Negotiating with Suicidal Subjects

Suicide by cop, like other suicides, can be devastating for loved ones of the subject. But unlike other suicides, suicide by cop places a weighty burden on the involved officers that can be career-ending, as a high percentage of officers involved in fatal shootings leave policing within a year of the incident.

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What motivates people to manipulate law enforcement officers into helping them commit suicide in an act known as "suicide by cop" is open to speculation. Subjects who choose suicide by police gunfire may be afraid to complete the act on their own or afraid of failing to successfully kill themselves.

But a more likely reason that subjects want to die from police bullets rather than their own means is grandiosity, an inflated and exaggerated sense of self that can make a person want to "go out in a blaze of glory," thus transforming suicide into a heroic, rather than a cowardly, act played out before an admiring audience. Suicide-by-cop subjects can also shed responsibility for the act and delude themselves in their final moments.

Resentment and feelings of victimhood may be behind some suicide-by-cop incidents. An opposing scenario might also fit for some. In these situations the suicide was an act in which the subjects were in control, so much so that they could manipulate police into doing their bidding.

Regardless of the subjects' motivations, suicide by cop is extremely common. Studies have found that 10% to 11% of officer-involved shootings are suicide-by-cop incidents. Most incidents were in conjunction with either armed robberies or domestic violence crimes, and the subjects were almost always male and armed with a gun or knife. Where a gun was involved, the majority were replicas, air guns, or unloaded, non-functional weapons.

Suicide by cop, like other suicides, can be devastating for loved ones of the subject. But unlike other suicides, suicide by cop places a weighty burden on the involved officers that can be career-ending, as a high percentage of officers involved in fatal shootings leave policing within a year of the incident.

To gain a better understanding of how crisis negotiation can be critical in a suicide-by-cop situation, let's look at a case study.

The Bank Robber

In August 2007, a call went out regarding an armed robbery at a branch bank in a suburban shopping center near Louisville, Ky. The subject, armed with a rifle, was reported to still be in the bank. Four female employees were being held hostage.

Patrol officers responded and SWAT and hostage negotiators were called out. A first responding district detective called the subject on the bank's landline. In a conversation that lasted about 90 seconds, the subject asked for White Castle hamburgers. There were no other demands.

Unproductive negotiations continued for nearly two hours. Asked his name, the hostage taker replied, "My ID and wallet are in my pants pocket." Efforts to engage him otherwise failed, and negotiations were entirely about the food order and why it was taking so long to get there.

After the "White Castles" were delivered, the gunman released the hostages unharmed, and indicated his intention of coming out in 30 minutes. He was instructed to come out without the weapon. He refused to do so, and exited the bank through the front door with his rifle at port arms. He then broke into a slow jog toward the SWAT officers. Officers fired first less-lethal and then lethal rounds. He was killed.

Post-Incident Analysis

The delay in delivery of the food order was the only issue discussed with the bank robbery subject. That delay had given commanders on the scene—who did not want to risk officer lives delivering hamburgers—time to gain access to and order the deployment of an EOD robot to send in the food. But it frustrated the subject.

Negotiators were frustrated, as well. They had been unable to elicit the subject's name or "hook him" with any of their usual techniques. No rapport of any real kind was established, and the subject stuck to his script by only repeating his original demands and deriding the police. The negotiation team conferred and concluded this was not a bank robbery, and that the subject's intent was likely suicide by police. Still, they continued to negotiate in hopes of convincing the man he did not have to die that day.

When the food was finally readied for delivery, negotiators bargained for the release of the hostages, but the subject refused. He did allow one of the women to exit the front door and retrieve the food.

It became increasingly clear that the subject was likely to be mentally or emotionally disturbed, and he was there to make a statement rather than for gain. After he released the hostages, the police learned from the women the subject had stated his intention to die at the hands of police, which he did.

Information and intelligence gathered during and after the incident helped to provide a fuller picture of the subject and his actions.

The Subject

The subject revealed little about himself in the course of negotiations. His manner and behavior, however, revealed a hostile, impatient, frustrated, self-important, self-centered, rigid, interpersonally cold, and single-minded person.

At the outset, the subject had chosen to release the three males in the bank, two employees and a customer. He took only the females hostage. He must have felt threatened by the males despite his rifle. This behavior suggests the subject was insecure.

The probability that negotiators were dealing with a suicide-by-cop situation was considered early on. The subject made no demands other than for food—not even the usual "go away" demand that is common in barricade and hostage situations. When asked his name, his reply of "check my wallet" was a thinly veiled clue to his intentions. He seemed to be saying, "You'll find out when you go through my pockets after I'm dead." And the single, central demand for food might have been a symbolic last meal for the condemned.

Just before exiting the bank, the subject warned negotiators that he was coming out, would not put his rifle down, and would shoot the first officers he saw. He said, "I hope you shoot me first," and, snidely, "I hope you shoot faster than you brought my (food) order." The negotiator's attempt to confront the issue of suicide directly and plead with the subject to not end it this way went unheeded.

