Suicide by Cop – The Ultimate “Trap”
Louise C. Pyers, M.S.
Staff Member, PPSC
(Article published in the
July/August, 2001 issue of the FBI National Academy Associates Magazine, Volume
3, No. 4)
"She drove by in the
hospital parking lot as I was getting into my patrol car. After parking her car
she approached me. The polite and attractive young woman told me she wanted to
talk to me and then was silent. I then began to feel that something was
asked, 'Is there something I can do for you?'
She then pulled a revolver out of her purse and aimed it at my chest. We
were standing about 6 feet apart.. I
thought, ‘Is this some kind of a joke?’ But the look in her eyes told me it
wasn't. I drew my weapon, aimed and fired.
She fell to the pavement. I rushed to her - trying to stem the bleeding.
were in the parking lot of the emergency room.
I knew she would get immediate care.
I watched as the doctors worked on her. An hour and a half later, she was
dead. In her car was a note: ‘Please
forgive me. My intention was never to hurt anyone. This was just a sad and sick
ruse to get someone to shoot me. I'm so very sorry for pulling innocent people
into this. I just didn't have the nerve to pull the trigger myself.’
She left her name and address and the names of her parents adding, 'I
am very sorry for this.'"
This is the
story of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Glenn Vincent, who, on his 29th
birthday, shot a 30-year-old woman who, family members said, suffered from
debilitating headaches and depression. She had made a number of suicide attempts
in the past.
year after on my birthday, I would be reminded of the shooting from the pain I
had inside. I didn't feel like John Wayne or Dirty Harry. This was not a movie.
I continued to hurt inside. I am no RoboCop, "
states the deputy.
Suicidal individuals, in their desperation to escape their emotional
pain, will use a variety of instruments such as guns, ropes, pills, knives,
etc… to fulfill their suicidal wish. In
some cases, the "instrument" is an unsuspecting law enforcement
to recent studies, police-assisted suicide or "suicide by cop" occurs
in 10-15% of officer-involved shootings. Studies by
Dr. Karl Harris, former Deputy Medical Examiner of Los Angeles County, Richard
Brian Parent of Simon Fraser University and Dr. H. Range Huston of Harvard
University School of Medicine show similar results.
Dr. Harris' 1983 study
of 99 shootings by police in Los Angeles County revealed that approximately 10%
of officer-involved shootings involved suicide attempts. The method of suicide
was to entice a police officer, in a self-defensive action, to shoot the
decedent. It was later discovered that
often the weapon used by the subject was unloaded or non-functioning. Dr.
Harris believes that another 5% of the subjects he studied may have used the
same method, but not enough evidence could be gathered to be conclusive in those
Constable Rick Parent,
M.A. of the Delta, British Columbia Police Department, a Doctoral Student at
Simon Fraser University, showed similar results in his 1996 research of
municipal police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
In roughly half the cases, the police reacted with deadly force to
despondent individuals suffering from suicidal tendencies, mental illness or
extreme substance abuse acting in a manner to elicit such force. He found that
10-15% of these cases could be considered pre-meditated suicides. [i]
The most recent study
to date, published in 1998 in the
"Annals of Emergency Medicine" [ii]
covered officer-involved shootings investigated by the Los Angeles County
Sheriff's Department between 1987 and 1997. Out of the 437 shootings studied, 46
events (11%) were classified as "suicide by cop."
the last year of the Los Angeles County study, the percentage of shootings
identified as "suicide by cop" jumped to 25%.
No one knows if this rise in identified incidents represents a bona fide
increase in this form of death as a means of suicide or improved investigative
techniques and documentation by the law enforcement agencies involved.
of the above study, further extrapolated by Dr. Barry Perrou, forensic
psychologist and former commander of the LA County Sheriff's Hostage
Negotiations Unit, showed:
96% of the perpetrators were male
Ages ranged from 18-54
Weapons ranged from firearms
(46%), stabbing instruments (46%) and firearm replicas (8%)
58% asked to be killed by police
58% had a psychiatric history
38% had previously attempted
50% were intoxicated
42% had a history of domestic
38% had a criminal history .[iii]
study performed in 1998 analyzed 15 shooting deaths of suicidal persons by law
enforcement personnel in Oregon (Marion County) and Florida (Dade County).[iv]
All but one of the victims were
All possessed an apparent handgun
or other weapon and threatened to kill the officers with these weapons.
60% of the suspects USED their weapons
40% were intoxicated
50% had made previous suicide
40% had a history of mental
illness with 60% showing compelling evidence of depression.
