Analysis: Man claiming to have COVID-19 attempts suicide by cop
Law enforcement may encounter this phenomenon more frequently in the coming weeks as people seek ways to deal with COVID-19 illness or catastrophic financial losses
What Happened: On the morning of April 1, 2020, NYPD officers responded to a radio call of a man armed with a knife and encountered an armed suspect in the Bronx. In addition to the knife, the suspect had what appeared to be a handgun.
The 55-year-old suspect refused to obey the commands of the officers and advanced at them brandishing the knife and “firearm” in a threatening manner resulting in an officer-involved shooting. It was later determined that the suspect’s “firearm” was a replica handgun, possibly a BB gun.
Suicide by cop typologies
According to several studies, it is estimated that 10%-30% of police shootings are acts of suicide by cop. [2,3] Experts have identified three typologies of suicide by cop incidents:
- Disturbed intervention: Where police respond to a subject in mental health crisis who may also have suicidal ideations, during which time the subject initiates actions to threaten the officer(s) with the intent to have the officers kill him/her.
- Direct confrontation: Where the suspect commits an act or series of acts designed to generate a police response, which includes calling about himself/herself, then produces or feigns a weapon, and advances on the officers to force them to use deadly force to stop the assault.
- Criminal intervention: Where the suspect who is involved in a criminal act chooses to force police to use deadly force instead of going to jail. 
Estimates of suicide by cop incidents within these subsets show that 56% are classified as disturbed intervention, 28% are classified as direct confrontation and 16% are classified as criminal intervention, though there may be overlap between these typologies. 
Based on a review of open-source documents, it appears that the Bronx COVID-19 shooting meets the criteria for suicide by cop as a direct confrontation of the officers wherein the suspect committed actions with the intent to have the police kill him.
Direct confrontation cases of suicide by cop
When examining cases of direct confrontation, we need to consider whether or not the suspect possessed the “cognition of consequence” and knew that his 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 activity to initiate a police response.
- The nature of the call requires the police to respond.
- The suspect produces or feigns a weapon.
- The suspect advances toward the officers or assaults the officers to prevent them from using less lethal options and force them to use deadly force.
- The suspect either has no plan to escape or chooses not to use opportunities to self de-escalate, retreat or flee.
All five of these indicators were present in the Brooklyn case. The suspect generated a call regarding a “man with a knife” near the intersection of Westchester and Zerega avenues in the Parkchester section of the Bronx at 4 am (which in itself is interesting in that the suspect may likely have called on himself since there are few folks on the streets in New York during this pandemic and fewer on the street at that hour of the morning).
Once the police responded, he not only brandished the knife in a threatening manner but also brandished what appeared to be a firearm toward the officers and immediately advanced on the officers.
The suspect refused to surrender or self de-escalate when given commands to stop and drop the weapons, and continued to advance toward the officers while threatening them with both weapons, resulting in the officers using deadly force to stop the immediate threat that the suspect presented. His admission that he believed he had COVID-19 and wanted the officers to kill him point toward his actions being an attempted suicide by cop.
Understanding the pathway to suicide by cop
Most acts of suicide are not spontaneous but have been planned in advance. The pathway to suicide includes four phases:
- Ideation: Where the subject gets the idea to commit suicide to address what he/she perceives as a hopeless situation in his/her life.
- Planning: Where the subject begins to plan on his/her act of suicide.
- Acquisition: When the subject begins to acquire the means to commit suicide.
- Implementation: When the subject decides to commit the act of suicide. 
During this process, the subject often communicates his/her intent to do something, which is referred to as “leakage.” This leakage generally occurs 7-10 days before an event, most often during the planning and acquisition phases. It occurs when the subject begins to communicate a sense of despair or hopelessness, and begins to ask about means of suicide and how to acquire weapons or drugs, or begins making inquiries into ways to die. Indicators of suicide by cop may also include a sudden interest in police tactics and/or police rules of engagement.
While it may be possible to obtain this information during situations that would qualify as disturbed interventions or criminal interventions, it is unlikely an officer will have this information before being involved in a direct confrontation. The direct confrontation is designed to force the officer into a situation that does not allow time to try other options.
