Practical Police Psychology
with Dr. Laurence Miller
Suicide by cop: Prevention, response and recovery
By Dr. Laurence Miller, PoliceOne columnist
Q: What do you do when a suspect forces you to shoot him? I gave the guy every chance to drop the gun and get on the ground, but he just looked me right in the eye and drew down on me. I had to drop him and the department cleared the shoot, so why do I feel kicked in the stomach, like the guy played me? This sure isn’t what I expected.
A: The idea that a suspect would deliberately expose himself to police gunfire in order to effect his own demise has probably long been familiar to officers, but the actual term, suicide-by-cop (SBC) was first coined by police officer and psychologist Karl Harris in 1983 and is the term most commonly used today.
SBC: Facts and Stats
It’s been estimated that approximately ten percent of the 600 police shootings a year in the US are provoked SBC incidents. Most involve uniformed officers who are on duty at the time of the shooting, and the two most common scenarios involve police response to an armed robbery or to a domestic disturbance call. While some SBC incidents arise spontaneously out of the anger and panic of these situations, a good number of them appear to be planned, as evidenced by the presence of a suicide note in nearly a third of cases. Officers involved in SBC incidents often feel a sense of powerlessness and manipulation, and this is typically reported to be an especially stressful and demoralizing form of shooting trauma.
The typical SBC subject is a white male in his mid-20s with a history of drug and alcohol abuse. He has had prior contact with the law but usually for minor offenses, although this may have given him some familiarity with how police operate in response to threats. A psychiatric history is common, usually schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and almost half of subjects have made previous suicide attempts. The crisis episode is usually precipitated by the rupture of some important family, employment, or other relationship, which leads to feelings of hopelessness, anger, and despair.
In one major study of SBC incidents, all subjects who were shot resisted arrest or orders by police to surrender and all possessed a firearm or other lethal weapon that they used to threaten others. Two-thirds of the subjects took hostages and this was more likely to occur with more seriously disturbed subjects. Forty percent of the SBC subjects in this study were intoxicated with alcohol but other drug use at the scene was rare. It might be that being strung out from lack of resources to obtain drugs contributes to the crisis, and that alcohol is used as a second-choice drug, which then further disrupts judgment and self-control. In another study, many SBC attempts began as self-suicide crises, but when law showed up at the scene, the subjects seemed to have chosen to make a virtue of necessity and to delegate the lethal job to the officers.
Motivations for SBC
Why would someone try to get themselves killed by a police officer? It must be noted that most of what we know about motivations for any kind of suicide, including SBC, comes from the study of people who have contemplated suicide and then changed their minds or were talked out of it, or from people who have actually attempted suicide but survived. We know that feelings of hopelessness, desperation, rage, and/or revenge usually occur in some combination in persons who attempt suicide generally. For such individuals, there appears “no way out,” other than to die.
What may be unique to SBC cases, however, is how these feelings are acted out. Many suicidal persons are concerned about what others will think of them after their death. If the suicide attempter believes that taking one’s own life bespeaks weakness or cowardice, what better face-saving way to go out like a warrior than in a hail of gunfire, brought down by overwhelming force of arms during his last act of heroic resistance? He didn’t necessarily want to die, they’ll all say, he was just killed while taking a stand, which further reinforces his status as the ultimate hero-victim, gratifying his need for validation, power, and importance. Often, this manipulation may not be conscious, the subject having truly convinced himself that he is just defending his honor by resisting the police.
Another motivation for choosing SBC relates to religious prohibitions against suicide: the person may no longer want to live in this cold, cruel world, but he doesn’t want to go to hell, either. With a SBC, he can essentially tell God that it’s not his fault the police killed him. Practical considerations may also underlie the wish to die but not to appear to have killed oneself, such as exclusion clauses for suicide on life insurance policies or lessening the shame to one’s family.
Also, a person who wants to die may fear the physical pain and distress involved in actually taking his or her own life or may be afraid of chickening out at the last moment or botching the job which would leave him a cripple or a vegetable. SBC may therefore be chosen precisely because being gunned down in a hail of bullets is a grimly efficient way to die. In still other cases, the decision to have the police serve as executioners is made impulsively and, in some cases, the subject just as abruptly changes his mind and surrenders.
