Suicide by Cop
They call it “suicide by cop”, or “police assisted suicide.” I prefer the former term because the “cop” is the instrument of suicide. He or she might as well be a bottle of sleeping pills, carbon monoxide or a gun in the hand of the suicide. “Police assisted suicide” to me suggests “doctor assisted suicide” which is an entirely different kind of suicide. The police do not “assist” in suicide by cop. They are merely the methodology the person employed.
Current estimates suggest that as many as of 10% of those killed by police officers intended that this was an inevitable or a likely outcome of actions they took.
There’s almost always police stress as a result of a suicide by cop. Except in those cases where the perpetrator of suicide by cop attempted to harm or actually did harm an officer or civilian, I would say that some degree of lingering post-incident stress is inevitable. At times this can even develop into chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There are different kinds of suicide.
Suicide by cop is too simple a phrase, too all inclusive. It’s as if there’s regular suicide, which is every other kind, and suicide by cop. From the cop’s point of view, unless he or she is the lethal method of choice, suicide is suicide, right?
Wrong. Suicide comes in many shapes and sizes. There are a variety of factors that lead to suicide, most frequently depression and sometimes rage as well. The method of any suicide is determined by both availability of a means, and the personality of the individual.
The former is obvious. If a gun isn’t available, one won’t be used. An available gun won’t be used if the person can’t stand the thought of blowing away part of his body, or doesn’t want to leave a mess for others to find and clean up.
Some people seem to be “pill people”, destined to take their lives by overdosing. Others seem to be carbon monoxide, or bag-over-the-head people. Alcoholics and nondrinkers alike often augment their lethal choices by drinking. Dramatic types jump off buildings and bridges after creating a spectacle. Those who make a rational decision to end their lives because of a terminal illness may show amazing consideration for those who find them. People who want to hide the cause of death for insurance or other reasons sometimes deliberately crash their cars, although airbags have had an effect on the lethality of some of the most dramatic single car accidents.
People who are very angry in addition to being depressed are more likely to involve others in their suicide. When a person ends his life in front of the news cameras, they want to send the message “I’ll show you”, to a lover who jilted them, a company that fired them, or a society that they believe never gave them a chance. Some people stage elaborate suicides solely for the benefit of the one person they set up to find them.
All of these are different kinds of suicide.
There are different kinds of suicide by cop, too.
One thing that all of these people have in common, and this is vital for every police officer involved in one to understand, is that the person who commits suicide by cop has by definition gone from being a victim to being a perpetrator. Obviously somebody who decides to stab or shoot a police officer in order to provoke a lethal response has committed a major criminal act. But threatening a police officer or a civilian for that matter with a weapon, whether it is loaded, unloaded or fake, is a crime too.
Somebody who simply commits suicide is a victim. Somebody who forces a police officer to kill him is a perpetrator. It is not only misleading, but can cause unnecessary guilt in officers forced to take a suicidal person’s life, to call that person a “victim of suicide by cop” as if the officers had a choice in a “kill or risk being killed” situation. The decedent is a “perpetrator of suicide by cop.”
Any police stress course in the police academy should have at least one or two classroom segments informing recruits about suicide by cop, and its after effects on the officer involved. I recommend if possible attending a full-day seminar on the subject, such as the ones offered by Chic Daniel or by Warrior Communications.
Unfortunately, most officers don’t get this instruction and learn the hard way.
Knowing the tactical methods of dealing with someone who turns out to be a potential suicide by cop is of paramount importance, and I will only touch on that because I am not a law enforcement professional with expertise in that area. But understanding the psychology of people who may use suicide by cop as a means to end their own life is also very important. The more officers know about the mind of a suicidal subject, the better equipped they are to deal with these life or death confrontations.
Why people choose suicide by cop
Some suicidal people choose suicide by cop because it is the only method they seem capable of. These pathetic folks really harbor no anger towards the police. In fact, they may like the police and view them as providing one final service for them. My hunch is that these tend to be the elderly, and not to let any officer assume too much and get killed themselves, when an elderly man or woman points a gun at you and dares you to shoot them, they probably aren’t going to actually shoot you. For one thing, if you’re alone, then who is going to finish the job on them? Most officers won’t shoot, if only because it’s hard to “blow away” someone who is not only so pathetic, but may remind you of your mom or dad. I’d advise you to very carefully take cover and keep them talking until back-up arrives. Of course, watch the trigger finger. If you can’t convince them to put the gun down, try asking them to do you a favor and not point the gun at you. If they have a revolver, see if you can discern whether it’s loaded. If you have to shoot, so be it. I will repeat this several times here: if you have to be the “cop” in “suicide by…” it isn’t you’re fault. Most victims will leave you little if any choice.
