There are a myriad of reasons why people would choose to commit suicide. However, as time passes by, the manner of executing suicide has changed (Cuchin & Churchill, 1999). Traditionally, people who commit suicide usually end their lives by hanging themselves, shooting themselves, or drinking pills or chemicals. A recent way of executing suicide is through suicide by cop or police-assisted suicide. In this method of suicide, a person does not end his life directly; rather, he induces and compels a police officer to use deadly force in killing him.
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This essay seeks to explore suicide-by-cop, its definition, the issues related to this phenomenon, as well as some examples and its effects on both victims and the police force. Suicide by cop affects society as a whole and the suicidal person not only causes grief to his family, but the psychological makeup of the police involved may also be affected. This essay also explores some tips and suggestions on how to deal with the issue of suicide-by-cop.
Dearth of Research
One of the reasons why suicide-by-cop is not very understood in the American society and why the police is not very much aware of how to deal with this is the lack of research in this phenomenon. The first concerted study to understand this phenomenon was conducted by Richard Parent, who is a constable from Canada. Based on his examination, about 10% of the shootings were suicides by cops (Lubbock Online, 1998).
Dr. Range Hutson of the Harvard Medical School also conducted a similar study in California and he was surprised to find out that the number of suicides by cop in California is even higher than that of Canada. One in six of the shooting incidences were suicides by cop. These cases were not merely based on conjecture or haphazard conclusions. Rather, those who committed suicides by cop either left a suicide note or have tried to commit suicide before (Lubbock Online, 1998).
According to Stincelli (2006), there are several related issues to this. Suicide by cop means that a person who intends to commit suicide does deviant behaviors that provokes a police officer to use deadly force on him. Police-assisted suicide is another term used for this act. The suicide is completed, not by the person, who wishes to die, but by the policeman who harms the subject in the intent of protecting civilians and other members of the society. Victim-precipitated homicide, likewise is undertaken by someone who wants to be killed by another person.
The problem, however, is how can people determine whether a person wants to die? How can such intentions be proven. According to Stincelli (2006), there are several ways to identify a person who wishes to die through suicide-by-cop. For one there should be demonstrated desire to die on the part of the person who wants to die. In addition to that, the person involved should know the final consequence of what he is doing. The suicidal person would then confront a police officer with the intent to provoke the latter to use deadly force. Lastly, the suicidal person dies due to the participation of the police in the process.
There are several possibilities about this. For one, the suicidal person might not be in full control of his thinking faculties or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The problem, therefore, would be how to establish whether the person knew the final consequences of what he was doing. Based on the study of Stincelli (2006), however, it can be seen that those who engage in suicide by cops are well aware of what they wanted to do and therefore the drugs or alcohol is but one way of strengthening their resolve so that they will not waiver with their decision to let a police officer kill them instead of killing themselves by cruder means.
Several studies have already reported this kind of suicide method ever since the early 1980s through several accounts in the news as well as in scientific journals. The phrase suicide-by-cop, however, did not become common until the 1990s. It is believed that the term suicide-by-cop was first used in the United States. However, such term is also in the United Kingdom.
Some indicators that a person is a suicidal person include pointing an unloaded gun to a police officer to threaten and induce an officer to use force. Usually such individuals also leave behind suicide notes to indicate their intentions (Lindsay & Lester, 2004).
Incidences of Suicide-by-Cop
This section looks at the instances where people committed suicide-by-cop. These stories will be presented one by one and then a level of understanding about this phenomenon will be arrived at. Through this activity, light might be shed on this matter, which is already becoming more common as the years pass by.
Anthony Sica and the Victim’s Toy Gun. Anthony Sica killed Moshe Pergament after chasing the latter who was overspeeding in his Honda car. Moshe Pergament waved a.38 revolver gun and Anthony Sica did not have any option left but to shoot Pergament. The problem, however, is that, the.38 revolver is nothing but a toy gun and the forensics also found a suicide note in the car, which is ironically written on a card.
When the body was autopsied and analyzed, the incident was pronounced as a homicide. Indeed, it was a homicide, however, Sica had been tricked into shooting the 19-year college student because he appeared armed and dangerous. Hence in this kind of incident, it would be difficult to prosecute the police officer, yet the psychological trauma is already there (Lubbock Online, 1998).
Van Zandt and Griffin. In 1981, Van Zandt encountered William Griffin who took a hostage inside a bank and demanded that police that they execute him. Naturally, the police refused. In order to induce the police to shoot him, Griffin asked a lady to stand in front of the entrance of the bank and shot her to the death. After shooting the lady, he himself went to the entrance of the bank and waited till the police shot him (Lubbock Online, 1998). Griffin, prior to being shot to dead by a marksman reported losing his wife and his job and is unable to improve his lot in life. In the end, what he did was to ask the police to execute him.
Joseph Hoffmann, Robert Clermont and Mario Cenin. Hoffman held up a bank at Burlington, North Carolina in 1998 and with the sack of cash on his shoulders and a pellet gun in hand, he threatened the policemen who tried to apprehend him and he died because of the gunshot wound. It was later found out that he planned all along how policemen would be able to kill him because of the note that he left at his house regarding his belongings that he wanted his sister to have (Lubbock Online, 1998).
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Robert Clermont, on the other hand, entered a convenience store and demanded that the clerk call 911 because of his intention to have a gunfire exchange with the police. Apparently, his intentions were to kill his girlfriend in front of the police and he will allow the police to shoot him to his death. Mario Cenin on the other hand, killed his wife and his children. On top of that, he also threatened a police officer through his gun (Lubbock Online, 1998). Fortunately, the partner of the policeman who apprehended Cenin was on the alert and shot Cenin right away.
