Suicide By Cop prompts officers to share lessons learned from 3 1/2-hour standoff
From the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline
"Shoot me! Shoot me! Just shoot me!"
That's what a Minnesota man yelled at law enforcement officers for more than three hours as he taunted them from inside a barn in rural Isanti County.
Robert Peterson, 41, was determined to die. After a grueling standoff with 35 area law enforcement officers, he came out hollering, fired one round and pointed his gun at police.
"He was willing to kill one of us if that's what it took for us to shoot him," said Isanti County Deputy Sheriff Matthew Petz. "This was a classic suicide by cop, and if something like this can happen in rural Minnesota, it can happen anywhere."
Petz, an FBI-trained negotiator who has been with Isanti County eight months of a seven-year tour in law enforcement, said officers should be prepared for barricaded subject and suicide by cop situations even though they might be rare in their communities.
Even in Isanti County, which has seen only two officer-involved shootings in the past five years, law enforcement officials had taken steps to prepare themselves for a suicide by cop. A critical step was sending Petz, 31, to FBI-paid training for negotiators. Petz also has a master's degree in psychology.
Although the gunman, who was high on methamphetamine, was determined to be shot by police, it didn't stop Petz from trying to negotiate a resolution that involved preserving his life. For three and one-half hours, the officer talked to Peterson by phone and a squad car's public address system reminding him of things that were important to him -- his children and even an old pickup truck.
"He was emotionally unstable and swore at me constantly. He was extremely difficult to negotiate with," he said. The subject fired about 20 rounds from his .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol inside the barn as he talked to Petz.
Finally, he stepped completely outside the barn, fired one round and pointed his weapon at officers. He was shot once in the abdomen by a Chisago County deputy. He had shot himself once in the shoulder before exiting the barn.
Officers from Isanti Police Department, Chisago County Sheriff's Office and North Branch Police Department established a tactical perimeter around the barn. Other agencies providing assistance included the Wyoming Police Department, Minnesota State Patrol, Anoka County Sheriff's Office and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
As a negotiator, Petz said he has been trained not to take the loss of life personally.
"As a negotiator, I understand that the only thing I can control is myself. To have no loss of life, the subject has to want to live. When he doesn't, law enforcement can't take responsibility when he dies," he said.
Petz said his goal during negotiations with Peterson, who was fueled by the methamphetamine, was to try to tire him out. "I let him keep yelling at me and tried to keep talking. I tried not to get frustrated or run out of things to say. After three and a half hours of screaming at me, he finally got tired," he said.
While the officer was talking, other officers worked together to find out more information about the subject. They talked to his family and friends, and even arranged at the subject's request for his pastor to speak with him by phone. The officers offered him everything from food and water to cigarettes.
"I reassured him we weren't going to come in after him," Petz said. "We stayed behind cover the whole time."
From a tactical perspective, officers along the perimeter were careful to position themselves to avoid a crossfire situation. As more officers arrived on the scene, adding to the perimeter, it became even more of a challenge. He said one officer commented later that there were so many officers at the scene that "we were running out of cover," he said.
"Keeping good cover is especially important to remember as time wears and fatigue sets in," Petz said. "When we get tired, we want to stand up from the crouching position we've been in for so long. But when we do, we expose ourselves."
As the time wanes, Petz suggested the controlling agency call for more officers to replace those sitting on the perimeter, relieving those who have been on the scene the longest.
Petz said the entire team learned many valuable lessons from the incident, making them better prepared for the next time.
He said a formal incident command location is essential. Responding officers, especially from outside agencies, need to know where to report for their assignments.
Communication issues must also be quickly resolved. Making sure all officers are communicating on the same radio channel is critical to officer safety.
"You have to be mentally and tactically ready when something like this happens," he said. "Just like the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminars teach officers - stay calm and professional through mental preparation and realistic training.
"And finally, officers should be prepared to use lethal force even though the incident may be a suicide by cop situation. The subject may be willing to use deadly force against law enforcement to achieve the goal," he said.
Above all, Petz reminds officers who may find themselves forced to shoot a suicidal subject that their police action protects themselves, their partners and the public. The subject is the one who makes the choice to die.
"As officers, we have to fight the action impulse that we have to do something to end the situation," he said. "The truth is that if we had run into the building, he would have had the upper hand. I'm glad that we had three and a half hours to negotiate because in the end, he had to come to us. We stayed behind cover and we went home at the end of the shift."
Petz, who attended a portion of a Street Survival Seminar years ago, said a senior deputy on the scene last month suggested he contact Newsline to share the story in hopes that other officers, especially those working in rural areas, might gain something from reading about their experience.
"With the meth problem on the rise and all the violence that is associated with the use of that drug, things are as dangerous as ever for law enforcement everywhere," he said. "We are hoping that officers can use our incident to learn and mentally prepare themselves."