It’s not known precisely how many officer-involved shooting (OIS) scenarios every year are suicide-by-cop (SBC), where a subject deliberately provokes police into killing him. With the subject no longer alive to testify to his true intentions, we can only be totally certain about SBCs when there’s clear evidence of suicidal thoughts left behind.
For example, in May, a knife-wielding man was shot by Iowa police. Prior to the incident, 39-year-old Richard Allen Anderson of Cedar Falls had sent a text message stating he wanted to die by “suicide by cop.”
In April, an Illinois police officer shot a man who had walked into a police station armed with a realistic-looking, fake handgun. It was soon discovered that 53-year-old Howard Lazarus had a handwritten suicide note in his pocket, indicating that he was dying from cancer and “couldn't do the deed” himself.
Preparing Yourself for SBC
An SBC incident can happen to any cop, at any time, on any shift. Cops will make every effort to end an SBC situation nonviolently, but sometimes the suicidal subject will not allow that outcome. Like everything else you might encounter on patrol, an SBC is something for which you must prepare.
Interested in getting the opinion of an officer who is also a clinical psychologist, I recently connected with Dr. John Azar-Dickens, a licensed Clinical Psychologist and sworn law enforcement officer with the Rome (Ga.) Police Department.
Azar-Dickens told me that in addition to scenario-based tactical training, officers must also do scenario-based visual imagery.
“The first step is to accept and realize that an SBC scenario is possible,” he said. “None of us want it to happen, but we must accept it as part of the job. If we fail to accept it as a likely reality, we then fail to prepare mentally for it.”
Acceptance of the likelihood leads to a process of preparation in which the officer can create scenarios in his mind of an SBC-type scenario, going through the event step-by-step and actively working it through in their mind. Essentially, the officer practices the event in his mind over and over again. The images should be made as vivid as possible and the officer should visualize himself performing successfully and confidently.
“As brilliant as the brain may be, it cannot tell the difference between something being imagined and it actually happening,” Azar-Dickens told me.
“When we look at research comparing athletes who use visual imagery in addition to active practice versus those who just use active practice alone, we find those who use the imagery are more consistent, more confident in their performance, and better mentally prepared for the stress associated with performance.”
Similarly, if an officer has actively played out multiple SBC scenarios in his/her mind, the brain will not consider it a new experience if/when it does happen in the “real world.” Consequently not only performance, but emotional reactions are likely to be more productive and useful rather than debilitating.
Your Own Wellbeing
Preparation also involves being healthy and well before the event occurs. Essentially, proper personal wellness prepares the mind and body for stress and the types of traumatic events that officers will experience on duty.
“As we know with all traumatic events, the person who tends to fare better is the one who is healthy and well-balanced before the event occurs. So, taking care of oneself through regular exercise, proper amounts of sleep, and appropriate daily management of stress is critical in preparing for this type of event,” Azar-Dickens said.
This begs the question, what are possible steps to take to ensure an officer’s own mental and emotional wellbeing prior to an SBC event?
“I think a lot of this is the officer understanding a SBC for what is and the role the officer must play. This type of event involves a distraught and emotionally imbalanced individual using the officer to commit suicide. Thus, the officer is thrust into a situation in which he/she is the victim and essentially becomes victimized by the individual.”
In an SBC, the officer essentially has the role of victim. The officer is essentially being used by the suicidal individual to end their life, and this can drive a lot of the emotional conflicts.
“This shift in role and lack of control over the situation can be challenging for the officer to handle. As simple as it may sound, understanding and thinking about these situations for what they are can have a great mental and emotional benefit in moving through this type of situation,” Azar-Dickens said.
It’s Not Your Fault
One harsh reality in life is that when someone is completely determined to commit suicide, there is often not a lot that can be done to do to stop them. Granted, verbal skills and crisis de-escalation techniques can certainly be useful, but the fact is, those things are not always going to work.
Some people simply can’t be helped, and all of the perfect words and actions in the world still won’t change things.
Azar-Dickens told me that this is an important concept for the officer to integrate into their thoughts about the event. It’s one he’s also familiar with as a clinical psychologist.
“This is something that plagues psychologists and psychiatrists in that we do everything possible to stop someone from ending their life, but in reality, we know that those individuals who are determined to kill themselves will often do so regardless of what we do. In other words, we can do everything right and even then it does not make a difference,”Azar-Dickens said.
“The officer must understand that while a life was lost and this is tragic, it is not the officer’s fault,” Azar-Dickens added.
“Officers will frequently blame themselves in this type of situation and believe there is something they could have done to stop it. They tend to play the scenario over and over again in their mind and may get caught up in second-guessing their decisions.”
Officers involved in an SBC — whether it’s as clear as those noted above, or one in which the question can never be perfectly answered — must understand what happened is not their fault. Keeping this in mind will help in the healing process following an SBC situation.