Suicide by Cop

When a person jumps to his death, we don't persecute the sidewalk, but time and again, society will blame the cop.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

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.[PAGEBREAK]

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.[PAGEBREAK]

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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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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