Debriefing the released women showed them to be remarkably calm. They had not been threatened and had been treated respectfully. When the subject indicated that he would release them, they became more upset about what they believed the subject was about to do than they were concerned about themselves. He had told them explicitly that he intended to die at the hands of the police because he was mentally ill and could no longer bear the pain.

Once the food had been delivered, the subject sincerely apologized to the hostages for not ordering food for them; he had not thought that it would take so long when he first "placed" the order. He suggested they go into the vault where they would be safe in the event of a tactical entry. The women balked, and he relented.

After the incident, some information about the hostage taker's psychiatric history became available through the family, neighbors, and mental health agencies where he had sought treatment in the past.

He did not drive or own a car and, had, in fact, come to the bank on a bicycle. In our culture, car ownership or at least a driver's license is often a minimum attainment in the eyes of peers, especially for males. He had neither. Even the gun he had brought to the bank, which had been variously reported that day to be a shotgun and a rifle, turned out to be a pellet gun.

In the subject's apartment, homicide investigators found a suicide note that echoed what he had told the hostages about his feeling that he could no longer bear the pain of his chronic mental illness. His apartment was spotlessly clean, neat, and orderly. He had very likely cleaned it in a ritual fashion as he prepared to die. The post-mortem revealed no intoxicants.

A family member told the local newspaper the 44-year-old subject had suffered from mental illness since his teenage years. His illness was characterized as occurring in "episodes." Over the years, he had repeatedly failed to take his medications as prescribed because of their undesirable side effects. The family spokesperson felt that the subject clearly wanted to die and went there "to make it happen" that day.

The subject was unable to work and functioned at a minimal level. He received a disability check through Social Security for his chronic and debilitating mental illness. He lived alone in an apartment complex where the neighbors described him as someone who always said "hello" but mostly "kept to himself." He was described as intelligent and was known as "the professor."

Negotiation Notes

Negotiation is still the principal means of interrupting suicide-by-cop behavior, notwithstanding the tactical employment of less-lethal weapons when appropriate. Sometimes the negotiation is a success and sometimes it fails, but there are some basic approaches negotiators can use to try to achieve desirable results.

Suicidal subjects, even those "determined" to die, have a degree of mixed feelings, about their intention and the finality of it. Some will want to be "talked out of it" or saved from themselves; others will be seemingly unshakable in their determination to die. The task of the negotiator is to ally with that part of the subject that is hesitant.

A suicidal subject's ambivalence is comprised of many elements, including doubt, hope, fear, the self-preservation instinct, guilt, moral conflict, religious proscription, meaningful attachment, worry about survivor(s), unfinished business, and other concerns. Addressing the subject's need to be acknowledged—that he "counts"—may be a fruitful avenue to follow. Consider this approach. "That [name] cares for you means that you count, that you matter to someone, and, when you care for someone, it means that they matter. Caring and being cared about matters. Who cares about you? Who do you care about?"

Negotiators should address the subject's suicidal ideation (thoughts, images, ideas) directly and determine his or her intent to act on those thoughts. A frank airing of the subject's self-destructive ideas and intent may help in the release of feelings and the exposure of ambivalence. Voicing concerns aloud to someone who is willing to listen may, in itself, highlight the subject's ambivalent feelings and shift the balance from a desire to die to a will to live. Also, the use of ginger phrases and "walking on eggs" has long been rejected, as they inadvertently communicate the negotiator's discomfort and fear.

The willingness of a negotiator to listen and to fearlessly explore the subject's despair and suicidality with them is rapport building and becomes the foundation for the next phase: problem solving. Nudging the subject into problem solving means moving him from what is largely an irrational and highly emotional plane to a more rational one. Herein lies the potential opening for a trust-based alliance between the negotiator and the healthy part of the subject to be sparked.

The most desirable and plausible outcome for a negotiator dealing with a specific subject on a specific day is to get the subject to choose to live for the rest of the day. A "contract for safety" between the negotiator and the subject can help by getting the subject to promise to wait until the next day, until after Christmas, until he can talk to his wife or priest, or until some other fixed point. Once this is achieved, a more lasting solution can then be sought for the suicidal subject through professional mental health services and social and family supports.

Of course some subjects will still be lost, despite such intervention. But that's really not the concern for law enforcement. Your goal as a police negotiator is to prevent the subject from using a fellow officer as a tool for killing himself during a specific incident. Succeeding in that effort is not easy. Negotiators can do everything right, and the subject may still force officers to shoot him.

Dr. Arthur Slatkin is a police and criminal psychologist who just retired from the Louisville (Ky.) Metro Police Department's HNT where he was mental health consultant, trainer, and active negotiator. He is the author of numerous books and articles on crisis and hostage negotiations.

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