Suicide by Cop: Cues and Signs
Virtually any police call involving a distressed person can lead to a SBC incident, the most common being robbery in progress, domestic disturbance, or NWAG (“nut with a gun”) calls. The following are some signs that a SBC incident may be imminent.
Explicit demands or challenges. “Come on, pigs, kill me! I don’t give a shit. Come on – what are you waiting for?”
Giving up. “You want me so bad? – come arrest me. I got nowhere to go, so it might as well be to jail.”
Setting deadlines. “I’m giving you till two o’clock to get out of here, then I’m coming out with my gun and I don’t give a damn what happens.”
Threats to others. “You guys clear out of here or the bitch gets it.”
Blaze of glory. “No way I’m going back to jail. You ain’t takin’ me alive. This is the moment of truth!”
Noble loser. “You pigs knew it was just a matter of time till you got me. Well, here’s your chance.”
Verbal will; final plans. “Tell my daughter I’m sorry for everything. The keys to my safety deposit box are in the dresser drawer.” “I don’t want no damn preacher at my funeral. Just have my brother say a few words.” “Tell everybody I just tried to do right in this world, okay?”
Religious references. “The final judgment will be in heaven.” “My pastor and I have an understanding.” “I’m right with God.”
Countdown. “This is it – 10, 9, 8, 7…”
Calls in the crime himself. This is to make sure there is a police presence and to prime them for danger when they arrive.
No substantive demands. There is nothing to negotiate or bargain for.
Intoxication. Drug or alcohol intoxication is almost always a bad sign because it increases instability and impulsivity, but sometimes this can cause the subject to fall asleep if you can wait him out.
Advances the line. Moves toward police, ignoring orders to stop.
Uses weapon. He may brandish his weapon, point it at police, clear a threshold in a barricade situation, or actually begin firing; the latter is the decision point for officers’ returning fire in 89 percent of SBC calls. The subject may point the weapon at himself or threaten another person. He may actually begin to harm himself or that person. Even when wounded, he may continue firing or attacking the police or others, clearly signaling his intent to go out in a dramatic blaze of glory.
No real weapon. Perhaps most distressing for officers who have killed a SBC subject, he may have been observed reaching for a supposed weapon that turned out to be a toy gun, other harmless object, or just a pantomime intended to manipulate the police into shooting him.
Police Response to an Ongoing SBC Call
The following are some basic guidelines for officers handling a potential SBC incident. As with all such recommendations, these should be backed up by proper training, experience, and common sense.
Assess the Situation.
Take every call seriously, even if this is the umpteenth emergency with one of the local regular troublemakers. You never know which crisis is going to be the fatal one.
Secure the scene and assess the threat to safety of the subject, any third parties, including hostages or innocent bystanders, and yourself and fellow officers.
Try to obtain as much background information as possible on the subject. This may actually be easier with SBC subjects, who tend to be familiar locals, than with other criminals who may be outsiders coming into a neighborhood to commit a specific crime.
Evaluate Suicide Risk
The overall risk of suicide, which in turn may be an index of the likelihood of a SBC episode, can be evaluated in terms of three important factors, each with two dimensions.
Suicidal intent can be either remote: “Times like these, you get to feeling life just ain’t worth living. Or immediate: “I can’t take another minute of this – I’m checkin’ out.”
Suicidal plan can be either vague: “I think I got some drain cleaner under the sink; I dunno, maybe I’ll just turn on the gas, or turn on the car exhaust in the garage.” Or specific: “I got the razor to my neck and I’m ready to go.”
Suicidal means should be evaluated in terms of either low availability: “Dammit, I know my wife used to keep her pills around here somewhere.” Or high availability: “Got my Ruger in my hand, boys, so you do what you want.”
Suicidal means should also be evaluated in terms of low lethality: “Don’t think I can’t do some damage with this hammer.” Or high lethality: “I was an ordnance expert in the Navy, so when I tell you this baby’s gonna take off the side of the house, you better get outta there.”
Establish Contact and Determine the Main Problem
Introduce yourself by name and title to make it clear that the police have arrived: “Sir, this Sergeant Williams of the Metro Police Department. We’re here to help you.”
