Editor's Note: Suicide by Police is a growing epidemic and one that communications personnel MUST be familiar with. As the "first on the scene", the call taker or dispatcher truly becomes the lifeline, better protecting responders, saving seconds and ultimately saving lives.
How can you tell if you're walking into a situation that could become a suicide by cop -- and a special danger for you? According to Sgt. Barry Perrou of the Los Angeles County CA Sheriff's Dept., there are 15 indicators that can tip you off. By staying alert for them, you'll be better prepared to protect your number one priority -- you-- from a self-destructive subject who may quickly turn on you as part of his/her suicidal plan. Recognizing these gives you a better chance of resolving these volatile and dangerous encounters peacefully, without injury to anyone, including the subject.
- The suspect, is often in a barricade situation, refuses to negotiate with authorities.
- Has just killed a "significant other" in his life, especially his mother or child.
- Has recently learned or perceives that he has a life threatening illness or disease.
- Recently experienced one or more traumatic events in life affecting him, family, career.
- Has recently given away money or personal possessions.
- Has a criminal record indicating past assaultive behavior.
- Presents no demands that include his escape or freedom.
- Says he will only surrender in person to the officer in charge, chief, or sheriff.
- Indicates an elaborate plan for his death, that has taken prior thought/preparation.
- Appears to be looking for a manly or macho way to die.
- Indicates he wants to go out in a "big way."
- Expresses feelings of hopelessness/helplessness.
- Provides authorities with a "verbal will."
- Demands to be killed by officers.
- Sets a deadline for authorities to kill him.
"The more of these factors that are present, the greater chance of suicide-by-cop incident," Perrou said. He also provides a list of questions recently developed with members of LASD, that a communications operator can ask when taking a report of a disturbance, emotionally disturbed person, threatened suicide or other situation that may result in a direct police-subject confrontation. You should try to get these answered before you make contact, Perrou said, because they can constitute a "suicide-by-cop screening instrument."
- Has the subject been drinking today?
- Has he/she taken any drugs today or yesterday? What drugs?
- Has he/she been violent today or in the recent past? (If a subject has been violent in the past, he/she may be more likely to be violent again.)
- Has he/she ever been in a psychiatric hospital or been treated for a mental disorder?
- Has he/she ever attempted suicide? (65% of people who have tried suicide once will try it again)
- Does he/she have guns or knives now? What kind?
- Has he/she pointed a weapon at anyone today? (Remember that any behavior that has been taken once can be replicated more easily the next time)
- Has he/she made a threat to kill the police or be killed by the police?
- Are there personal or family problems that he/she is feeling sad about? (There seems to be a strong correlation between suicide-by-cop and domestic violence)
- Has he/she been screaming or yelling wiht extreme rage during this situation? (People who yell tend to excite themselves. Their voice at a certain decibel level causes them to scream even more. They become self enraged)
- Has he/she ever been in prison? (We are encountering a lot of people today who say they are not going back to prison. Their desperation may provoke them into suicide by cop)
In a nutshell, if the dispatcher determines that the subject has a history of violence, use/possession of weapons, suicide attempts and/or psychiatric problems and/or is currently drinking or has recently taken drugs, you may very likely be on your way to a suicide-by-cop encounter.
Kenneth Putt, a retired Navy Chaplain, had a recent history of mental disorders, and had been suicidal since 1995. On the evening of April 18, 1998, he refused his medication and became belligerent with his wife. When he began breaking household items, Mrs. Putt called police. She then went to a neighbor's house, but saw her husband sitting on the front porch with the light on - and a rifle across his lap.
Mrs. Putt called the police again from the neighbor's house to warn them. Officers parked a block away and approached on foot. When the officers came within sight of Putt, he stood up and pointed his rifle at the officers. The officers immediately took cover and ordered Putt to drop the weapon. One officer fired his shotgun but missed. Putt continued to aim his rifle at the officers. A second officer fired his 9 mm-carbine rifle twice, striking Putt in the torso. Putt died at the scene. When Putt's bolt action .303 rifle was examined, it was found to be unloaded and had not been fired.
The Putt case is an excellent example of "suicide-by-cop," a phenomenon increasingly encountered by officers. These are cases in which the subject uses the opportunity of a confrontation with a peace officer to help carry out a desire to end his/her own life. In some cases, like that of Kenneth Putt, there is evidence showing the subject created the confrontation for just this purpose. Often, the evidence shows the subject has talked for months or even years of suicide, and may have made suicide attempts.
It is likely that such cases have existed as long as there have been peace officers whose natural reaction is to defend themselves from real or simulated attack by deadly force. On the basis of officer-involved shootings reviewed by the DA's Office, it appears the percentage of suicide shootings may be on the rise.
Over the last two years, this office has reviewed 38 officer involved shootings. Of these, at least six subjects are known to have spoken of suicide before the encounter with officers. Examples include a woman who admitted making a conscious decision to fire in the direction of a police officer to attract his fire as a way of ending her life, and a man who made the statement to his wife on several occasions that if you "pointed a gun at a cop, you were just asking to be killed," which is exactly what he later did.
But these six cases do not tell the whole story. In more than one third of the cases (14 of 38), the subject either spoke of suicide or demonstrated by his/her actions a desire to have the officer end his/her life. In most of these cases, the subject pointed a firearm which was often unloaded, inoperable, or a replica -- or came toward the officer with a knife or other potential weapon. The subject knew the officer would be forced to defend himself.
These are generally not cases involving an attempt to escape, nor is there any logical reason to explain the subject's conduct. In most of these cases, there was evidence the subject suffered from depression prior to the shooting, or some tragic event had occurred in their life shortly before. Several of the cases involved older men who had previously been law abiding but had just engaged in physical altercations with their wives.
Is there anything peace officers can learn from such cases? Perhaps analysis of "suicide-by-cop" cases by qualified psychoanalysts could provide some guidance. But even if we could gain some additional insight, the fact remains that officers must protect themselves when confronted by the threat of deadly force by a suspect. Trying to divine the suspect's real intent in such a confrontation might increase the risk to the officer.
Rather, officers must rely upon their training and experience. Although officers will continue to face the "suicide-by-cop" dilemma, they will be judged by consideration of the circumstances of each incident and their state of mind.