Another type of person who chooses suicide by cop, who may not be particularly angry either, is someone who is legitimately mentally ill. There’s a good chance someone like this has had numerous dealings with the police, and has, if anything, a love-hate relationship with them. They may hate you because you hospitalized them against their will when they went off their medication, but love you afterwards when they are restabilized.
In rural areas where hunting rifles are ubiquitous, mentally ill people often have easy access to, and familiarity with, these weapons. They aren’t particularly easy to kill oneself with, not like a handgun at least, but are certainly a deadly threat when seriously aimed at you. As with the previous example, if you’re alone, someone like this probably wouldn’t shoot you, since then there wouldn’t be anyone there to take him out. That’s not to say they won’t fire a few rounds in your direction. Take cover and keep him talking. Since it really isn’t you personally they are angry at, sometimes it is surprisingly easy to convince suicidal people who initially seem bent on having you kill them, to at least point a weapon away from you just to make you feel more comfortable.
Still another type of person who may not be enraged, or even deeply depressed, but still commits suicide by cop, is the guy at the end of his rope. He’s the fringe criminal who takes ever increasing chances, daring law enforcement to take him out, for example by committing outrageously risky, poorly planned, daylight armed robberies. They think along the lines of “if I can’t make the big score, I might as well go down trying – and take a few cops with me along the way.” Their crimes may seem suicidal, indeed, they often are. Tragically, innocent lives are sometimes lost as a result. There’s little debate in law enforcement that in these cases, cops should shoot first and leave the talking for the locker room, critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), and the police stress shrink’s office if necessary.
Even if you know, in your head, it wasn’t your fault and you had absolutely no choice, you may find you are feeling irrationally guilty for taking the life of a criminal. Again, it is not your fault. Guilt in these cases is an entirely normal feeling. You didn’t hire on to be the executioner of some pin-brained low-life robber. Sure, you know he may be better off dead, and without a doubt better him than you. But you may still feel guilty. In this age of Prozac for everything, irrational guilt feelings are still best resolved by good old fashioned talk therapy.
Some people attempt suicide by cop because they want to leave the ultimate decision up to someone else, and who better than a police officer. They may think thoughts like “I’m not sure I really want to die, so I’ll pull a gun on a cop and leave it up to him or her whether I live or die.” They may be ambivalent about dying and either consciously or unconsciously are hoping you can talk them out of it – even if they are holding a lethal weapon.
My hunch is that a significant number of suicides by cop fall into this category. It gives a new meaning to the expression “copping out” doesn’t it? These people probably won’t fire on you, but once again, you can never be sure.
If you ever face the business end of a gun or the blade of a knife in the hand of one of these folks, you’ll earn your pay that day. Your job is to protect and serve the good people and bust the bad. But how do you categorize some pathetic suicidal mentally ill person who wants you to take his life and is a trigger pull or a lunge away from taking yours? A good, if mentally ill or deeply depressed, citizen? Or a bad guy about to blow you away?
Suicides by cop aren’t necessarily planned in advance. They can happen at the spur of the moment, especially if guns are available. A person who is depressed may be pushed “over the edge” by the break-up of a relationship, losing a job or some other setback in life. They may have no intention of killing themselves until for some reason the police are called to intervene. Then the thought may occur to them, either as a plan or a barely conceived notion, that they might engage the police in an armed confrontation without really thinking through the consequences until they find themselves a split second away from forcing the police to shoot them. If the person is intoxicated, he may not be fully cognizant of the fact that that every threatening word and gesture he makes can bring him that much closer to being killed.
One of the worst suicides by cop is fortunately quite rare. But it does happen. That’s when cops, usually on suspension or recently retired, for reasons having to do with deep resentment, loss, rage, and what can be best described as a kind of temporary insanity, decide to set up colleagues on the job to take them out. There is a strong element of the “I’ll show those bastards” attitude when this happens. No matter how much police stress counseling you get after being the instrument of death in an instance like this, no matter how much of your own anger at being put in a “your life or theirs” situation, you are probably going to be carrying guilt feelings for a long time. More frequently cops who commit suicide do so in ways to spare their colleagues, and do so with a degree of dignity. Cops to the end, they want their friends to think well of them in death.
