02/07/2006

Mo.: Suicide by cop takes toll on police

Related PoliceOne article:
Suicide by cop: 15 warning signs that you might be involved.

By Susan Weich ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc. 

The killing of a man who apparently wanted to be shot by St. Charles police is the most recent example of a phenomenon that can be an officer's worst nightmare, authorities say.

So-called suicide-by-cop incidents can leave police with feelings of guilt or of being tricked into using deadly force, feelings that often are compounded by media accounts of the shooting that depict the deceased as the victim, experts say.

"Police find out after the fact that they didn't need to shoot to protect themselves. It angers them that they hurt or killed someone," said David Klinger, a former police officer and an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who wrote a book that includes accounts of suicide by cop.

The result can be post-traumatic-type symptoms, such as hypervigilance, impulsiveness and difficulty sleeping, said Kristin Bulin, a vice president at Provident Counseling in St. Louis. Often adding to the problem is the police officer's macho image, which can make him or her reluctant to seek help, although that is changing with younger officers, she said.

No national database of these types of shootings exists, but most criminologists agree that a study examining 437 officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County between 1988 and 1997 is the most credible.

The report, which appeared in the "Annals of Emergency Medicine," found that 11 percent could be classified as suicide by cop and concluded that the event is an actual form of suicide.

In the St. Louis metro area, Dr. Mary Case, a medical examiner, said she had seen a limited number of people who were killed after provoking the police. Case said she records these as homicides because it is difficult to be certain what is on a person's mind at the time of death. However, she said she would consider classifying these as suicide if the evidence, for instance a note left at the scene, were compelling enough.

In addition to the O'Fallon case on Jan. 25, at least two suspected cases in the past year locally have ended in the death of the suspect.

On April 19, a 47-year-old St. Louis man was shot by police outside his home after he started to reach for a pistol in his waistband. The man's mother said before police arrived that her son was "throwing stuff around" and "acting crazy." Police later learned that the man was armed with a BB gun.

On May 24, a 31-year-old Granite City man was killed after he pointed what later turned out to be a black pellet gun at police. Family members said the man was out of work, an alcoholic and suicidal.

In the O'Fallon shooting, Richard J. Stone, 56, was killed after he pointed what police believed was a real gun at them. Police later learned that Stone had aimed a pellet gun and had talked to his brother about provoking police to shoot him.

Stone was a white, middle-aged man who is said to have had a history of alcohol abuse and had tried to commit suicide previously -- common factors in suicide-by-cop incidents.

Stone's daughter has questioned the officers' use of force because her father never fired at them. She said police should have wounded her father instead of killing him.

After an internal investigation, the four officers involved in the incident are back at work. Police Chief Tim Swope said their actions were justified because they feared for their lives.

He said that technologically, law enforcement has tried to prepare itself for the types of threats officers face in a suicide-by-cop situation. Through the use of shotguns loaded with bean-bag rounds and electronic tasers, officers have more options when faced with a threat, he said. But when confronted with a firearm, police don't always have an option.

"These officers have families; they want to go home at the end of the day," Swope said. "It's unfortunate that they had to do this, but that's part of the job."

Swope and St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer said that expecting officers to wound a threatening individual is not practical.

"We are trained to eliminate the threat," said Neer, who formerly commanded the county's tactical unit. "I know it sounds cold, but we aren't trained to wound people because wounded people kill others."

Mike Kernan, director of the Eastern Missouri Law Enforcement Training Academy in St. Charles County, said cadets learn about the unique circumstances involved in suicide-by-cop situations in basic training classes pertaining to use of force, dealing with aggressive behavior and dealing with death. But he and other police officials agree that no quick fixes exist to the scenario.

Klinger said even though police officers are trained to used deadly force, actually using it on someone -- especially someone who has a death wish -- can be life-altering for the officers involved.

"Police officers generally can develop a bit of a thick skin about dealing with individuals who have killed themselves," he said. "But when you are the instrument of that death, it can take quite a toll."

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AN OFFICER'S WORST NIGHTMARE

Three possible local incidences in the past year have ended in the death of the suspect. Last month, a man in O'Fallon was killed after he pointed what police believed was a real gun. It later was learned to be a pellet gun and the man had talked of provoking police to shoot him.

POSSIBLE EFFECTS ON OFFICERS

Feelings of guilt or being tricked and post-traumatic-type symptoms such as:

* Hypervigilance

* Impulsiveness

* Difficulty sleeping 

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