Lord of the University of North Carolina - Charlotte conducted a study of 54
cases in which people attempted "suicide by cop" in North Carolina
between 1992 and 1997.[v]
94% were male
63% were armed with guns, 24% had
knives, 3 had other objects ; 3 were unarmed
More than 50% were under the
influence of alcohol
45% were experiencing family
problems or the end of a relationship
Almost 40% talked about homicide
and suicide with officers involved
In 46% of the cases, the incidents
began as a domestic argument
Two-thirds appeared unplanned.
officers reacting to the aftermath of "suicide by cop" will often
display symptoms of post-traumatic stress which can potentially affect their
ability to perform their duties. Police officers are also victims in these
cases. Among the many symptoms reported are hypervigilance, fear, anger,
sleeplessness, recurrent nightmares and depression.
In many instances, the timing, speed at which the encounter escalated and
officer's perception of immediate danger to self or others left him or her with
no choice but to use deadly force. Yet,
second-guessing on the part of the officer is common. One officer wrote:
"I hope you find some solution to this problem. As a police
officer with 30 years experience, I had never heard the phrase, until it
happened to me. Left me with mixed emotions. It was a family feud that had been
going on for months…I only went there this time to remove small children. I
was met at the front door by subject with a semi-automatic SKS rifle…When told
to put the gun down numerous times, he refused and pointed the weapon at my
partner and me. We both fired our weapons at the same time from less that three
An investigation by an outside agency turned up the fact the
suspect wanted to commit suicide…I think if I had been aware of this
situation, I could have handled it different[ly] as senior officer on scene. I
am not trying to second-guess this situation. I just feel that with some type of
preparation or schooling, I might have handled the situation differently.
"I am glad that someone is trying to address this situation,
as I feel it will get to be a larger problem as time goes on. Thanks again for
seeing this need, and bringing it out in the open."
Suicide-by-cop or decedent-precipitated-homicide?
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department study used all of the
following criteria as a means of identifying "suicide by cop"
Evidence of suicidal intent
written note stating a wish to
recent verbal communication of a
desire to die to friends or family and at times to officers
Suicidal characteristics or
behavior indicating suicidal intent (i.e. holding a firearm to one's head.)
Evidence that suicidal individuals specifically wanted officers to shoot
Outright statements by the
precipitators indicating they wanted officers to shoot them
Written or verbal communication to
family or friends stating they wanted officers to shoot them
Refusal to drop their weapon when
advised by officers to do so and then aiming their weapon at officers or
Evidence the precipitator possessed a lethal weapon or what appeared to
be a lethal weapon
Evidence the precipitator intentionally escalated the encounter and
provoked officers to shoot them in self-defense or to protect civilians.
Oregon/Florida study, cases identified as law enforcement assisted suicide or
suicide by cop must demonstrate, with reasonable probability, that the victim
provoked a police officer to shoot at the victim and that the victim had
suicidal intent. Decedents were excluded if acute cocaine intoxication was a
precipitating factor because the possibility of cocaine psychosis or delirium
may complicate the ability to evaluate suicidal intent. Amphetamine-related
incidents were not excluded because psychosis and delirium are not typically
associated with amphetamine use. Toxicological testing was performed on all
Parent states that "victim-precipitated homicide" is not necessarily
"suicide by cop." They are similar in that the decedent's behavior did
cause the use of deadly force by law enforcement in a defensive action.
And while one might describe the subject's actions as
"suicidal," the intent of the decedent may remain unclear.
example, someone's judgement might be so impaired by alcohol or mental illness
that he or she fails to understand that an officer will use deadly force if the
officer perceives he or she or those in the vicinity are in mortal danger.
Gary Bush writes, "I take us back to a cold December night when Christmas
was on our minds and our lives were happy and warm. A call comes at 10:25 PM and
my colleague who was supposed to take the call was still doing paperwork.
I take the call so she can finish up in time for the Christmas party at
amazes me how fate comes in and knocks the breath out of you. Robbie and I take
the call and remark on the way that we are going to have to arrest this guy and
we will be late for the party. When we arrive, a white male in his thirties
exits the house and says that his uncle has been pointing a gun at him and his
family all night and threatening to kill the whole family and himself. He states
that he is drunk and has gone to the garage apartment in the back.
and I walk down the alley towards the garage and a man comes up behind us and
says that the guy in the apartment is his cousin and maybe he can talk to him. I
stated that he had a gun and as soon as we secured the scene he could talk to
him. We go to the door and I stand on the left side while Rob stands on the
right. We take our guns out and I knock on the door with my left hand. At this
time, I notice that the door has a latch, not a door knob. The door is pushed
but not fully closed. I knock again with my left hand and again get no answer. I
push the door open and step inside.