Try to establish rapport with the subject. If there are no third parties in harm’s way, the subject is primarily a danger to himself. This doesn’t mean you should let down your guard, but it may leave you a little more time and less pressure to establish a connection with the subject. “We’re not going anywhere for a while, so I’d really like to know what’s on your mind.”
Determine the main problem. It is sometimes helpful to ascertain if the subject’s needs are instrumental: “They tell me they gotta repo my car ‘cause I missed some payments. Without a car, I can’t get to work. How am I supposed to live?” Or expressive: “My ex-wife said it wasn’t her business no more what happens to me. Well, we’ll see how she feels about her ‘business’ when she’s gotta clean up my brains.”
Talk the Subject Down
Use your toolkit of crisis intervention skills, guided by your knowledge, training, experience, judgment, and common sense, to bring the incident to a nonviolent resolution Any combination of strategies may be employed.
Provide reassurance. “It sounds like you been through hell, man. But these cops out here want to help you, not hurt you. That’s why we called in the paramedics, see?”
Comply with reasonable requests. “Well, I’m not allowed to bring your boss in here to talk to you, but I promise I’ll give him that note you tossed us if you’ll drop the gun and come out.”
If there are no demands, ask about immediate needs. If hostages are not involved, there is less reason to make the SBC subject “bargain” for basic necessities. In fact, offering to make the subject more comfortable can be a humane, rapport-building gesture. However, you may want to suggest some kind of trade-off that will contribute to a nonlethal resolution: “Look, you’ve been in there for hours with no food, or water, or AC. How about I send in some burgers and cold drinks if you’ll at least put the rifle down, okay?”
Offer alternative, realistic optimism: “Hey, I can’t just make them give you your back pay and benefits, you know that. But plenty of guys have gotten Workers Comp lawyers and filed claims, and eventually they got what’s coming to them.”
Avoid being baited. One problem that may be unique to SBC incidents is that, if the subject is truly intent on dying, he may use the officer’s rapport-building process against him. As communication develops, the officer feels more at ease and approaches closer to the subject, whereupon the latter springs into an attack, leaving the officer no choice but to defend himself by lethal force. It is almost always these kind of manipulative bait-and-rush scenarios that officers find the most distressing and demoralizing aspect of SBC scenarios: “How could I have been such an idiot not to see that one coming?” Therefore, as rapport and communication begin to develop, always maintain a safe physical position and remain alert for any sign of sudden threat.
Consider nonlethal containment. A variety of LTLs, or less-than-lethal weapons and containment technologies now exist, and more are coming on the market all the time. Get the training necessary to use these safely.
Consider “limited walkaway containment.” Where there are no hostages and no imminent danger, a response which lessens the risk to the surrounding community and, at the same time, ratchets down the tension level may be preferable. Some of the troops on scene may pull back, leaving a few officers at entry points of the structure or area and a few more at an outer perimeter, in as unobtrusive a placement pattern as possible. Maintain communication with the barricaded subject, but keep demands for coming out as low-key as possible. Let time and exhaustion work in your favor. If the danger starts to build again, you can always have your personnel move closer and redeploy additional officers as needed.
Utilize appropriate follow-up. Don’t neglect the subject after the crisis has been resolved. Remember the principle of “repeat customers:” many SBC subjects may be released from criminal or psychiatric custody and back into their communities fairly quickly if no threats to others were involved. Especially in smaller communities, you may well cross paths with the same character again, so you want his or her memory of you to be as positive as possible. Therefore, following a successful resolution of the SBC crisis, spend a few moments with the subject, commend him for his courage in doing the right thing, repeat your reassurance and your confidence in his ability to get his life back in order, and back up (within reason) any offers you made during the crisis. By doing so, you reduce the likelihood of a repeat episode, and you contribute to the overall future safety of your fellow officers and the community as a whole.
Aftermath of SBC: Police Officers’ Reactions
Sometimes you may have no choice but to take the subject down. Remember that SBC is not always a clear-cut situation. In the least ambiguous case, a disturbed citizen has a beef with the police, so he purposefully calls them to the scene and then deliberately manipulates them into shooting him. Another relatively clear scenario involves a disturbed, suicidal subject who lacks the resolve to kill himself, so he baits the police into doing it for him.