Sometimes police officers are too well meaning, too eager to do what they in the moment perceive as the right thing for somebody they don’t think fits the profile of a criminal. Television police dramas sometimes depict police officers doing exactly the wrong thing with armed suicidal people. How often have you seen the caring officer on television talk someone who is suicidal into handing over his knife or gun? It makes good drama, but in real life this is an exceedingly risky tactic because that person may turn on the officer to force him or her to take his life.
These are the most common cases. Many confrontations with suicidal people with weapons won’t end in anyone’s death because of your professionalism and the simple fact that you really don’t want the person to die unless he or she absolutely has to in order to save innocent life. But some will, and some may die holding a toy gun that you will swear looked real, and no matter what you’ll feel lousy.
It is normal to second guess your actions. It is normal to wonder if you could have said or done something different. But you need to understand that if a person is bent on suicide by cop, he will make it happen. Unless the police and all others can be absolutely protected from someone who decides to open fire, there is no scenario that can assure keeping this person alive. Some well meaning people have suggested that police use non-lethal weapons to subdue such people, but there are no such weapons that guarantee an individual with a firearm will be rendered unable to shoot an officer. So until officers can administer non-lethal force from the safety of armored personnel carriers, the police have little choice but to use lethal force. Otherwise, the use of non-lethal force can actually lead the person to try to shoot back at the police.
No matter how sure you were that had you waited another moment, you’d be the one in the morgue, the fact remains that except for the legal technicality, you didn’t really kill a criminal. You were the instrument of death for the perpetrator of suicide by cop. Remember, it wasn’t your fault.
One other point to consider is if the person has a knife instead of a gun. As you already know, you must be very wary of people with edged instruments. The basics are obvious to every law enforcement officer. (Never have them hand the knife to you. Always get at least twenty feet away and talk them into putting the knife down and getting away from it.)
As a therapist I can add that in a suicide by cop, a knife is more likely to be an instrument used against you than against the subject because aside from cutting one’s wrist, usually done alone and by females, knives aren’t commonly used for suicide in the western world. People may threaten to cut their own throat or stab themselves, but this isn’t likely.
Police stress and suicide by cop
After an incident, however reassuring your colleagues and chief are, I strongly recommend you see a police stress counselor. A suicide by cop is always a critical incident and requires debriefing. Do this even if you feel you have it all together afterwards. Do it even if it doesn’t seem like the macho thing to do. A killing like this can haunt an officer for a long time, and a lot of your own guilt can linger beneath the surface and cause you problems later on.
The culture of your department can make a big difference. Some police departments develop a macho culture where feelings aren’t expressed because to do so would be viewed as a sign of weakness. Other departments, often those with a good mix of older, seasoned officers and younger, often unmarried “gung ho” officers, tend to foster more openness about feelings.
In the first kind of department someone may ask you “how ’ya doing” after such an incident as they are walking by you. They aren’t really conveying the message that they want to truly hear the answer unless it’s “no problem.”
In the second department, if someone makes eye contact and asks “how are you feeling,” the ball is in your court. I would suggest you try to answer them honestly. You may be surprised at the amount of real understanding and support you will get.
At home some officers try to “spare” their significant other from their job related troubles. They may come home distressed over incidents at work and gloss over them. This is not healthy for the officer and generally not good for the relationship. If you are involved in a suicide by cop you should talk to your significant other about how you feel.
Remember that you may find you are having disturbing thoughts, feelings and even vivid dreams about the incident starting shortly afterwards, or these may be delayed for a period of weeks or months and then emerge rapidly or gradually. You also may develop other symptoms of post-traumatic stress that are less obvious and you may be tempted to ignore them or attribute them to other causes.
Feeling restless, irritable, having difficulty sleeping or being unusually tired when you wake up or during your usual waking time are common symptoms. You may have a heightened startle response. You also may get headaches and intestinal problems. It is often easier to write such things off as coincidental than to admit they are related to the incident. Sometimes the best person to ask how you are doing is the person closest to you.
If you even suspect you haven’t resolved the incident, it is better to be safe than sorry and to see a therapist who is used to working with police officers.