Are you ready for suicide by cop?
A suicide-by-cop incident can happen to any officer, at any time, on any shift – are you ready for the event, as well as the aftermath?
A suicide-by-cop (SBC) incident – where a subject deliberately provokes police into killing him – can happen to any cop, at any time, on any shift. Cops will make every effort to end an SBC situation nonviolently, but sometimes the suicidal subject will not allow that outcome. Like everything else you might encounter on patrol, an SBC is something for which you must prepare.
Interested in getting the opinion of an officer who is also a clinical psychologist, I connected with Dr. John Azar-Dickens, a licensed clinical psychologist and sworn law enforcement officer with the Rome (Ga.) Police Department.
Azar-Dickens told me that in addition to scenario-based tactical training, officers must also do scenario-based visual imagery.
“The first step is to accept and realize that an SBC scenario is possible,” he said. “None of us want it to happen, but we must accept it as part of the job. If we fail to accept it as a likely reality, we then fail to prepare mentally for it.”
Acceptance of the likelihood leads to a process of preparation in which the officer can create scenarios in his mind of an SBC-type scenario, going through the event step-by-step and actively working it through in their mind. Essentially, the officer practices the event in his mind over and over again. The images should be made as vivid as possible and the officer should visualize himself performing successfully and confidently.
“As brilliant as the brain may be, it cannot tell the difference between something being imagined and it actually happening,” Azar-Dickens said. “When we look at research comparing athletes who use visual imagery in addition to active practice versus those who just use active practice alone, we find those who use the imagery are more consistent, more confident in their performance, and better mentally prepared for the stress associated with performance.”
Similarly, if an officer has actively played out multiple SBC scenarios in his or her mind, the brain will not consider it a new experience if it happens in the “real world.” Consequently not only performance, but emotional reactions are likely to be more productive and useful rather than debilitating.
Your Own Well-being
Preparation also involves being healthy and well before the event occurs. Essentially, proper personal wellness prepares the mind and body for stress and the types of traumatic events that officers will experience on duty.
“As we know with all traumatic events, the person who tends to fare better is the one who is healthy and well-balanced before the event occurs. So, taking care of oneself through regular exercise, proper amounts of sleep and appropriate daily management of stress is critical in preparing for this type of event,” Azar-Dickens said.
This begs the question, what are possible steps to take to ensure an officer’s own mental and emotional well-being prior to a suicide-by-cop event?
“I think a lot of this is the officer understanding what is suicide by cop and the role the officer must play. This type of event involves a distraught and emotionally imbalanced individual using the officer to commit suicide. Thus, the officer is thrust into a situation in which he or she is the victim and essentially becomes victimized by the individual.”
In an SBC, the officer essentially has the role of victim. The officer is essentially being used by a suicidal individual to end their life, and this can drive a lot of the emotional conflicts.
“This shift in role and lack of control over the situation can be challenging for the officer to handle. As simple as it may sound, understanding and thinking about these situations for what they are can have a great mental and emotional benefit in moving through this type of situation,” Azar-Dickens said.
It’s Not Your Fault
If someone is determined to commit suicide by cop, there is not a lot that can be done to do to stop them. While verbal skills and de-escalation techniques are useful, those things are not always going to work.
Some people simply can’t be helped, and all of the perfect words and actions in the world still won’t change things. Azar-Dickens told me that this is an important concept for the officer to integrate into their thoughts about the event. It’s one he’s also familiar with as a clinical psychologist.
“This is something that plagues psychologists and psychiatrists in that we do everything possible to stop someone from ending their life, but in reality, we know that those individuals who are determined to kill themselves will often do so regardless of what we do. In other words, we can do everything right and even then it does not make a difference,” Azar-Dickens said. “The officer must understand that while a life was lost and this is tragic, it is not the officer’s fault. Officers will frequently blame themselves in this type of situation and believe there is something they could have done to stop it. They tend to play the scenario over and over again in their mind and may get caught up in second-guessing their decisions.”
Officers involved in an suicide-by-cop incident must understand what happened is not their fault. Keeping this in mind will help in the healing process following such an event.
This article, originally published on 07/26/2013, has been updated.