At least once a week it seems like there is a news headline about a person with pellet gun or replica firearm being shot by the police. Many of these incidents are being described as “suicide by cop.” There are indications the number of these incidents are on the increase.
On June 22, 2018, a man intent on suicide pointed a replica .44 magnum at Inglewood, CA officers near the police station. Responding to the threat, the officers shot and killed the man. Later, officials learned he had come to the station seeking to commit suicide.
On July 5, 2018, in Calaveras County, CA, drivers called about a disoriented man on the highway waving an assault rifle. Arriving deputies were confronted by an armed man. Despite repeated commands to drop the weapon and not point the weapon at officers, the man threatened the officers, which resulted in an officer-involved shooting. This was deemed a “suicide by cop” encounter by the sheriff.
On July 13, 2018, in Carver County, Minn., sheriff’s deputies responded to a call of a suicidal 16-year-old holding his mother captive inside the family home. Responding deputies encountered the young man brandishing a knife and possible handgun. According to news accounts, officers attempted to negotiate and, at one point, deployed pepper gas to try to subdue him. Despite their efforts, an officer-involved shooting occurred and the young man was shot and killed. He was described as being suicidal.
Suicide by cop occurs when individuals in a mental health crisis want to take their own life but for one reason or another are not willing to do it themselves. They want the people with guns to do it; most notably, the police.
They will often use a replica firearms that look authentic or, in some cases, they will feign possession of a firearm.
While always tragic, “suicide by cop” is not an uncommon occurrence. According to one 2009 study, over a third of the officer-involved shootings sampled could be attributed to “suicide by cop.”
The exact number is slippery because there is no clear-cut definition and oftentimes the motivations of the people involved are not clearly spelled out. A quick internet search shows that “suicide by cop” is occurring across the country with some frequency.
The impact on officers can’t be overlooked. There is nothing heroic about being manipulated into taking another person’s life. In cases where teens are involved, the impact can be even more hurtful. Many officers suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress afterward. The officers are afforded after care and peer support in the majority of agencies.
Officers across the country are being trained in how to respond to people in mental health crises, which includes response to “suicide by cop” scenarios. However, in many of these encounters the officers have few opportunities to use their training. They are merely trying to survive what they see as an immediate threat to their life or the lives of others.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the number of suicides in the United States is increasing; that number includes “suicide by cop.”
The best strategy is to keep this from happening in the first place. If you or a loved one needs assistance, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
Fact sheet on “suicide by cop” from the American Association of Suicidology.
Joe is a retired police captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.