Protecting yourself in suicide-by-cop encounters

The aftermath

From the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline

After dealing with a suicide by cop situation, be prepared to cope with some negative emotional reactions if you are forced to kill a suicidal subject. Sgt. Barry Perrou of the Los Angeles County (CA) Sheriff's Dept. (LASD), commander of LASD's hostage negotiation unit who has a doctorate in psychology and has dealt personally with many of these scenarios, stated that research conducted by Dr. Audrey Honig, chief psychologist for the LASD and Dr. Jocelyn Roland, Assistant Director of LASD's Employee Support Services, reflects that after a suicide by cop, officers often feel:

--intense anger at the subject for causing them to become an instrument of death;

--anger and guilt because they inappropriately second-guess that the situation wasn't so dangerous but just involved a "troubled individual trying to find solutions to his problems;"

--a sense of failure because they were unable to avoid being set up;

--vicarious responsibility to the subject's survivors for using deadly force against their loved one.

Confirming the validity of some of Perrou's "screening evaluators," Anglin and Hutson reported that their study showed 50% of suicide-by-cop subjects were alcohol or drug abusers; 42% had a history of domestic violence; 38% had a prior criminal record; 58% had psychiatric histories and 58% directly asked officers to kill them.

The average age of suicide-by-cop perpetrators in their study was 35; nearly half were Hispanic and most were male.

The researchers also reported a couple of surprises:

1. Anecdotal reports in the media tend to suggest that a high proportion of suicide-by-cop subjects are "armed" with replica, non-functional or unloaded firearms, with the implication that responding officers didn't really "need" to shoot them when "threatened" with the weapons.

Actually, Anglin and Hutson found, only 8% of the firearms presented were replicas. The rest were fully operative and 92% were loaded. And for the most part they were not "wimpy" weapons; 73% were semiautomatic handguns or assault rifles.

2. Using less than lethal force proved to be no panacea in resolving suicide-by-cop situations. In 38% of the cases studied, officers initially used "a nonlethal alternative method of force (i.e., Taser, Mace, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds)." But in all cases in which alternative force was used, it tended to escalate the situation more than deescalate it," Anglin said, and officers ended up being forced to shoot the subject anyway. As Dr. Honig put it: "These people are looking to die."

Currently some 31,000 suicides occur in the U.S. each year, but suicide by cop deaths are not included in this total.

Martin Mayer, a police attorney and former reserve officer from Long Beach (CA) predicted that suicide by cop is a "phenomenon that you are going to be dealing with more and more."

After police shootings, he recommended that investigators "dig into the background" of the victim, looking for evidence of mental illness, past suicide attempts and other indicators of a possible suicide-by-cop motivation. Then if you are sued and can present this evidence in response, "you can show the jury a more complete picture of what you were dealing with and get a defense [police] verdict more often."

He cited a couple of important law enforcement victories in this regard. One, which was detailed in Newsline #109, involved a California officer who shot and permanently paralyzed an Hispanic spouse abuser who provoked him by reaching toward his waist and spinning suddenly toward the officer. After the officer fired, he discovered that the protagonist was reaching not for a weapon but for a small CD player.

During trial of a civil suit, the officer was absolved of wrongdoing after the jury heard a tape recording he had made at the scene, on which the offender said he had wanted the officer to kill him.

Last August, California officers won another suicide-by-cop case, Rippey v. Dopp et al, after a 15-day trial. In that case, a 17-year-old student told a friend he was going to commit suicide by pretending to have a gun and making a cop shoot him. He then initiated a 2 1/2-hour pursuit, which finally stopped in front of his high school. Stubbornly remaining in his car, he refused police commands to raise his hands, made furtive movements to his waistband and inside his jacket and, before finally exiting his vehicle, reached into the back seat as if grabbing a weapon. When he lunged at officers, they shot and killed him.

During a question-and-answer period, Mayer reinforced the danger to officers in responding to suicidal subject calls that may, in fact, be would-be suicide-by-cop situations. As we stress in our Street Survival Seminar, Mayer said that a suicide situation "can turn [to homicide] at any moment. Instead of venting anger toward himself, the subject may vent it toward a responding police officer, turning from pointing a gun at his own head to pointing it at the officer."

An unidentified chief from the audience added a point well worth remembering: "In training, we have to be careful not to make officers so sensitive that they go too far in trying to deal with disturbed individuals and thus put themselves in danger."

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