Suicide By Cop: Is it time to stop using this term?


By Michael J. Asken, Ph.D. and Sgt. R. Scott Hunter
Pennsylvania State Police

What is called Suicide By Cop (SbC) has been understood as a phenomenon for some time now1. An excellent review of the topic was recently provided by Dr. Laurence Miller2. As a term, it gained more recognition, status and regular use in the late 1990s1,3. Further legitimacy for the term seemed to occur in an article on the frequency of SbC incidents recorded by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, when the emergency room physicians who authored the study4 concluded “Suicide by cop is an actual form of suicide.”

Despite its now common use and recognition in law enforcement situations, the term has been confusing and used inconsistently. In fact, we would argue that the term is more than confusing; it is imprecise, inaccurate and injurious and should be dropped from use by law enforcement and others and replaced by a more appropriate term.

Suicide By Cop is an Imprecise Term

It has been suggested that the concept of SbC is important for collection of incident statistics and legal proceedings3. If a term has implications for statistical collection/analysis and legal decisions, it ought to be precise and specific. This is not the case with SbC. There are multiple terms used for this situation and there are multiple definitions.

Among the various terms used for SbC are police-assisted suicide, police officer-assisted suicide, law-enforcement-assisted suicide, victim precipitated homicide, suicide by proxy and law enforcement-forced-assisted suicide1,5.

Among the various definitions are:

  • “an act motivated in whole or in part by the offender’s desire to commit suicide that results in a justifiable homicide by a law enforcement officer”3
  • “an incident in which a suicidal individual intentionally engages in life- threatening and criminal behavior with a lethal weapon or what appears to be a lethal weapon toward law enforcement officers or civilians to specifically provoke officers to shoot the suicidal individual in self-defense or to protect civilians”4
  • “incidents in which individuals, bent on self-destruction, engage in life-threatening and criminal behavior to force police to kill them”6, cited by Lord “the suicidal person confronting an assailant, with a real or perceived lethal weapon, forcing the assailant to respond with deadly force”definition of victim precipitated homicide, 7, cited by Lord
  • “any incident in which a suicidal individual causes his or her death to be carried out by another person”definition of suicide by proxy, 8, cited by Lord
  • “a suicide where the person wants to die but prefers to have the police kill him rather than kill himself”9
  • “an event in which an individual engages in behaviors that pose an apparent risk of serious injury or death to themselves or others, with the intent of necessitating the use of deadly force by law enforcement personnel”10

Review of these definitions shows considerable variation in what is included in the definition of SbC. As noted, this inconsistency has important implications for accurate statistics gathering and fair legal rulings. An in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of such definitions is beyond the scope of this paper.

However, Keram & Ferrell8 have provided such an analysis with an emphasis on the legal implications5. As an example, they note the use of the term “by” in SbC conveys an intent to harm the citizen by the police officer and represents police officers as an unfeeling instrument of the subject. The also note that the term “assisted” as in Law Enforcement-Assisted Suicide implies an agreement entered into voluntarily by the officers and the subject with each fully understanding their roles (which is not typically the case). These observations also have significant relevance for the potentially injurious nature of the term which will be discussed later.

Suicide by Cop is an Inaccurate Term

Westrick11 in his article Suicide by Cop Sends the Wrong Message makes the point of the inaccuracy of this term very succinctly: “The fact is, it is impossible to commit suicide by the act of another person.”

There is not much merit, for law enforcement purposes, to get into arguments about defining suicide or its variations such as “active” versus passive “suicide,” for there are other important issues related to inaccuracy. (Historically, there was even a concept of “partial suicide” which including things such as biting one’s nails!)

One important alternate issue is that it may not be possible for a police officer to know that an individual was suicidal at the time of the action. There may be no overt indication or available history. Several authors have demonstrated that defining a case as SbC involves considerable post-incident investigation to confirm suicidal intention. Further, the threat may be so imminent and lethal that this information is irrelevant.

Another issue is that even if the subject uses suicidal language (Go ahead shoot me!), it is not clear that there is true (and premeditated) suicidal intent. For example, the subject who is high on drugs might simply be taunting or making irrational statements. Or, the individual who finds himself “trapped” in an interrupted robbery or domestic may make an impulsive decision or express suicidal comments when there was no original, or even current, intent to die.