An alternative scenario is what might be called suicide in front of cop. Here, police arrive at the scene and the subject makes a point of killing himself in full view of the officers (or within earshot, if by phone). This gesture may be performed out of sheer despair or the subject may want the police to “bear witness” to his act of desperate martyrdom, forcing them to witness his death as a way of thumbing his nose at the officers’ inability to prevent it.
It is thus the issue of control that seems to disturb officers the most after SBC calls. Police officers hate to feel that they’ve failed. In fact, many officers report feeling worse after failing to prevent a suicidal subject from taking his own life than they do after not being able to prevent a homicidal subject from killing another person. This seeming paradox can be explained by the fact that the homicidal killer was either a cold-blooded scumbag who had no compunctions about taking another’s life or else he was so whacked out from drugs or mental illness that he didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t care about the consequences. Either way, in a strange, evil, crazy sort of way, the killing was “bound” to happen, whereas a suicide is something officers think they should have been able to prevent.
Additionally, in clinical practice I’ve noted an interesting psychodynamic that emerges in some officers who have been through a SBC incident. For many officers, suicidal subjects themselves may be viewed with a combination of pity and contempt. On a conscious level, the idea of giving up and taking one’s own life is especially distasteful to most cops who like to maintain an image of themselves as being able to handle just about anything life throws at them. Yet a fair number of officers harbor the secret fear of being overwhelmed by the stresses of life and, during especially rough times, some have thought at least fleetingly about the ultimate check-out.
Thus, to maintain personal integrity and a strong self-image, such thoughts must be repudiated and banished from conscious consideration. Psychologically, then, failing to prevent a subject from killing himself may symbolically stand in for the officer’s own unconscious fear that he may someday fail to prevent his own demons from bringing him down (“There, but for the grace of God…). Worse still, where this officer becomes the actual instrument of death in a SBC case, this fearful identification becomes all the more disturbing because it has been acted out in real life, albeit on the proxy of the dead subject. Here’s someone who gave up, cashed out, and had the cops write the check.
Psychological Coping Strategies for Officers Involved in a SBC Incident
Even if you don’t buy my Freudian analyses, you still have to admit that SBC situations can be difficult to deal with; no cop likes the feeling of having been baited and manipulated to kill another person. For that reason, consider some of the following recommendations for getting past the SBC incident and moving on.
Conduct an operational debriefing. This is for tactical training. In my book, Practical Police Psychology, one of the points I continuously emphasize is: 20/20 hindsight = 20/20 insight = 20/20 foresight. That is, figuring out and understanding what went wrong last time can lead to things happening better next time. This is the essence of learning from experience which can take some of the sting out of the bad call because now you’re armed with greater knowledge and skill and more confident about what you can do in the future.
Attend a critical incident stress debriefing. This is for your own head. Properly carried out, a CISD can allow constructive ventilation of feelings in a supportive atmosphere, create a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose, and provide you with practical physical and mental coping skills for getting through this crisis.
Seek individual counseling. Either as an adjunct to the above or where a formal CISD is not available, don’t be afraid to utilize the services of a trained counselor or mental health clinician with a background in police psychology. If you’re having trouble dealing with the call, a few head-straightening sessions should be able to get you on the right track. These kinds of services should be supported and encouraged by every department that truly cares for the health and welfare of its personnel.
Don’t forget the good stuff. For public safety professionals who tend to endorse a code of perfectionism, there is a temptation to believe that “you’re only as good as your last screw-up,” which can be unnecessarily corrosive to morale and your ability to perform at your best. When a situation goes bad, review it, learn from it, correct it, but don’t wallow in it. By utilizing operational failures as tools for learning, purposeless remorse can be turned into enhanced life-saving skills for the future. Remind yourself that there are a lot of people who depend on you and appreciate (however silently) the important work that you do.
To learn more about this topic, see:
Miller, L. (2006). Suicide by cop: Causes, reactions, and practical intervention strategies. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 8 165-174. [Reprints are available from the author: send request and mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org].
Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [Learn more about this book at www.ccthomas.com].
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Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.