Suicide by Cop: The Most Selfish Act

People who choose to force cops to shoot them to death often wound and kill bystanders and even cops in the process.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

That day in the train station near Ginza is forever etched in my mind. It was 1993, and I was living in Tokyo working as an English language copywriter at a Japanese ad agency. I was on a train platform near Ginza standing next to this low-level executive. I looked down at a newspaper as the train whooshed into the station. When I looked up, the guy beside me was gone. He jumped into the moving train and what was left of him was scattered all over the track and under the wheels.

That was my first up close and personal look at suicide. My second came on a ridealong a few weeks after I was first hired at POLICE.

That night I was riding with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in Carson and the sergeant who was serving as my gracious host was called to a home. Inside was the aftermath of a suicide. A man had hanged himself while the rest of the family was away. The body had been transported by the EMTs, but the rope still hung from the rafters; there was body fluid on the carpet; and plastic needle caps and other debris left behind by the EMTs littered the floor. In the kitchen, the family was grieving, and angry, and shocked. And they took out some of their anger on the patrol deputies who were waiting for the arrival of homicide detectives.

Nationwide many people get angry at cops for suicides. You get blamed for suicides that happen in custody. You get blamed for drug overdose suicides. You get blamed when you can't talk down some bridge jumper. And for the last two decades or so, you have been blamed when some desperate citizen starts waving a gun and threatening you or other people, forcing you to shoot and kill him, a particularly heinous act called "suicide by cop."

It's often said in our culture that suicide is the ultimate act of cowardice. Wrong. The ultimate act of cowardice is to be so lily-livered that you can't even find the courage to kill yourself so you force some poor officer of the law to do it by pointing an empty gun at other people or at the cops.

Suicide by cop is perhaps the single most selfish thing a human being can do. It endangers the community. People who choose to force cops to shoot them to death often cause innocent people to be wounded or killed. It even endangers cops. Officers have been killed in these incidents, as you can read in our cover story "Suicide By Cop."

The intent of a person committing suicide by cop is also not so obvious that it can always be detected when the act is taking place. Officers facing a man or woman who is wielding a deadly weapon have to focus on the potential for deadly mayhem, not trying to determine why the person is pointing a gun at them. They can't be asking in their minds, "Is that gun loaded?" or "Is it real?" They just have to consider the totality of the circumstances and whether they are facing a deadly threat.

After the shots have been fired, officers involved in suicide by cop incidents have to defend themselves in the court of public opinion and sometimes in a court of law. They have to justify their actions to their departments, their district attorney's office, and perhaps even to a jury. It's not unusual for officers to be sued by the survivors of people who commit suicide by cop. And that's another reason why suicide by cop is a selfish act; it forces the officers to deal with the aftermath.

I started this column with an incident that happened in Japan. And you're probably wondering what that has to do with suicide by cop.

Every city in America should take a page from the Tokyo train company's efforts to stop train jumping suicides. No one sues the train company for splattering their loved ones in Japan, and there are no investigations of the train driver. Instead, the family of the suicide is presented with a bill from the train company for the cleanup.

Now, I don't want the families of people who commit suicide by cop to be given bills. But I do think they should be prohibited from suing anybody involved in the incident, including the cop who had to fire the bullets.

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David Griffith 2017 Headshot
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