Suicide by cop (SbC) is a phenomenon confronted by police officers in which suicidal individuals behave in such a way as to force officers to use lethal force against them. Research findings have found common characteristics and behaviors among SbC subjects. The phenomenon is recognized sufficiently that there are a number of court decisions that are relevant to incidents that are defined as SbC. Finally, police officers often suffer psychologically after their involvement in SbC incidents. Their suffering must be addressed if they are not to have long-term effects.
Suicide requires an active decision to kill oneself. Such action may conflict with religious ideology, or the subject may fear societal stigma. Suicidal individuals also may fear pain and believe that the police officers’ training in lethal force will ensure their instant death. Some of these individuals have a desire to die in a high-profile “blaze of glory.” Often, the decision of individuals to induce the police to use lethal force against them is impulsive. Emotionally distraught and under the influence of alcohol, many individuals form a cloudy decision to die only when the police arrive in response to a precipitating event such as a domestic dispute. Due to some of these conditions, suicidal subjects may become Suicide by Cop subjects, inducing officers to kill them.
As with other suicidal behavior, the subject frequently is ambivalent about death. If the police can delay a confrontation, SbC subjects often are open to negotiation, especially if they become sober. Unfortunately, as found by studies conducted by the author, SbC subjects often place officers in situations in which they cannot get themselves or the victims in a safe place, so must shoot the SbC subjects. Also similar to other forms of suicide attempts, the behavior that often accompanies an SbC incident is an endeavor to cope with stressful life events by self-destructive behaviors.
Suicide by Cop subjects primarily are male, White, and more than 25 years old. They often have a mental illness history, including mood and personality disorders. Alcohol is used in a majority of the recorded SbC incidents, with a number of the individuals having a history of alcohol abuse. Subjects under the influence of alcohol overcome their inhibitions and are more impulsive and lethal. Often, anger and aggression are indicated by a number of past assault or domestic violence complaints, homicidal pre-incident conversations, and negotiation conversations that include injury to others.
Precipitating events to the SbC incidents often include the termination of a relationship and/or other family problems. SbC subjects have been known to attempt to use the incident as a means to coerce a significant other to remain in a relationship or for revenge against a significant other. Unlike other suicide victims, SbC subjects usually have significant others in their lives, although these others are often part of the problem. Outstanding criminal warrants on the SbC subject also are prevalent. They may state that they would rather die than return to prison.
Although early research in Suicide by Cop focused on preparation by SbC subjects, more recent research done by the author has found that about half of the SbC incidents are impulsive rather than planned. About half of the SbC subjects, who she studied, had made some sort of statement or had a change in behavior that could be interpreted as presuicidal. These behaviors included writing and leaving a note, telling a therapist or significant other of what they were considering, and giving away possessions. Prior suicide attempts overall were not very prevalent; however, those who had attempted suicide in the past were more likely to be successful in their attempts in inducing police officers to shoot them.
The courts have not decided predominantly in favor or against police officers in all SbC cases; however, the courts have agreed that only the facts known by the officers at the time of the incident are relevant to the case. Intentions or motives of the SbC subjects discovered later are not directly related. The degree of danger that the officer or another person is in is judged at what is known by the officer at the time of the incident. Officers are granted qualified immunity unless they violate established law. The plaintiff has the burden to prove that the officers committed a constitutional violation.
Although the courts should consider only what the officer would have known at the time of the incident, it is useful to conduct a psychological autopsy to investigate what the individual’s state of mind was at the time of the SbC incident. Such information will give officers a better understanding of the subject’s motivation, plan, and pathology. It can help also in officers’ psychological debriefings. Information for a psychological autopsy often is obtained from the subject’s friends, family, and co-workers, as well as from any notes left by the subject, recent high-risk behavior, the giving away of personal property, and actions or statements that suggest preoccupation with death and/or suicide.
Officers who are involved in the SbC incident, especially the officer(s) who actually shoot the subject, are quite likely to suffer psychological traumatic stress disorder. Often, the subject does not actually have a loaded or real gun, although it appears real at the time of the incident. The officer may feel manipulated by the subject and is unprepared for the emotional and physiological reactions that follow the shooting. The officer also is often not given the opportunity to verbalize or emotionally ventilate his or her emotions. It is critical that police agencies require officers to see a therapist if they are involved in shootings or other violent incidents.
- Hutson, H. R., Anglin, D., Yarbrough, J., Hardaway, K., Russell, M., Strote, J., et al. (1998). Suicide by cop. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 32, 665-669.
- Lord, B. (2004). Suicide by cop: Inducing officers to shoot. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law.
- Parent, R. B., & Verdun-Jones, S. (1998). Victim precipitated homicide: Police use of deadly force in British Columbia. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 21, 432-448.
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