it," Behnen observes. "But everyone from administrators and from top to bottom seems to be getting an understanding of the degree of power that citizens have in their interactions with cops. They have a tremendous amount of power over how officers do their jobs.

"I would rather not put a bullet hole in another person," concludes Behnen. "But if someone's confused mental processes has them concluding that I am the devil and that they are going to kill me...Well, guess what? It ain't gonna happen." 

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