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Issues to Consider Regarding Possible Suicidal Suspects

It was about 4:00 in the afternoon when one of our regular clients called and requested an “emergency” polygraph examination for a 19-year-old female employee they suspected was stealing jewelry from a kiosk in their store. In pursuing the urgent nature for the polygraph examination, it was learned that the suspected employee had been unsuccessfully “mildly” interrogated over the last two hours and was now threatening to resign. I had prior dealings with this particular investigator and knew that a “mild” interrogation only meant that the employee was not bleeding. The client was politely reminded of our long-standing practice of not administering a polygraph examination immediately following an interrogation and the employee was scheduled for an appointment the next morning. The young woman was never given a polygraph examination because that night she committed suicide.

Psychologists talk about the multiple victims of suicide. Any investigator who has had the unfortunate experience of having a suspect commit suicide during the course of an investigation understands the impact of this statement. When a suspect commits suicide it is natural for the investigator to harbor some feelings of responsibility for that death. In some cases the overwhelming guilt has led investigators and psychologists to resign their position following a suicide that occurred under their watch. Family members of the deceased will also experience guilt and shame over their loved one’s loss and look for accountability and relief. When suicide occurs during the course of an investigation, often this relief will be in the form of a law suit. As can be seen, on many levels, it is in the investigator’s best interest to assess a suspect’s risk for suicide and take preventative measures when the risk presents itself.

As a behavioral choice, suicide represents a total withdrawal from the person’s environment. Most people develop a series of coping mechanisms to deal with stress. These may range from the use of defense mechanisms, where reality is altered by distorting thoughts, to behavioral changes including alcohol and drug abuse. Suicide is the most extreme behavior on that list. But this does not mean that all victims of suicide will have a psychological history of progressively more aggressive efforts of withdrawal. In fact, there are individuals who appear to have a predisposition to move directly to the end of the coping mechanism menu. In other words, some suicides appear to be relatively unpredictable — not all victims exhibit a series of red flag behaviors before deciding to take their life.

With that said, however, I am not aware of a single instance where a happy, successful, well-adjusted person committed suicide. The individual who commits suicide has a psychological propensity for choosing death over more conventional forms of stress release. Second, in most suicides, there is a precipitator or motivating event that leads to the decision to take one’s life. A lawsuit that is filed as a result of a suspect who committed suicide during an investigation generally cites the stress of the interrogation as at least one of the precipitators for the death. This article offers some suggestions to minimize a company or department’s exposure to civil liability associated with a suspect who commits suicide.

Recognize the high risk suspect. The profile of a suspect who may commit suicide during a criminal investigation includes (but is not limited to) a suspect who:

- Has a high level of social responsibility (successful in business, school or other endeavor, is emotionally close to friends and family members and is concerned about their reputation and image); - Is facing significant personal consequences such as disappointing family members or experiencing embarrassment;

- Has committed crimes of embezzlement, fraud, sexual misconduct or hit and run;

- Has previously attempted suicide; and,

- Exhibits present symptoms of, or past treatment for depression.

As this list illustrates, some of these assessments can only be made by asking the suspect specific questions. In our office we have each suspect complete a “Subject Data Sheet” that includes a question about present psychiatric treatment and one about prior suicide attempts.

- Eliminate the suspect’s opportunity to commit suicide. If a suspect is determined to be at risk for possible suicide, a protocol should be followed to reduce this risk. Example procedures include:

- Remove possible suicide implements (belt, shoelaces, razors, medications, sheets) Maintain a suicide watch over the suspect where the suspect is monitored either in person or electronically until such time that a mental health professional can evaluate the suspect and offer a professional recommendation for future monitoring.

Following the confession of a suspect who has been determined to be at risk for suicide, the investigator might consider openly addressing emotional issues in an effort to reduce the likelihood that the suspect may later decide to commit suicide. The following are some suggested statements to make:

- Let the suspect know that he is not the only person ever to have committed this crime, and that what he did is not that uncommon, even with people who have a similar background or social status.

- Tell the suspect that right now he is probably judging himself more harshly than anyone else – his friends, co-workers or family members.

- Express the importance of talking openly to loved ones about the suspect’s feelings and emphasize that it is human nature to forgive if a person first acknowledges a problem and then promises to change.

The very nature of an investigator’s job involves engaging in behaviors that can cause people stress, and sometimes end up depriving a person of their livelihood, freedom or reputation. The vast majority of individuals are able to cope with this adversity at some level without resorting to taking their own life. A small percent of suspects, however, will attempt or succeed at committing suicide during the course of an investigation. While there are general factors that increase the risk for suicide, even trained mental health professionals cannot accurately identify whether or not a particular patient will commit suicide. Nonetheless, when a suspect commits suicide often the investigator will experience feelings of guilt and responsibility and the company or agency may be named in a lawsuit. This article offers some common sense suggestions to keep an investigator or his employer from becoming an additional victim of a suspect’s suicide.


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