Definition: Suicide-by-cop is a colloquial term used to describe an incident in which a suicidal individual consciously engages in life-threatening behavior(s) to the degree that it compels a police officer to respond with deadly force. In a suicide-by-cop scenario the cop is the methodology of the suicide. If it hadn't been an officer it could have been a rope, sleeping pills, a train, a knife or a handgun. If you can't kill yourself, and you really, really, really want to die, who are you going to call?
Researchers have concluded that suicides-by-cop are surprisingly more common than initially thought, and that the number of incidents is rising. The most comprehensive study to date on the incidence of suicide-by-cop, from 1987 through 1997, found that 11 percent of officer-involved shootings were suicide-by-cop incidents. In 1997, the last year of the study, the percentage of shootings identified as suicide-by-cop jumped to 25%. One researcher, in his analysis of current available literature, has suggested that the true figure may be as high as 46%. The discrepancy in these statistics may be the result of hidden suicidal ideation by the victim of any officer involved shooting. Researchers have long suspected that single-occupant car crashes, some airplane crashes and workplace fatalities involved suicidal motivation. Engaging in criminal acts may in fact involve suicidal ideation.
For the classification of a bona fide suicide-by-cop one of the following four criteria has to be established.
1) Evidence of suicidal intent; a written note stating a wish to die, or verbalization of death wishes, or suicidal gestures (holding a gun to his head)
2) Evidence that suicidal individuals specifically wanted officers to shoot them: outright statements by the precipitator, or refusal to drop his weapon when so advised by officers to do so, or aiming a weapon at officers or civilians.
3) Evidence the precipitator possessed a lethal weapon or what appeared to be a lethal weapon
4)Evidence the precipitator intentionally escalated the encounter and provoked officers to shoot them in self-defense or to protect civilians.
Unfortunately, this criterion excludes other individuals who truly chose to die via suicide-by-cop.
Who is the Typical Suicide-By-Cop Subject?
Of all the questions that surround suicide-by-cop deaths, the most perplexing is why anyone would choose this way to die? There are plenty of ways to kill oneself, what is the motivation to compel someone to do it for you?
Profiles, demographics, and statistics abound about those who choose to end their lives by law enforcement. Fundamentally, any suicide-by-cop individual wants to die, but cannot or will not take his/her own life. 96-98% of suicide-by-cop perpetrators are male (for purposes of this article the perpetrator will generally refer to a male). He may fear taking his own life for social or religious reasons, or have extreme difficulty doing anything that would make him responsible for his own death. He may feel, "it is just too hard to pull the trigger myself", although he has thought about it many times. He may have attempted suicide in the past; that failure compounds his distress and feelings of worthlessness. He has lost hope that anything or anyone can help him, and is convinced others do not care about him. He has probably had law enforcement contact in the past, and views the police as "punishers".
Reasons Why People Suicide-By-Cop
There are four primary motivations for any suicide. The first, and most common, is related to depression. An individual wants to escape intolerable mental and/or emotional pain and believes that death is the only way to assure peace. The three other motives are; to punish oneself, to punish others, or to stay in control of the situation. To learn why any specific individual chose to die suicide-by-cop, a post-mortem psychological autopsy would be required. However, researchers have identified various explanations for why an individual looks to an officer to end his life.
Practical Motives: "I'm better off dead."
The individual cannot or does not have the ability to take his own life in a suitable manner. Suicide-by-cop may be the only method that he or she is capable of related to age and/or a disability. For example, consider an elderly male, who fears he will not be successful, and wants assurance his life will end. Or the female who wants to die prettily and her most fatal shot, to the head, will result in a closed casket service. Individuals facing a terminal illness, or a debilitating handicap, may also elect suicide-by-cop, rather than suffer prolonged pain or suffering. In these cases the subject is reasonably certain that the police will kill him, as they have the means and the training. There are practical financial motives as well for suicide-by-cop. Life insurance policies do not include suicides, but the policy may cover the family if an officer kills the individual. A person with a terminal illness may not want to be a financial burden to a loved one and may choose suicide-by-cop as a viable option. Additionally, there are individuals, such as a homeless person, who is suicidal but has no access to extremely lethal methods of suicide. If he keeps aggressively advancing on an officer with a screwdriver, refusing to put it down, threatening an officer's life, he has an excellent chance of being a victim of suicide-by-cop.
Motives Related to Social Values: "This is my only way out."
There is a universal social stigma and/or taboo associated with suicide in many cultures, which some people simply cannot face. The shame of killing oneself is not only in conflict with his own morals, but also the morals of those he respects and loves. Suicide for many people is forbidden religiously. If an individual believes suicide is a sin, they may not be able to perform a suicidal act themselves. They use a rationalization process: if you do it by confronting law enforcement, causing an officer to kill you, then essentially you were a victim of homicide; your death is legally sanctioned. Others want society to perceive them as a victim of others, not of themselves.
Shame/Guilt Motives: "I deserve to die."
Individuals with profound guilt or shame may seek punishment from an authority figure. A police officer is the perfect vehicle. The most common example of this is when an individual has killed someone else; often a family member. They experience guilt as a form of self-hatred, and believe society hates them as well. They further believe that the only way to satisfy the hatred they have created within themselves and others, is to also die a violent death. This is especially prevalent if they have killed a child or a parent.
