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The hazards of face-to-face communications with armed suspects

By Deputy Chief Michael Hillman, LAPD
Reprinted with permission from the LAPD

Recently, I reviewed a situation where police officers received information regarding a subject who contacted the media, appeared to be despondent and indicated he was intent on setting himself on fire and/or killing himself publicly. The inference was the proverbial “Suicide-by-Cop” scenario. Officers subsequently went to the location, formulated a plan and awaited the arrival of the subject. A short time later the subject arrived, parked his vehicle in a highly visible public place, opened the sunroof and promptly placed himself protruding through the roof and placed a pistol to the right side of his head and threatened suicide. Officers in the immediate area activated their plan, requested SWAT, established containment behind cover, positioned less-lethal impact munitions and established an incident command post. One of the containment officers established voice to voice contact with the subject.

During the next thirty minutes this officer convinced the subject to place the weapon down. The subject complied and threw the weapon into some nearby bushes. This action was observed by other personnel in containment positions as well. Next, the officer who established initial contact with the subject, removed his duty belt, placed a TASER and back up gun in his rear pocket, independently, left cover and approached the subject.

During the contact, the officer and subject conversed for several minutes. Subsequently, other officers in containment positions, identified an opportunity to take this emotionally disturbed person into custody and struck the subject with less-lethal impact munitions. The subject was subsequently taken into custody and detained for an involuntary hold for evaluation and treatment by mental health professionals.

A successful ending doesn't justify the means by which it was obtained

Police work is not based on “hope” that the suspect doesn’t have another weapon and will not kill either himself, you or someone else. Many years ago, as a young SWAT and Crisis Negotiation Team member, I responded to an event involving an armed subject on a rooftop who had threatened suicide. Prior to our arrival (SWAT), a member of this Department approached this person, conducted face to face communications and took him into custody without incident. A lucky officer at the time!

The Department, considered the officer’s actions as heroic and subsequently recognized him via commendation. In reflection, the situation, although well intentioned, involved a tremendous judgmental error that jeopardized not only the officer involved but other officers in the immediate area who were faced with response to a potential officer hostage scenario, a rescue scenario or even worse, a homicide/suicide scenario. Over the years, similar situations involving face to face contacts by police officers with emotionally disturbed persons, have resulted in officers being shot, wounded, or seized as hostages. In any event, the situation was exacerbated by officers going face to face.

Today, much literature exists regarding Suicide by Cop. SWAT, the Crisis Negotiation Team, Behavioral Sciences Section and the Mental Evaluation Unit have continued to study the problem and developed protocols to deal with such situations. Currently, our protocols require LAPD personnel contact SWAT, contain the incident, control the situation, i.e., evacuation, maintain cover, communicate and wait.

Face to face negotiations are not authorized nor prescribed tactics in dealing with armed, suicidal, emotionally disturbed individuals. Response to these situations require a high degree of control and coordination. Remember, team work is paramount to success. Acting independently and outside the plan can jeopardize the safety of all persons. Here are some general guidelines that I would like to remind all of you when faced with suicidal armed subjects.

● Assume and maintain cover.

● Establish containment.

● Call SWAT.

● Establish incident command.

● Attempt to communicate with subject from a position of advantage (cover).

● Wait.

● Continually assess the situation.

● Do not engage in individual actions.

● Be a team, work together, communicate, coordinate and control the situation. Do not be tempted to go face to face as the consequences are grave.

● You can be shot/stabbed/thrown off a roof.

● You can be seized as hostage.

● There is no guarantee of your safety during face to face communications (negotiations).

● Don’t place other personnel in a position where they may be required to plan an officer rescue.

● Don’t precipitate an incident by your actions. Commanding Officers are encouraged to contact Metropolitan Division and the Mental Evaluation Unit to prepare and deliver roll-call training regarding response to Suicide-by-Cop scenarios and available communication tactics to be used by initial responders when confronting armed, emotionally disturbed persons.

Be thoughtful, use good judgement and always work as a team.

This piece originally ran in the May 2007 LAPD Tactical Operations Bulletin

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