Suicide by Cop: Getting You to Pull the Trigger

At least one lawman, who has participated in perhaps the only study done on these incidents, prefers to call them "officer-assisted suicides," but whatever the description, they are increasing. What can you do to help ensure that you and your colleagues don't get take down by people with a death wish?

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

The growing phenomenon of "suicide by cop" puts officers in unwitting role of assisting the death wishes of others.

Nineteen-year-old Moshe Pergament is spotted driving erratically by a Nassua County, N.Y., police officer who pulls over the college student's car.  As the officer exits his patrol vehicle, Pergament gets out of his car and approaches the police officer with what appears to be a firearm.  Despite the officer's repeated pleas for him to drop the weapon, Pergament continues to advance.  Faced with the prospect his own impending death, the officer fires three times, killing Pergament.  Only later does the officer learn the brutal truth: the weapon wielded by the suspect is nothing more than a toy gun.

January 1998: A 36-year-old man walks into a central Tuscon, Ariz., convenience store.  Slamming a gun on the counter, he demands that the clerk call police to come kill him.  An hour later, he lies dying in an empty lot with two bullets in his body: one in the chest from a police officer's gun; the other, a self-inflicted head wound.

May 1998: Daring a Belleville, Ill. officer to shoot him, a 21-year-old man lunges at the officer with a 10-inch hunting knife.  The officer fires.  The suspect falls, a bullet in his chest.

Each of these incidents was an attempt by the suspect to have himself killed at the hands of a police officer.  In two of the three cases, the suspect succeeded.  Taken together, these incidents are representative of a national phenomenon referred to as "suicide by cop."

While the term "suicide by cop" has joined media-friendly phrases like "road rage" and "going postal" in an ever-growing American lexicon, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Homicide Sgt. John Yarbrough doesn't feel it's an accurate description.  "Throughout history, there have been numerous instances of agency-assisted suicide: medical, judicial, etc.," Yarbrough told POLICE.

"Basically, it's a means of getting someone else to do it for you," said Yarbrough about "suicide by cop."

But he feels that "suicide by cop" is a disingenuous misnomer at best, and a dangerous one, at worse.  "It's a means of passing the buck on behalf of the victim.  It tries to make the officer accountable for the person's death; when in fact, it is the suicidal individual who is responsible.   The perpetrator has the death wish, not the officer, who is merely reacting to a situation."

Because of this, Yarbrough-who participated in perhaps the only known detailed study of the phenomenon-prefers to call such incidents as "police-assisted suicides."

An Emerging Concern for Police

By any name, the incidence of a suicidal person confronting police officers in a manner likely to provoke a defensive reaction, is a growing concern for law enforcement agencies.  Police agencies have historically shied away from discussing the phenomenon for the very realistic fear that publicity might generate copycat episodes.

A "suicide by cop" study that Yarbrough worked on, included researchers from Harvard and USC and profiled a number of officer-involved shootings that occurred in Los Angeles County between 1987-1996.  Each case study had to fit established criteria, among them that before, during, or after the incident, the suspect made it explicitly known that he wanted to be shot by officers.

Of the 384 cases studied, at least 10 percent were determined to fit the "suicide by cop" phenomenon.  Some commonalities emerged in the Los Angeles County study.  In almost all instances, the victims were male; an overwhelming majority were whites or Latino.  There were also high incidences of prior domestic violence, alcohol or chemical abuse, and prior suicide attempts.

The most easily recognized catalyst was the dissolution of a relationship: a break-up with a girlfriend or a divorce.  Feeling helpless and hopeless, the suspects came to believe the only way out was death.  Unable to commit suicide themselves, they looked to cops to emancipate them from their pain and set out to execute some plan that would culminate in their being killed.

The motives for orchestrating such a scenario are myriad.  Whereas suicide is deemed an act of honor in Japan, it still carries a negative stigma in the United States.  Thus, the victim may be opting to skirt the sociological stigma that suicide is weak.  Or he may be trying to reconcile the desire to kill himself with the theological belief that suicide is a sin; so he somehow distances himself from the act by being shot by another.  Whatever precipitate a shooting by preying on an officer's defensive responsiveness.

