The Suicidal Officer: Confronting our brothers and sisters

When dealing with a suicidal friend, it's easy to slip into helper mode. The trick is staying in tactical mode.

On April 4th, an armed and suicidal New Jersey off-duty officer, Jason Peltack, 27, was arrested driving in the vicinity of his former high school with a 12-gauge shotgun in the cab of his truck.

The school waited in lockdown mode for an hour. Students sat in the dark while authorities acted on a countywide alert to track the despondent officer. Authorities believed he may have been headed to the high school to seek out his younger brother, who was a student there.

Peltack was later apprehended three miles from his destination. He surrendered without issue. Nevertheless, the prolonged uncertainty of the situation led Detective Sgt. Daniel Hurley, a spokesman for the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office to remark, "That was an extremely dangerous kind of motor vehicle stop."

"One of the most heart-wrenching situations for an officer is confronting one of our own," says Ret. Phoenix (AZ) Police Department Sergeant Wayne Corcoran. "The officers handling the situation can be just as upset as the officer going through the ordeal."

Imagine the volatility of approaching a colleague — someone you know well and care about — who is in a severely distraught state.

He has a weapon: Will he use it against himself? Will he use it against you?

Corcoran points out that nearly all of cop suicides are self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Police are professional marksman for whom handling a firearm is second nature.

Street Survival Seminar instructor Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith remembers three instances when an officer in her department threatened suicide.

"You always think he’ll never do it," Brantner Smith said. "I once had to talk my firearms instructor down for six hours. (He didn’t commit suicide on that occasion, but a few years later he drove his car into an oncoming train.)

Brantner Smith stresses that the most important thing to remember in a situation like this is that a suicidal person is a homicidal person. A suicidal person is willing to take a life.

Corcoran discussed a tragic case involving a Phoenix PD officer who, during an alcoholic binge, shot and killed a fellow officer in his home as he slept. The unhinged officer did not stop there. He led police on a car chase and foot chase, during which he repeatedly turned around and fired at the officers — his friends — who attempted to stop him.

"We guarded all police stations because we didn’t know where he’d turn up.” Corcoran said. “In the end, one officer was murdered, and countless lives were put in jeopardy."

In a situation like this, there's no rhyme or reason. And don't count on a personal appeal to put a dent in this person’s highly agitated state; they are traumatized. And although they, themselves have been trained to deescalate a situation using the exact same methods you have, this probably won't gain you an advantage.

"They’re in their own world. They're not hearing you," Corcoran said.

The suicidal person’s gun and badge add an extra element of stress for the meditating officer. When the crisis is personal, it can be extremely difficult to stay focused on tactics.

"We lose sight of that when it's one of our own," Brantner Smith said. "We're in helper mode; we have to stay in tactical mode."

Another difficulty is staying one step ahead.

"They know your tactics," Brantner Smith said. "They know what we’re going to say, what we’re going to do."

And sinister as it is to contemplate, a fellow officer knows all too well how to provoke a suicide by cop. This method can sound appealing to a person who is desperate but apprehensive, because it takes the heat off them and put it on you.

In a situation like this:

  1. Recognize that the suicidal officer you’re dealing with can anticipate your next move. He’s been in your shoes. Make yourself mentally aware of this as you’re forming your plan, taking position, and entering into negotiations.
  2. Ask yourself, could this be a suicide by cop? Just because they're a police officer doesn’t mean they’re not mentally ill, or that they won’t harm you.
  3. Be aware of your own emotional roller coaster when this is all over. Whatever the outcome, there will be special considerations for aftercare. You might have seen one hundred suicides, but when it’s a coworker, friend, or fellow crime fighter, there is an emotional survival aspect of the aftermath that should not be ignored.

The utter unpredictability of the situation is what makes it so volatile. You will have natural sympathy for a brother or sister LEO, but in the end, you can't let the emotional component intervene with tactical safety.

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