Dealing with suicidal subjects
by Senior Investigator Garett Bush
Los Angeles Police Department
Responding to a suicidal subject
When dealing with a suicidal subject, it's critical to ascertain as much information about the person's mental health history as possible, as quickly as possible... ideally prior to arrival. Reach out to on-duty mental health professionals to ask about mental health issues the person may be facing and find out whether the person has been involved in previous incidents you may not know about. You should also talk with the subject's family to find out about medications he may be taking, whether he's been following the prescribed regime and to find out about any recent changes in behavior.
It is vital that you consider the safety of your approach when you first arrive on scene. You should never compromise your safety and the safety of your fellow officers for the welfare of the subject.
Making contact with the subject
Be sure to find out from dispatch about any weapons registered in the subject's name before you make contact. Request additional officers depending on the circumstances. Officers should never make one-on-one contact with a suicidal subject without additional officers present. Wait for your back-up, because time is on your side.
Find out if the subject is home alone. Often times, a suicide attempt is a cry for help and an audience is needed. Make every attempt to interview the subject inside the dwelling. This allows the subject privacy and dignity. It also mitigates the act of making a spectacle for attention. However, you may interview the subject outside the dwelling if you feel tactically uncomfortable inside.
Scan the immediate area within the subject's reach for anything that can be used as a weapon (scissors, utensils, tools, knives, pens and pencils). DO NOT become complacent just because you think the subject's plan is to hurt himself and not you. Remember that you may become the object of their affliction at any point during the encounter.
Tactical interview techniques
Appearance is everything. Appear to be calm, helpful, understanding, and empathetic of the subject's feelings and the circumstances they say they're facing. Attempt to talk to the subject as if you really want to assist them, as opposed to being an officer who just wants to resolve the matter as quickly as possible and get out of there. These incidents require extra patience. Be an active listener, but do not let the subject control the interview. You still have a duty to gain the required information about the subject.
Slow down. All of your senses should be on heightened alert. Let your brain have the clarity to react. Conduct the interview with at least one additional officer, who can act as a cover officer as well as doubling as your information officer. The subject's information should be recorded word-for-word. This information will aid your investigation now and for future encounters with the subject.
Important questions to ask a suicidal subject
1. Why do you want to kill yourself?
2. How were you going to kill yourself?
3. Where were you going to do it?
4. Why didn't you go through with it and why did you call the police (if that is the case)? 5. How many times have you thought of suicide and/or attempted suicide in the past?
6. Has anyone in your family attempted or committed suicide in the past?
7. Have you taken drugs/alcohol or are you currently taking any illegal/legal drugs?
8. Do you have anyone (support system) who can help you
Disposition of your interview and mental health assessment
Refer the subject to your Department's Mental Health Team but remember that you may not want to cut contact completely. The subject may feel very comfortable with you after your contact and may want you to speak with you again. You may be the only law enforcement specialist he wants to see in the future, because "only you" can help.
Remind the subject that he is not alone and that there is help available. Advise the Subject to consider calling the police again for further assistance.
Myth: Subjects who talk about suicide do not commit suicide.
Fact: Most subjects who commit suicide have talked about or given definite warning signs of their suicidal feelings.
Myth: Suicide happens without warning.
Fact: There are almost always warning signs present, but others are often unaware of the significance of the warnings or unsure what to do about them
Myth: Suicidal subjects are fully intent on dying. Nothing others do or say can help.
Fact: Suicide is preventable. Most suicidal subjects desperately want to live; they are just unable to see alternatives to their problems.
Myth: Once someone is suicidal, they are suicidal forever.
Fact: Most suicidal subjects are suicidal for only limited periods of time. However, someone who has made an attempt is at increased risk for future attempts.
Myth: Improvement after a suicidal crisis means that the risk of suicide is over.
Fact: Many suicides occur several months after the beginning of improvement, when a person has energy to act on suicidal thoughts.
Myth: Suicide strikes most often among the rich, or conversely, among the poor.
Fact: Suicide cuts across social and economic barriers.
About the author
Senior Police Investigator Garett Bush, of the Los Angeles Police Department is currently assigned to the Crisis Response Section and the Crisis Negotiation Team. Mr. Bush is a member of the California POST Subject Matter Expert group in Homeland Security and Crisis Response. He is published in the California POST Portal and several other law enforcement publications. Along with being a published writer Mr. Bush holds a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security and is an adjunct faculty member at ITT Technical Institute in Anaheim, California.