Sgt. Yarbrough describes this step as "the outrageous event": an action taken by the suspect that will guarantee police presence.  This may be a sudden act of property damage such as vandalism or arson or an assault against another.  It may be the random brandishing of a firearm against fellow pedestrians or passing motorists.  In any instance, it will find an informant and possibly the suspect himself calling police to advise them of a crime in progress.

This "outrageous event" usually follows a period of anxious vacillation by the suspect.  But once he's committed to having himself killed, the suspect may actually experience a period wherein he acts in a calm and methodical manner.  No longer distracted by the probable consequences of his actions, the suspect can constructively commit his attentions and energies toward orchestrating events so that responding officers will find themselves in the position of defending their lives or the lives of others.[PAGEBREAK]

Moment of Truth

Once the event has arrived, the suspect is generally keyed for a "GO" signal, a sign for him to take some final action and realize his goal.  In "suicide by cop" situations, this signal may be the arrival of police or any sign of proactive police intervention that might follow an officer's arrival.  But once the "GO" signal is perceived, the suspect's final assault is imminent.  The suspect's actions are often very aggressive, for this is his bid for annihilation and he does not want to be wounded.  This perhaps explains why many suspects will continue hopeless acts of aggression even after they've been incapacitated by gunfire.

As James Gilligan, author of the book, Violence notes, "For many, the only means capable of expressing, in a final catharsis, the rage that is within them, is the fantasy of dying in a shootout with the police in which they would at least take as many people as possible into death with them before they die-an acting our of the Bonnie and Clyde myth, the Gotterdammerung myth.  Every year in this country, hundreds of violent criminals go to their deaths in exactly that way.

Their implements may vary.  Suspects have been known to wield remote controls, blunt instruments, and water pistols with equal efficacy.  But despite what some might believe, the vast majority of the time the suspects are well armed: The knives are real; the guns, loaded.  Because of this, Sgt. Yarbrough cautions against the arbitrary use of less lethal weapons as their deployment may serve as the "GO" signal.

Indeed, in one Southern California shooting, officers attempted to disarm an elderly man who was wielding a revolver.  Firing shotgun-projected bean bags, they only succeeded in provoking the man to fire several shots, one which wounded an officer.   Another collateral concern is the possible presence of booby-traps on or about the subject's person or property.

Inevitable Occurrence

Virtually every cop at one time or another will encounter the loud and belligerent drunk who challenges the cop to shoot him.  Often, theses are drunks, confrontation junkies out to play "chicken" with a cop.

Often, they are only attempting to get a rise out of cops and see if they can scare them.  But some are more adept than others at the enterprise, and succeed beyond their dreams in escalating situations to points where the reasonable cop has no option other than to shoot him.  Such instances confuse the issue and cloud the already murky waters of officer-involved shootings.

Because of this uncertainty, Constable Rick Parent of the Delta Municipal Police Department, British Columbia, is cautious to delineate between the "victim-precipitated suicide" and those cases where the suspect may have other, more ambiguous motives.  Because many of the decedents of such incidents have a history of suicide attempts, Parent encourages the street cop to familiarize himself with the ideation of suicidal individuals.  Parent, an expert in the phenomenon, notes that "for cops who work the field, the more they know about suicide, the more they know about police work.

"For the dynamic of dealing with a suicidal person is quite different than dealing with a suspect wanted for a bungled robbery or burglary.  In the latter instances, the suspects are hoping to evade capture with their lives, even if it means jeopardizing the lives of others.  In these cases, they're begging us to kill them, even if it means taking others with them."

Trying to discern the true motive can sometimes be difficult.  When the suspect succeeds in getting himself killed, such questions are often left unresolved.  Sgt.

Yarbrough's examination has led him to the conclusion that at least 10 percent of all officer-involved shootings are police-assisted suicide.