For example, in July 2019, a 17-year old girl, apparently intending suicide by cop, encountered a Fullerton California police officer in his marked vehicle driving on the 91 Freeway. She committed several traffic violations in an apparent attempt to get the officer to stop her. When he didn’t stop her, she rammed his police vehicle from behind, forcing the officer to stop. She then drove past the officer and turned her vehicle toward him and exited her car armed with a replica Beretta 92-F handgun, and advanced toward the officer while pointing the gun at him. The officer retreated around his vehicle while giving her commands to drop the weapon. When she closed the distance between them, he fired his weapon, resulting in her demise (see video below).
While police critics will point to the need for officers to de-escalate the situation to avoid having to use deadly force, that is often not a realistic option in suicide by cop incidents where the suspect engages in “direct confrontation” and had pre-planned to attack the officer to compel the officer to use deadly force. These attacks are designed to immediately assault the officer to prevent him/her from using less-lethal munitions or wait for back-up.
Attempting to de-escalate the suspect who is attacking an officer with a weapon, while the officer is retreating, is difficult at best and it is extremely unlikely that the suspect will stop to listen as this was planned in advance. The use of a barricade (vehicle, fence, or other obstacles) if available, to slow the advances of the suspect, has been effective in allowing the officer an opportunity to re-deploy, but will not necessarily stop the suspect’s advances.
An example of this occurred near Fort Collins, Colorado, at the Colorado State University (CSU) on July 1, 2017. A CSU police officer was responding to a call of a suicidal subject who was armed with a knife on his way to campus to kill his brother and brother’s girlfriend and then kill himself.
The officer located the suspect and ordered him to drop the knife. The suspect can be heard in the video (see video below ) telling the officer that he wants to die and repeating “kill me.” The officer retreats approximately 80 feet while trying to verbalize with the suspect in an attempt to de-escalate the situation.
When a back-up officer arrives from the Fort Collins Police Department, the officer can be seen transitioning to his TASER, at which point the suspect raises the knife and charges the officer resulting in the officer-involved shooting and the death of the suspect. While neither officer was injured, this demonstrates how often the suspect in a direct confrontation/suicide by cop incident is motivated to die and may not respond to conventional de-escalation techniques.
Suicidal ideations can intensify with illness
As we have seen with cases of suicide involving people with debilitating illnesses, suicidal ideations become more frequent when people believe they are dying and may choose suicide over a prolonged painful illness.
Deputies in Will County, Illinois, recently responded to a welfare check in Lockport Township where they located a deceased couple who died of an apparent murder-suicide. The 59-year old female was found shot in the back of the head and the 54-year old male dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Family members advised the deputies that both victims believed they had contracted COVID-19 after the couple experienced shortness of breath and the family members felt that was the probable motive for the murder-suicide. They tested negative for the virus.
In the Bronx case, where the suspect reportedly believed he had COVID-19 and was going to die anyway, his decision to attack the officers with a knife and the gun was part of a pre-planned attempt to compel the officers to kill him in an attempt to commit suicide by cop.
Fortunately, the suspect in the Bronx case survived the shooting, but this is a phenomenon police officers may encounter more frequently in the coming weeks as people seek ways to deal with COVID-19 illness or catastrophic financial losses that result from the economic impact of the pandemic. Officers need to be mindful of this additional factor in an already complicated landscape of interacting with persons in crisis.
2. Mohandie K, Meloy R, Collins P. Suicide by cop among ofﬁcer-involved shooting cases. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2009, 54(2), 456–462
3. Patton CL, Fremouw WJ. Examining ‘suicide by cop’: A critical review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 27 (2016) 107-120.
4. 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.
5. Jordan A, Panza NR, Dempsey C. Suicide by Cop: A New Perspective on an Old Phenomenon. Police Quarterly. (2019).
6. Calhoun & Weston, 2003; Fein, Vossekuil, Borum, Modzeleski, & Reddy, 2002.