There are numerous situations that emotionally impact law enforcement personnel, but perhaps one of the more distressing is being “forced” into a deputy-involved shooting. The term “suicide by cop” (SBC) was coined in 1983 by Karl Harris, a police officer and psychologist who recognized that many encounters appeared to include a subject wanting to die and making dangerous and/or overt attempts to have police use deadly force. Since that time, there has been some research attempting to identify how SBC situations arise, who commits them and how can they be mitigated (Miller, 2006, Mohandie and Meloy, 2000). It is estimated that roughly 10 percent of radio calls are potentially SBC incidents (Miller, 2006). This article discusses the close relationship between suicidal and homicidal ideation, and how first responders can make improved tactical decisions by understanding this close relationship.
The pathway to violence identifies warning signs that a person is at risk for committing a violent act. This phrase has been used to describe mass shootings, school threats/shootings, terrorist acts and stalking situations, and these risk factors are used in psychological profiling in order to identify potential perpetrators. The following list of risk factors for violence is from Homeland Security:
• Increasingly unsafe, erratic or aggressive behaviors
• Hostile feelings of injustice or perceived wrongdoing
• Drug and alcohol abuse
• Distancing from friends and colleagues
• Negative changes in work performance
• Dramatic changes in home life or personality
• Financial difficulties
• Pending civil or criminal litigation
The pathway to suicide is used to describe warning signs that a person may attempt to kill themselves. There are many similar lists of suicide risk factors, but this (partial) one is from www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org:
• Impulsive and aggressive tendencies
• Drug and alcohol abuse
• Lack of social support and a sense of isolation
• Loss of relationship
• Job or financial loss
• Easy access to lethal means
• History of mental or emotional disturbance
The pathways to suicide and violence are clearly the same. Within the context of a radio call, this is potentially invaluable information. Understanding the similarities between homicide and suicide is necessary in order to plan for an encounter changing quickly. Miller (2006) identifies a “typical” SBC encounter as a white male in his 20s who is a substance abuser with a history of mental health problems and previous law enforcement contact. Wilson and colleagues’ 1998 study further delineates hostage takers in barricaded situations attempting SBC. One hundred percent of their sample either had a serious mental illness or a history suggestive of mental illness. There is additional research investigating self-suicide calls turned SBC (Lord 2000). But there appears to be limited information about exactly how many radio calls actually end up being suicide by cop situations (due to using lethal and less-than-lethal means). Anecdotally, any first responder knows they have had these calls. In the most recent one I consulted on, the subject called in a report of robbery in progress with a gun and gave a description of himself.
One of the first elements to understand is the close relationship between homicidality and suicidality. Whether it is the profound desperation of wanting to die or to go out in “a blaze of glory,” Part II will discuss types of SBC radio calls, why it is important to clearly identify these calls and how to mitigate future risk factors.
Call Psychological Services Bureau for a consultation or to make a confidential appointment at (213) 738-3500.
Lord, V.B., (2000). Law enforcement-assisted suicide. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 27, 401–419.
Miller, L., (2006). Suicide by cop: Causes, reactions, and practical intervention strategies. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 8, 3, 165–174.
Mohandie, K. & Meloy, J.R., (2000). Clinical and forensic indicators of suicide by cop. Journal of Forensic Science, 43, 384–389.
Wilson, E.F., David, J.H., Bloom, J.D., Blatten, P.J., & Kamara, S.G. (1998). Homicide or suicide: The killing of suicidal personas by law enforcement officers. Journal of Forensic Science, 43, 46–52.