The Choices

So when the choice comes down to one of taking them in, or taking them out, what should we do?  Some may opt for neither.  What if they had a shooting, and nobody came?[PAGEBREAK]

Suspect Creates Incident

August, 1998: Deputies from the Los Angeles County Antelope Valley Station respond to a campground to find a distraught 28-year-old man pointing a rifle at his head and threatening to kill himself.  After the deployment of shotgun projected bean bags and hours of negotiations fail to coerce the subject's surrender, the deputies simply leave.  No one is seriously injured.

This incident is perhaps a best-case scenario, and while some argument may be made later for the suspect posing a threat to others, officers can only deal with what they are faced with at any given moment, all the while reconciling their tactical decisions with the reverence for human life.  In this particular situation, the decision to leave the scene was feasible, given the isolated area, the fact that the subject posed no threat to other persons, and deputies had done all they could to coerce a surrender.

But no matter how patient we are or how well-trained we may be to deal with a distraught individual, there will be instances wherein the officer will have to fire that shot.  And while these incidences are certainly tragic, it is imperative to remember that it is the suspect who invariably sets the series of events in motion.  That they should choose officers to help them in this endeavor should be of no surprise.

At all times, we are responding to their actions: It's what they're counting on.  Officers have historically been well-armed, and suspects generally believe officers will fire until a threat is removed.  And in every instance, the suspect gives little consideration to the officer who is placed in the role of judge, jury, and executioner.  Nor will the decedent dictate the spin the local news media may put on the outcome of such a situation.

"It's a very selfish act on the part of the person doing it," explains Kevin Danaher, a veteran of the Tuscon (Ariz.) Police Department SWAT team.  "He (suspect) never considers the impact on the officer.  He only envisions the positive impact on him.  He can become a martyr, with his name and picture in the paper.  He is letting his girlfriend know that if 'I can't have you, I'll have you know I died a victim.'

And if he survives, he can always sue the officers involved.  For him, it's a win-win situation."

Obviously, the likelihood of minimizing the odds that we'll have to kill a suicidal man depends largely on the suspect's determination, his weapons, and the direct threat he poses to those who about him.  As Danaher notes, "The most effective thing we've ever used is negotiation.  These are the toughest situations to deal with.  You're dealing with a person who's at the end of his rope and, quite possibly, at the end of the line.

"Officers are confronting a different dynamic than the inadvertent hostage situation that evolves out of a bungled robbery.  These people want to die.  How are you about to change their minds?"[PAGEBREAK]

The Fallout

The taking of another's life can become psychologically debilitating for the involved officers.  Denotatively, "suicide by cop" means a cop who killed himself; connotatively, it refers to an individual who has himself killed by an officer.  Sometimes, it can mean both.

Tuscon P.D.'s Danaher is familiar with one officer whose excessive interest in suicide obsession stemmed from an incident in which he'd killed a man bent on committing suicide.  The officer's growing fascination found him going out of his way to roll to morbid situations, and culminated with a particularly traumatic episode where a subject shot himself in the head as the officer was talking with him.  Within 18 months of taking the life of another, the officer took his own life as well.

Danaher notes that those who are able to objectively reconcile their involvement in such incidents are less likely to come to such drastic ends.   A common appraisal among such officers is the following: "I showed up to help.  I can live with having to kill him; I made sure that he didn't take anybody with him."  The psychological fallout in the aftermath of such a tactical situation can be far-reaching.  Incident commanders who have ordered someone to take a shot may have as difficult a time dealing with the trauma as if they were actively involved-perhaps more so.

Obviously, there are those who, despite doing everything they can, may be faced with the prospect of taking a human life, and until the day comes when we can set phasers to stun, we'll have to fight fire with fire.  Moe Pergament, the collegian, realized this and in a final written note appealed to the shooting officer to forgive him for what he'd forced the officer to do.

Inside his car was a note addressed: "To the officer who shot me."  Inside the envelope was a Hallmark card with a personal inscription:

"Officer, "It was a plan.  I'm sorry to get you involved.  I just needed to die.  Please remember that this was all my doing.  You had no way of knowing...Moe Pergament."

