After a deadly encounter with a barricaded and suicidal suspect, which of these headlines line would your local newspaper run?
1. “Police Shoot Dangerous Man Brandishing Gun and Threatening Officers”
2. “Police Gun Down Candy Vendor Distraught About Home Foreclosure”
Even though number one is the absolute reality for the officers at the scene, headline number two will most likely be the one your newspaper will go with. Remember: after you are involved in a police shooting, do not watch the news, read the papers, and especially do not follow the blogs. Now, let us look at that callout.
Damned If You Do, Damned if You Don’t
There are few situations that scream out, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” like the case of the lone, barricaded, suicidal gunman who is armed with a firearm. SWAT teams need to prepare for this callout in ongoing training.
There is a natural tendency in law enforcement toward action. Even in the case of a lone, barricaded, suicidal gunman there is a feeling that if a team is outside in the standoff mode then “Nothing is being done” ...and that, surely, “Something must be done!” When this thought inevitably sets in, one must rethink. There is much that can be done and two things that should not be done. Don’t risk and don’t rush.
A term that occupies the headlines around the nation with a tragic regularity is murder-suicide. When your team is facing a lone, barricaded, suicidal gunman, you have to take your time.
Actions to Take
First, contain the problem and establish your inner and outer perimeter. A man alone in a bedroom with a gun is just suicidal unless a victim is introduced into the scene. In most cases, a man willing to take his own life is capable of killing others. That man needs to be contained and family members, friends, and even police officers who want to “go in and talk him out” must be restrained.
Establish your command post where the officer in charge can monitor the situation and make decisions. Anyone in harm’s way should be evacuated and a sniper/observer team with optics should be set up in a location to observe, gather intelligence, and provide a protective overwatch.
A leader needs to assemble a team to be ready to take the suspect into custody, or in the event an opportunity presents itself to end the situation tactically. There is a very real possibility that the suspect might venture out to engage the police and preparations must be made for this. This team may have to deliver communications, prepare chemical munitions, or tactically effect a surrender. They should be prepared to employ all force options from verbalization all the way to deadly force as well as develop an entry plan in the event of an emergency contingency.
Emergency medical should be on standby.
Bring in the Negotiators
When suspects are talking they are not shooting. Communication should be established as soon as possible to get someone talking. It is preferable that a trained crisis negotiator do the talking. Many tactical teams cross train some team members so that those valuable communications skills are always available.
The strange seduction of the “face to face negotiation,” should be resisted when the suspect has a firearm. It seems to be just common sense, but common sense is not as common as you might think. There are many examples of Chiefs, Sheriffs, deputies, officers, friends, and family who have walked up to a person with a firearm and have attempted to convince or cajole a suspect into surrendering their weapon.
There seems to be an assumption that is often made that a suicidal person is only dangerous to themselves. This bears repeating: any face to face communication with an armed suicidal person not only endangers an officer for no good reason, but it can also create an opportunity for the suspect to make you do their dirty work for them. Quite simply it enables a suspect to transition from suicidal to homicidal.
Time Is Your Ally
Once the suspect is contained and communication is established, an investigator can be working and gathering crucial information which might help with negotiations. Investigators may obtain a warrant if the situation calls for it. They might discover why the suspect barricaded, why they are suicidal, what will make them reconsider, and also confirm that the suspect is indeed alone.
Action on the Perimeter
Here is another question. If a suspect under these circumstances steps out to face police with a firearm in his hand is he homicidal or suicidal?
The answer is “Yes!”
When the suspect ventures out brandishing a firearm “Suicide by Cop,” should not be the concern for those officers on that perimeter. The main job for an officer facing this deliberate challenge by the suspect is to prevent a “Homicide by Suspect.” Sherlock Holmes would say, “It’s elementary Watson. The suspect did not need to come outside to kill himself. He needed to come out side to kill someone else.”
Dr. Karl Harris, former Deputy Medical Examiner of Los Angeles County, along with Richard Brian Parent of Simon Fraser University and Dr. H. Range Huston of Harvard University School of Medicine, suggest that 10 to 15 percent of police shootings are “suicide by cop.”
It is wonderful and fine to study police shootings after the fact, but a police officer facing a man or woman with a gun pointed at them can’t take a survey or conduct a poll before they decide whether to shoot or not. It may very well be homicide by suspect if you do not shoot.
It is reasonable for SWAT teams to train for these events in conjunction with their negotiators. Barricaded suicidal suspect calls have been common, remain common today, and promise to be even more common with the economy faltering and unemployment on the rise. In the future you may find yourself facing a desperate criminal, an unemployed auto worker, an estranged spouse, a troubled veteran home from the war, or a fellow officer going through a rough stretch of road.
Containing and slowing these situations down is the goal, but the suspect may not stand for this. Officers must prepare for the suspect to take three deep breaths and go. The standoff may well have been an effort to lure officers into a circumstance where the suspect can force a group of well-trained officers to defend themselves.
If you are faced with this circumstance you must be prepared to defend yourself. If they are homicidal they will give you no choice. If they are suicidal they will give you no choice. When you are looking at a muzzle you can’t tell the difference.
As a team, prepare.