room is well lit and rectangular in size. There is a bed at the end of the room
perpendicular to the rectangle. The uncle is laying down with his head towards
the left side of the room. As I step further into the room, he sits up on the
bed with his feet on the floor. He stares at me for a couple of seconds and I am
about to speak when he reaches to his right. As he reaches, I notice on the left
side of the bed there is a rifle. He picks up the rifle and I remember thinking I can't believe he's doing this. He grabs the rifle and I bring my
gun up and start to back out of the room. He starts to swing the rifle towards
me and I tell him to drop the gun, drop the gun, drop the gun. He swings the rifle almost to his shoulder and
I fire one shot.
didn't hear anything but I recall the shock I felt as the gun went off. I backed
out of the doorway and stood to the left. Rob was on my right. I did a quick
peek into the room and remember feeling that the last thing I wanted to do was
go back into that room. I re-entered the room with my gun trained on Mr. Smith
(name changed). He was still on the bed leaning to the right on his right
elbow. The rifle was still in his right hand with his finger still on the
trigger. As I approached him I again told him to drop the gun, drop the gun. I
soon got close enough to grab the rifle, I handed it to Rob and told him to
handcuffed Mr. Smith and flipped him back over so he was facing me. I wondered
if I actually had hit him and looked at Rob and asked him if I had hit him. Rob
said he didn't know. I stared at his chest and stomach and could not see any
wound. I remember feeling relieved that I had shot at this man and had missed
him. The threat was over and nobody got hurt. I started flipping through his
layers of clothing and still could not see anything. I got down to his T-shirt
and saw a small hole just below his chest. I turned to Rob and told him to
holler at headquarters that shots have been fired, suspect down, we need back
up, first responders and paramedics.
this time, the man in the alley started yelling to let him come into the room
'to pray with Frankie.' I knew from training that when you are in charge of a
crime scene, you are not to let anyone into the area. I also knew that Mr. Smith
was hit in a bad spot and there was a good chance that he would die. I told Rob
to search him. He did and stated that he was clear. I told Rob to let him in. I
took the handcuffs off Mr. Smith and held his left hand while the cousin held
his right hand. We prayed. After we said 'amen,' I told his cousin to leave. Mr.
Smith then looked at me and said 'why did you shoot me?'
I said, 'I told you to drop the gun.'
He answered, 'I wouldn't have shot you!'
was I supposed to know that? The man I killed that night pointed an unloaded
30.06 at my partner and I.
know that there is hell on earth and I have been there. "
actions that night clearly looked suicidal (especially when he brandished an
unloaded weapon at officers). However,
his question to the officer "Why did you shoot me?" brings the
question of suicidal intent, at that time, into question.
Was it a clear suicidal act or the actions of an individual who was so
impaired by alcohol that he failed to anticipate the consequences of his
actions? While he did express
suicidal tendencies earlier with family members, he took the answer to the
question to his grave. He leaves a police officer in anguish.
on law enforcement assisted suicide continue
around the U.S. Police departments are beginning to take notice of the
long-range detrimental effects these dangerous incidents have on the police
officers involved. In some cases, officers are placed in a no-win situation. The
key to help unlock the secrets behind this phenomenon is in the sharing of
information, training and raising awareness among police agencies.
Recent changes in state laws regarding treatment of mentally ill
individuals have increased the likelihood that law enforcement officers will
encounter more of these incidents in the future. The dearth of adequate
community-based services for this population leaves both the mentally ill and
law enforcement vulnerable.
To complicate matters further,
no universal standard is currently used within law enforcement to define
or officially record these incidents. There are many serious implications to
this lack of knowledge, not the least of which can be how a case will be
litigated. A death classified as
homicide is very different than one classified as suicide.
Proper recording, the sharing of information
and training using varied scenarios
can go a long way toward assisting
law enforcement and the mental health community in assessment and prevention as
well as helping police officers cope with the aftermath of
the “suicide by cop” trap.
For more information on training
please contact Dr. Barry Perrou of the Public Safety Research Institute at (818)
You may also download the results of Richard Parent's study
Special thanks to Glenn Vincent and Gary Bush for their
contributions to this article.
Parent, Richard B., Ph.D. Candidate, "Victim Precipitated Homicide:
Aspects of Police Use of Deadly Force in British Columbia, Simon Fraser
University, July, 1996
Huston, H. Range, MD, Anglin, Diedre, MD, et al., "Suicide By
Cop," Annals of Emergency Medicine, December, 1998, Vol. 32, No. 6,
American College of Emergency Physicians
Perrou, Barry, Psy.D., "Crisis Intervention: Suicide in Progress - A
Working Document", Public Safety Research Institute, 1999
Wilson, Edward F., M.D., Davis, Joseph H., M.D., et al, "Homicide or
Suicide: The Killing of Suicidal Persons by Law Enforcement Officers,"
Journal of Forensic Sciences, Vol. 43, No. 1, January, 1998, American
Academy of Forensic Sciences
Lord, Vivian, Ph.D., University of North Carolina-Charlotte
©2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved.