Suicide-by-cop can be hard to determine

By Rick Brewer, The Record, Stockton, Calif.
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Mar. 12--TRACY -- When Tracy police ask why James Anthony Peracchi told officers he had a gun and would not stop reaching for what turned out to be a replica weapon in his pants, they really are asking whether Peracchi wanted to die.

Police officers shot and killed Peracchi, 34, of Tracy shortly after 11 p.m. on Feb. 14. As they investigate the death, one question they are asking is whether this fits a traditional "suicide-by-cop" case.

"That''s definitely one of the possibilities investigators are looking at, but the investigation is still ongoing," city spokesman Matt Robinson said.

The officers, who have not been identified because of the ongoing investigation, were called to the 1700 block of South Chrisman Road because of a suspicious person trespassing in the portion of Tracy known as the Northeast Industrial Area.

Peracchi ran as officers approached. But when he fell into a ditch not far from a warehouse under construction being built for Pacific Medical Inc., officers saw him lying on his back, facing them. He then announced he had a weapon and began to pull something out from his pants. Officers told the man to stop grabbing for it. When he did not, they fired several rounds, hitting Peracchi with at least one bullet.

The incident is under investigation by the Tracy Police Department''s Internal Affairs office, as well as the San Joaquin County District Attorney''s Office. The officers involved in the shooting are back patrolling city streets, Robinson said.

Officer-involved shootings are rare in San Joaquin County. According to the San Joaquin County Sheriff''s Office and the police departments in Stockton, Lodi, Manteca and Tracy, 12 people have been shot by officers in the county since March 1, 2002.

According to several experts on suicide-by-cop, a one in 10 chance exists that an officer-involved shooting will turn out to be suicide-by-cop.

A British Columbia-based criminologist who has extensively studied the phenomenon said 10 percent of officer-involved shooting victims engage in a calculated, life-threatening criminal act that compels police officers to use deadly force against them.

Rick Parent of the Delta, British Columbia, Police Department said police personnel must be made aware of the dynamics and frequency of victim-precipitated events and the phenomenon of suicide-by-cop.

"In many instances, police officers will have no other option but to resort to the use of deadly force," Parent said.

Yet, no determination of suicide-by-cop can be made until a psychological autopsy is performed on Peracchi or any other police shooting victim, he said. Several calls to family members were not returned.

Other researchers confirm the national average of officer-involved shootings that turn out to be suicide-by-cop is from 10 percent to 12 percent.

Rebecca Stincelli, a former victims advocate for the Sacramento County Sheriff''s Office, runs . She said the typical scenario involves a white man from the ages of 24 to 36 who may or may not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time and has a criminal record.

"For some reason, they want to go out in a blaze of glory," Stincelli said.

Researchers say it is difficult to establish suicide-by-cop because the victims are dead and, therefore, cannot explain a motive for their behavior that led up to the use of deadly force. They say while some aspects of how Peracchi behaved on Feb. 14 are typical suicide-by-cop scenarios, other evidence must be used to determine if a victim-precipitated homicide took place.

"It certainly sounds like suicide-by-cop. He shows something that looks like valid deadly force, but it turns out he doesn''t have it," said Dave Smith, lead instructor for the Oswego, Ill.-based Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar. "In the meantime, it puts the cops'' lives in jeopardy, and they have to make a split-second decision to defend themselves and the city."

The term suicide-by-cop was coined in 1993 by Vernon J. Geberth, a retired lieutenant commander of the New York City Police Department.

The first major study of the trend was released in 1998. Researchers from the University of Southern California, working with the Los Angeles County Sheriff''s Office, determined that about 12 percent of the 437 officer-involved shootings in the agency from 1987 to 1997 could be classified as textbook suicide-by-cop incidents. But in the final year of the study, that number rose to 28 percent. Researchers believe that jump was attributable to more institutional knowledge of the suicide-by-cop trend by that time.

Smith, a 12-year member of the Arizona Department of Public Safety and former officer with the Tucson Police Department, said the trend is on the rise.

"I don''t know why this has become an accepted way to check out," he said.

Visit the P-1 Suicide-by-Cop page

Copyright 2007 The Record

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