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The Realities of Suicide by Cop

SUICIDE BY COP (SBC) is the common term for when a suspect purposefully engages in threatening behavior so that law enforcement officers are compelled to respond with deadly force. A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed consideration of testimony showing that a victim’s behavior was consistent with SBC in an officer-involved shooting (OIS) case.

“It’s an important case because it’s another form of validating that this is a recognized phenomenon, that it’s an important issue for a jury and a court to understand in order to render an opinion as to whether use of force is justified or not in a situation,” says Kris Mohandie, a police and forensic psychologist who has been studying this topic for several years.

Mohandie co-authored a study on SBC that was released earlier this year. It looked at how many OIS cases may be suicides.

The researchers analyzed case files of OIS investigations from more than 90 police departments in the United States and Canada. The research encompassed every lethal force incident and less-than-lethal incident investigated as OIS at those departments from 1998 through 2006.

The researchers reviewed the specific incident characteristics, demographics, and behavioral information regarding the subject and the outcome of the confrontation. They found that 36 percent of the cases in the sample could be categorized as SBC, while an additional 5 percent were classified as completing a suicide attempt during the police encounter.

SBC cases involve a range of motivations. In some cases, the SBC is premeditated; in others, it appears to be a spontaneous decision during an encounter with police.

There is often no way to be sure that an SBC situation is developing as it occurs. “[The officer] knows that he’s being confronted with somebody who he believes is going to try to kill him,” says Donald Decker of Robson Forensics, who adds, “He doesn’t have time to think ‘Why is this gentleman trying to do what he’s doing?’ He has to react to the actual physical actions of what this gentleman is doing.”

Someone examining the situation and the subject’s behavior after the incident may find clear indications that the individual wanted to end his or her life. But a police officer being threatened with deadly force has no way of knowing what sort of situation he or she is in at the time. The incident is traumatic and life-changing not only for the victims and their family members but also often for the officers.

Rebecca Stincelli is an SBC expert who began working in this field more than 20 years ago. She often fields calls from victims’ families and from the officers involved in SBC. Additionally, she analyzes court cases to determine whether the situation appears to be SBC.

Stincelli says that the increased recognition of SBC as a phenomenon is a positive move. She hopes to see police shootings referred to as SBC when applicable, rather than “justifiable homicide.”

There’s often a reluctance to do that because, as she says, “there’s a stigma about suicide, and many suicide survivors, the surviving loved ones of suicides, do not want to believe that their loved ones completed a suicide. They would rather it be anything else—an accident, homicide—because there is such a stigma. But on the other hand, there’s a stigma for law enforcement as well.”

Although it is difficult to prepare for a potential SBC situation, training of officers in crisis situations in general has evolved. John L. Sullivan, president of Sullivan and Associates International, which does litigation consulting primarily for law enforcement cases, says that there has been a vast improvement in police officer training over the years, to the point where academies often provide instruction on how to tell when someone may be about to commit suicide and how to deal with those situations. There has been an increased emphasis on negotiations and on the use of non-lethal weapons, he says.

Sullivan, who spent 34 years in law enforcement, says, “It’s a very delicate situation that an officer is faced with. The wrong word, the wrong movement, any show of aggression can turn the tide in the situation.”

There has also been a development of specialty groups that are particularly well trained in dealing with or spotting persons having mental crises, such as the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), which has been referred to as the “Memphis model.” This model has been cited as a best practice by the Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other groups.

Major Sam Cochran (retired), who is the Memphis Police Services CIT coordinator, says the officers in the CIT receive extra training on dealing with people who are going through some sort of crisis. Cochran says CIT members are often called in to an incident where officers suspect they are dealing with a mentally unstable person, much as other specialty teams (like a SWAT team) are called into other situations.

Although there has been progress in the courts and improvements in training and counseling for police officers dealing with SBC, it is still an officer’s nightmare, says Sullivan. The bottom line, he says, is that officers can never know when they might be “facing an armed subject with a death wish.”