Effectively dealing with a suicidal suspect

The following are considerations that may help minimize the likelihood of harm or injury to officers and suspects:

1. Training desk personnel to recognize situations involving the possibly suicidal individual may help.  In some cases, the suspect's intentions are articulated to desk personnel or to people receiving calls at the station.  Careful questioning of the caller may reveal such pertinent information.

2. The first officer on-scene is the incident commander.

3. Set up a perimeter.  Common sense would seem to dictate that retreat is often a sound tactical move.  As Spring Valley (N.Y.) Police Department Officer Mike Civita notes in his column ("The Beat," POLICE, September, 1998), we do not have to press every issue on the streets to a fight.  Unfortunately, many of us do not understand that backing off is not the same thing as giving up, rolling over or throwing in the towel.

4. Generally, an officer can tell within the first minute if a suspect is going to cooperate.  If he will not surrender his firearm, SWAT and Hostage Negotiations Teams should be requested immediately.

5. In the case of knife-wielding suspects, the kill zone for an officer is generally recognized to be 21 feet.  Knife-wielding suspects can be dealt with by using non-lethal munitions such as beanbag shot shells or rubber bullets as long as a designated shooter is standing by with a firearm and will shoot to stop the suspect if s/he closes the distance past a predetermined threshold.

6. There is no reason to enter a location where no one other than a suicidal suspect is at risk.  The longer officers can delay a confrontation, the better.

7. Still, many of these confrontations might take place at the conclusion of a vehicle and/or foot pursuit and/or hostage situation, situations wherein an officer is pumped up on adrenaline and fear.

8. In the event a suspect is shot and wounded, emergency room physicians should be advised that they are not just treating a gunshot victim, but a possibly suicidal patient as treatment protocol then changes.

9. Physiological and psychological responses for officers involved in such shootings can vary.  Some officers have expressed resentment at having been used as the instrument of another's death.  Many police psychological services are at least anecdotally familiar with suicide-by-cop situations, and can provide needed assistance.  In any instance, it is important to remember that it is the suspect who orchestrates these scenarios; who often dictates the officer's actions; and who is ultimately doing so with very little regard to the officer's safety at the time of the incident or thereafter.

Study was unique: Research is difficult

The Los Angeles County study on the "suicide by cop" phenomenon was the first of its kind.  Deirdre Anglin, a professor with USC's Department of Emergency Medicine, notes that historical inhibitors make it difficult to conduct research on this subject.

Criteria for classifying a death as suicide by cop or victim-precipitated suicide have not been established.  Detractors hesitate to classify such incidents as suicides, saying that the officer firing the gun is responsible.  Anglin finds such contentions specious.  "Look at the person who jumps in front of a car or a train.  True, he's not shooting himself, bit it's definitely the same thing: death assisted by another.  The officer can no more suppress his instincts than the driver or engineer can stop their vehicle."

Anglin hopes that as professional awareness of the phenomenon increases, the medical community (medical examiners and coroners) will classify the cause of such decedents' deaths accordingly.  "Once we can get medical teams and coroners to call it what it is, we will have an easier time dealing with it."

The need for acceptance also extends to law enforcement agencies, which ultimately supply data for such research.  While acknowledging the unprecedented cooperation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Anglin notes that some officials take an ostrich-like approach to the problem.  "They're afraid that by acknowledging it, they'll open up a whole new arena in liability; that they'll be subjected to more mandated training of their employees in dealing with such problems, and be held financially responsible if they don't.  the problem is that it's out there and it won't go away.   Every time something like this happens, it gets air and print play, especially if it's one of the exceptions to the rule and a toy weapon or a replica is involved."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block was the first head of a major law enforcement agency to give full access to records of officer-involved shootings his department had investigated.  Anglin hopes other agencies will prove similarly accommodating in the future.  "While suicide-by-cop shootings make a small percentage of all suicides, they comprise a significant number of officer-involved shootings."

(Special thanks to Kevin Danaher and John Yarbrough for their suggestions.)

Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a regular contributor to POLICE.

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