Is COVID-19 stress causing an increase in 'direct confrontation' suicide-by-cop encounters?

Anecdotal evidence seems to support that suicide by cop incidents are on the rise


This article was revised on 5/20/2020 to reflect updated information regarding the Half Moon Bay incident discussed below.   

During a recent five-day period, police officers across the country were in officer-involved shootings (OIS) with suspects who were attacking them with knives, firearms (including replicas), machetes and swords.

A review of these incidents from open sources reveals that all had indicators the suspect was attempting suicide by cop. The troubling question is, are the stresses and pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic causing an increase in suicide by cop calls? Consider these four incidents:

Man with a samurai sword

On Sunday, May 10, 2020, officers assigned to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department responded to a call for service involving a man with a samurai sword who was threatening to hurt himself.

As we see in the officer’s body camera below, when the officer first arrived, the suspect’s attention was on a civilian who was downstairs from the suspect’s apartment on the sidewalk. The officer made significant attempts to de-escalate the suspect, including talking to him in a calm manner, calling him by his first name, identifying that he was here to help and other verbal de-escalation techniques.

Tragically, the suspect can be heard telling the officer he wanted to die. The suspect attacked the officer while armed with the samurai sword as the officer retreated, compelling the officer to use deadly force to protect himself.

Man with a knife

Similar events occurred three days earlier in Maryland. On May 7, 2020, a Maryland County Police Sergeant responded to a call of a male who had thrown a rock through a neighbor’s window and told the owner to “call the police.”

The video that was captured by the officer’s body-worn camera shows that when the officer responded, the suspect was armed with the knife in his hand. The suspect charged the officer, appearing to try to provoke him to shoot, but stopped approximately 15 feet away. The suspect withdrew briefly then charged the officer again, but this time he didn’t stop, resulting in the officer-involved shooting.

As in the Las Vegas incident, the suspect created the situation to generate a police response, including telling the victim to “call the police,” confronted the officer with a knife, refused to surrender the knife or de-escalate, and charged at the officer with the knife. The fact that he withdrew briefly when the officer didn’t shoot the first time and then advanced toward the officer helps to demonstrate his cognition of consequence as he appeared to re-calibrate his tactics and then charge the officer again, resulting in his being shot.

Woman with a shotgun

A day earlier (May 6, 2020) in Half Moon Bay, California, a woman armed with a shotgun and carrying a bottle of wine, walked through a business district while acting “strangely” generating a call to the San Mateo Sheriff Department. While details differ in the news reports, it appears that when the deputy arrived, the shotgun was on the ground near her. As she armed herself with the shotgun, the deputy ordered the woman to drop the gun. She did not comply with the deputy’s directions and fired at the deputy who returned fire wounding her.

While each of the previously mentioned indicators of a “direct confrontation” of suicide by cop type was present in this incident in Half Moon Bay, another factor was also present: the subject chose to reach for the firearm once the officers were present, potentially escalating the situation from a tense contact to one that would likely result in deadly force. Ultimately when she fired at the deputy(s) her actions resulted in deadly force.

Man with a knife

A May 4, 2020, incident in San Jose, California, also had all of the indicators of suicide by cop. Police were called to a scene where the suspect had stabbed a victim to death and was still at the scene because several witnesses used their cars to prevent him from leaving. Once police arrived, officers attempted to de-escalate the confrontation, but the suspect, still armed with the knife he had used to murder the victim, began to advance on the officers. Officers deployed bean-bag projectiles. Although the suspect was struck several times, he continued to focus on one officer, advancing and brandishing his knife resulting in an OIS and the suspect’s demise.

Understanding direct confrontation category of suicide by cop

These four incidents fall into the “direct confrontation” category of suicide by cop wherein the suspect commits an act or series of acts as a pre-planned attack against the police that is designed to generate a police response. These acts include calling about himself/herself, then producing or feigning a weapon, and advancing on the officers to force them to use deadly force to stop the assault. [1]

When examining cases of direct confrontation, we need to consider whether or not the suspect possessed the “cognition of consequence” and knew that his or her aggressive actions toward the police would result in the responding officers using deadly force.

When I examine direct confrontation cases I look for several indicators that demonstrate the suspect’s cognition of consequence. These are:

  • The suspect engaged in activities to initiate a police response.
  • The nature of the call required the police to respond.
  • The suspect produced or feigned a weapon.
  • The suspect advanced toward the officers or assaulted the officers to prevent them from using less-lethal options, and compelled them to use deadly force.
  • The suspect either had no plan to escape or chose not to use opportunities to self-de-escalate, retreat or flee.

It is too early to make a definitive assessment, but this recent spate of cases of possible “direct confrontation” suicide by cop incidents necessitates considering what factors could be causing this apparent increase. Is there a nexus to COVID-19 stressors such as social isolation or financial strain? New research indicates mental health issues associated with the current pandemic may result in an additional 75,000 deaths as a result of increased substance abuse and suicide. [2]

As these incidents increase, so do the media reports about them. A May 10 article in the "Journal of the American Medical Association," the authors identify that as a result of factors like the current economic uncertainty, decreased access to community and religious support, social isolation, and illness and medical problems that result from the current pandemic, the nation is at high risk for an increase in incidents of suicide. [3] A May 4 article in "The Washington Post" noted that, “Three months into the coronavirus pandemic, the country is on the verge of another health crisis, with daily doses of death, isolation and fear generating widespread psychological trauma.” [4]

The increase in media coverage, combined with easily accessible video footage of these incidents, could be exacerbating the mental decline of other distressed persons. This visceral representation of how these suicide by cop incidents occur may be a catalyst to push a suicidal subject to choose suicide by cop as their method of suicide.

The extent to which COVID factors into these tragic incidents will, I am sure, be examined in greater detail in the aftermath of the pandemic, but for now the anecdotal evidence seems to support an increase in suicide by cop incidents. As I discussed in my previous article, studies of OIS incidents reveal that three out of 10 police shootings may actually be acts of suicide or more specifically suicide by cop. [5] Sadly, we must be prepared for the possibility that this ratio is increasing, at least for the foreseeable future. Officers responding to calls involving subjects with possible mental illness should be mindful of the possibility that the subject may be planning a direct confrontation suicide by cop, and officers must plan their tactics accordingly.

References

1. Homant RJ, Kennedy DB. Suicide by police: A proposed typology of law enforcement officer-assisted suicide. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 23(3), 339–355.

2. Petterson S, et al. Projected Deaths of Despair During the Coronavirus Recession. Well Being Trust. May 8, 2020. 

3. Reger M, Stanley I, Joiner T. Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019 – A Perfect Storm? Journal Of American Medical Association, May 10, 2020.

4. Wan W. The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis. The Washington Post, May 4, 2020.

5. Mohandie K, Meloy R, Collins P. Suicide by cop among officer-involved shooting cases. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2009, 54(2), 456–462.

NEXT: 15 warning signs you might be involved in a suicide by cop

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