Human communication is always subject to perception, interpretation, misperception and misinterpretation. This may occur even with precise communication, but is more likely when there is imprecision. This situation with the term SBC has been nicely described by Harper & Blum5 who offer that Suicide By Cop:

“…conjures up different images in everyone’s minds. In the officer’s mind, it is an unavoidable situation where he or she was acting in self-defense. In the media’s mind, it is a sensational story where a cop shoots a mentally ill person. In the public’s mind, it is a preventable situation where the officer should have known the suspect to be mentally ill and tried to preserve life. In the court’s mind, it is a balancing act to determine the reasonableness of the officer’s actions.”
Finally, we do not use similar terminology in other comparable situations. If a suicidal individual throws him/herself in front of a train or a car, it is not called “suicide by engineer” or “suicide by driver”. Why should police officers be pulled into a suicidal situation with implied culpability? It is not only inaccurate, but as described below, potentially very injurious.

Suicide By Cop is a Potentially Injurious Term

It is perhaps not surprising that imprecision and inaccuracy in any endeavor should lead to potential injury. While variously labeled as “just words,” “a manner of speaking,” useful “shorthand,” or “currently the term of art”5, the phrase SbC can have significant consequences. Words are powerful; just ask any attorney, advertiser or negotiator.

Writing in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Pinizotto and his colleagues 3 state that “Suicide by cop incidents are painful and damaging experiences for the surviving families, the communities, and all law enforcement professionals.” Harper & Blum5 reported that “The suicide by cop situation is always serious for those involved and has serious consequences physically, emotionally and financially.”

What is called Suicide By Cop (SbC) has been understood as a phenomenon for some time now1. An excellent review of the topic was recently provided by Dr. Laurence Miller2 [Read the article]. As a term, it gained more recognition, status and regular use in the late 1990s1,3. Further legitimacy for the term seemed to occur in an article on the frequency of SbC incidents recorded by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, when the emergency room physicians who authored the study4 concluded “Suicide by cop is an actual form of suicide.”

Despite its now common use and recognition in law enforcement situations, the term has been confusing and used inconsistently. In fact, we would argue that the term is more than confusing; it is imprecise, inaccurate and injurious and should be dropped from use by law enforcement and others and replaced by a more appropriate term.

Westrick11 writes even more bluntly, stating that in SBC incidents “Officers are scrutinized and this stigmatization can lead to severe legal, emotional and physical distress.” The consequences of any police shooting incident are always significant for officers so involved; terms like Suicide By Cop may make the processing and adapting to such incidents even more difficult.

The importance and impact of words was seen in a recent article in American Police Beat entitled “Commish’s Poor Choice of Words Adds Tension.”12 Comments from civilian commissioners in a California city were upsetting in their content when it was said “police can, and sometimes do, kill people.”

A police union vice-president responded: “There’s a keen distinction between taking someone’s life and killing someone.” He went on to say: “Taking a life is an unfortunate possibility on the job – killing someone...implies malice.”

So it is with Suicide By Cop; the term and words can have important implications for the officer. As alluded to, there can be important implications for media reporting and public response.

Alternate terms need to be considered with care, as well. A phrase like “victim precipitated homicide” loses much of its dampening effect because of attaching “homicide” to the officer (different from the legal use of justifiable homicide). No doubt, part of the reason for so many different (and cumbersome) terms has been a sensitivity to this issue of possible negative consequences and attempt to find an appropriate term. Those attempts remain unsuccessful.

Several conclusions seem warranted. There is a need to understand and monitor such incidents that are now called suicide by cop; such incidents have legal and policy implications; the current phrase is imprecise, inadequate and potentially injurious.

It is tempting suggest other possible terms like Situation Dictated Response or Situation Required Response, or Deadly Force Incident, but it would be counterproductive to simply add terms and complicate the picture further. Perhaps best, would be for national police organization to convene a consensus conference to select a term and definition for consistent and effective use.

Finally, we emphasize that any term should have two fundamental characteristics; first it should suggest that the action taken was constricted in nature and choice by factors other than pure police officer discretion; and secondly it should not suggest complicity or culpability by association with emotionally-charged words like suicide, assisted or homicide.

NOTE: The content of this article is that of the authors and does not necessarily represent the opinions, policies or practices of the Pennsylvania State Police. :

Michael J. Asken, Ph.D. is the psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police. He is the author of MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations, available through www.mindsighting.com. He is the psychologist for the PSP SERT Team.

Sgt. R. Scott Hunter has been with the Pennsylvania State police for 19 years. He has served in Uniform Patrol, Criminal Investigation, Vice/Narcotics. He is currently a Station Commander and member of the PSP SERT Negotiations Team.

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