Bear in mind that in many cultures, shame is worse than death. Individuals would rather die than face the shame of moral (having an extramarital affair) or criminal indiscretions (as minor as shoplifting).
Manipulative Motives: "Now (they, she, he, family, employer, society, government) will see how much I hurt."; "You will have to kill me, and then you'll have to live with it."
This type of suicide-by-cop individual is sending a message to one, if not many, people. He needs to blame others for his feelings of inadequacy, betrayal or anguish. Unfortunately, these individuals have the largest capacity to kill others, in an effort to actualize their self-serving message. These are the suspects who "go postal", and engage in lengthy police negotiations. Positive results are rare. This type of individual wants to be portrayed as the ultimate victim; who was forced over the edge by someone else; his actions are not only understandable, but justifiable. Manipulative motives also include the ultimate get-back to a jilted lover. This individual wants to make anyone and everyone who he perceives as culpable for his current turmoil to accept responsibility for the disaster he has created, and to look bad in the eyes of the public and media. He wants the world to know about his perceived injustices, and believes that a suicide-by-cop will assure his status as a martyr.
Grandiosity/Attention Motive: "I'm in control - not you or anybody else!"
Is there a more "manly" or "macho" way to die than to be gunned down by law enforcement? Some individuals think not. To them suicide-by-cop appears like a glamorous end; certainly a finality that will make headline news and be the subject of discussion. This suicide-by-cop individual is frequently a fringe criminal, and extremely narcissistic. He is also probably antisocial. He typically engages in ever increasing risks, daring law enforcement to take him out. He may be ambivalent about life and death. It frequently is all about the game, "I'll either make it big, or go down trying." This type of individual presents the most potential for violence towards law enforcement officers, and should be considered the most dangerous.
Ambivalence about Life Versus Death: "If you want to shoot, it doesn't matter."
Some people invoke a suicide-by-cop response because they want to leave the ultimate decision about suicide up to someone else. These individuals really don’t care if they live or die. In their mind, there is no one more qualified to make that decision for them than a police officer (whose own life is being threatened). The fundamental frame of mind of these individuals is that life "sucks," is unfair, painful or futile. They may not be ready to die, but they ultimately leave it up to a cop to decide for them; "Hey Officer Friendly, I have a gun on you. It's your move... you decide if I should live or die." It is a basic game of Russian roulette, with multiple victims, including the officer who is forced to fire.
Mental Illness Other than Depression: "I'll kill you before you kill me."
Acutely mentally ill individuals that are victims of suicide-by-cop are usually in a mania, or a gross psychotic process. This subject is unable to understand that an officer will use deadly force if the officer perceives that he, or those in the vicinity, are in mortal danger. This individual is highly unpredictable, and is probably operating under a psychotic confusion, paranoia, delusions, and/or hallucinations. Command hallucinations may be telling the individual that he must kill an officer in order to survive. The individual is compelled to comply with the voice(s) he hears. The killing of a mentally ill individual by an officer/deputy is extremely difficult for not only society to come to terms with, but for the officer(s) who pulled the trigger.
The Influence of Drugs and/or Alcohol: "I've had too much..."
Was the intoxicated or drug impaired individual really suicidal? The suicidal intent in these cases is usually extremely unclear. Any individual's judgment may be grossly impaired by alcohol or substance abuse, and these influences can heighten an individual’s potential for violence. This individual may have previously expressed suicidal ideation to others. Then again, he may have been in a blackout, or otherwise unable to anticipate the consequences of his actions. This is another individual who leaves the police officer involved in anguish.
Spur of the Moment Decision: "My life is over anyway so they might as well shoot me."
Suicides-by-cop are not necessarily planned in advance; in fact statistically most suicide-by-cops were a barely conceived notion by the perpetrator. A person may be experiencing a loss; such as an end to a relationship, being fired from a job, or other setback. They may have no intention of killing themselves until for some reason the police are called to intervene such as; a domestic violence, a mentally disturbed individual, or check the welfare call. Officers respond, the subject has access to a firearm, and seemingly spontaneous thoughts enter his mind. "What next?", "What else?", "This is the end". The routine call has escalated to an almost inconceivable level, and a rash decision results in a suicide-by-cop scenario.
For Officers Who Have Been the Instrument of a Suicide-By-Cop
The motivation for suicide-by-cop probably doesn't matter to most people. But it does matter to the decedent, his loved ones, and the officer who has pulled the trigger, completing the individual's suicidal desire.
One thing that all suicide-by-cop individuals have in common is that the person who commits suicide-by-cop has, by definition, gone from being a victim to being a perpetrator. Somebody who simply commits suicide is a victim. Somebody who forces a police officer to kill him is a perpetrator. Officers involved in this type of officer involved shooting often become victims themselves.
If you've had to be the "cop" in a suicide-by-cop, it is crucial to remember that it was not your fault. You were forced into a situation of kill or risk being killed. Most perpetrators of suicide-by-cop will leave officers no other choice. You did what you had to do, what you were trained to do, and you went home.
Police officers reacting to the aftermath of "suicide by cop" may display symptoms of critical incident stress, including post traumatic stress disorder. The reality is that you may be a cop, but first you are a human being with emotions. It is normal to second guess your actions. It is normal to wonder if you could have said or done something different. It is normal to have mixed or ambivalent feelings after a suicide-by-cop situation. Most importantly, it is okay to ask for help if you are having a hard time dealing with your feelings.