Randy Kutej. In 1985, another incident of suicide by cop in Oklahoma occurred. Randy Kutej, who is a drug-user and dealer went to a convenience store and hostages the caretaker there using his double-barrel shotgun. He called the police and told them his demands—to give him a gun so that he can kill himself. When the police did not heed his threat, he went out of the store in confidence and aimed his shotgun at the closest policeman. It was found out later that his shotgun was unloaded. Because of this threat, he was shot four times. After two days, he died of the gunshot wounds he sustained (Van Zandt, 1993).
Van Zandt (1993) also related another incident where a man with a rifle who was confronted by a policeman. The man ran back into his house and suddenly someone cried “help me.” After a failed negotiation attempt, the man came out and told the police: “What do I have to do for you to kill me?” and then raised his rifle in an apparent attempt to shoot at the policeman. The police responded with a few shots, killing the man instantly. Based on further investigations, the one who cried for help was the victim’s talking parrot.
The Haigler Couple. In 1982, Keith and Kate Hagler, took control of a bus with 16 people onboard and sought to get the maximum media attention they could. Apparently, they were members of a cult that believed in a supposed messiah and their role in proclaiming him. What they had was full media coverage as they committed suicide in the name of their religious cult. When the police negotiated with the couples, their demand was that their story be aired on national television. After they were assured of this, they released their hostages. As soon as that was done, they went out in full view of the police and the sharpshooters who were trailing them. Kate pointed her revolver to the police and got shot in her right shoulder. When this happened, she shot her husband in the chest and then she shot herself (Van Zandt, 1993).
Issues and Questions Related to Suicide by Cop
The big question in relation to these kinds of incidences is why would people force the participation of the police in committing suicide? The answer, according to Van Zandt (1993) is pretty obvious. The police have the guns while most civilians do not. If they do not have any other access to equipment that would assist them in their suicide attempts, the guns of the police might be the last resort that they have. In frustration, however, the police who, unknowingly fires the trigger to complete the plan of the suicidal person, would be affected psychologically long after the incident occurred.
This also points to the question of the role of the police in keeping the society safe and free from harm. Do the police have a choice in this matter that if they commit a mistake, the lives of people would be at risk? All the same, there are a number of ethical issues involved with this matter (Van Zandt, 1993).
According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, around 3,776,105 cases of assault against police officers were recorded. Of this total, 628,429 individuals were recorded as the perpetrators of these attacks, which mean that several individuals have confronted the police more than just once. Although the evidence may be circumstantial, this would also mean that among this number, a larger number are attempting to implement suicide by cop. After an examination of additional statistics, 15 percent of would be killers of police were killed at the same incident (Van Zandt, 1993).
These figures present several troubling questions for police and for the society as a whole. For one, these individuals who attack police may not be properly identified as suicidal and are just inducing the police to kill them. If this were the case, how would the police know that these individuals are just provoking the police so that they can be killed? Secondly, how proficient are people in confronting police officers in bringing about their own death? Certainly, there are rules of engagement for police officers in dealing with people who assault them. Would it be possible to train policemen to have a level of proficiency in dealing with individuals who are possibly just inducing the police officers for the purpose of suicide? If this were done, then perhaps the percentage and the statistics of suicides by cop would decrease (Van Zandt, 1993).
Suicidal people who wish to commit suicide by cop are aware that the police use the minimum physical force in apprehending would be criminals. However, if the situation is life-threatening to civilians and to the police, the police will not hesitate to respond with deadly force. Hence, suicidal people would manipulate this knowledge in order to bring about their own deaths. On the side of the police, however, they might not be able to tell the difference between a real and loaded gun from one that looks exactly the same but is not real or not loaded (Van Zandt, 1993).
In response to these questions, Van Zandt (1993) presented a profile of an individual who would most likely be a suicide by cop perpetrator. Most often, he would be from the lower social economic classes of the society and usually displays aggressive behavior characterized by depression. Due to the depression and hopelessness that they might feel, they would display deviant behavior and ways that would take them closer to being apprehended by the police. An accompanying characteristic of a would-be suicide by cop victim is a poor self-esteem and view of himself. Dying in his own hands may not be an acceptable way of dying and to save the embarrassment to his family and peers, he would rather be killed by someone else, which in this case, is the police
In extreme cases, the suicidal person kills another individual so that the reason for his death would be justified in himself and for the police who are trying to negotiate with him. Deep within the suicidal person, he agrees with the norms of society, yet because of what the crime he commits, his belief that his death would be necessary (Van Zandt, 1993).
According to the findings of Hutson, et. al. (1998), ninety-eight percent (98%) of all individuals who committed suicide by cop are male. Of all the known case of suicide by cops, 48% of suicidal individuals carried actual firearms and 17% used fake or toy guns. Of all these case, 39% involved violence at home. The result of these statistics is that 54% of these individuals died because of the gunshot wounds they sustained. Ironically, they were pronounced as homicides by the coroner instead of suicide. This also shows that coroners are still not very much aware of what involves suicide by cop.
Indicators of a Would be Suicide By Cop
Van Zandt (1993) observes the following sixteen (16) characteristics as more or less indicative of a person who intends to commit suicide by cop. These characteristics are also evident in the examples cited in the preceding discussion. (1) In hostage-taking situations, the perpetrator would refuse to negotiate with authorities for the release of the hostages, or he would negotiate with the terms that would end in his death. (2) He may have killed another important person in his life recently, such as his wife or child. (3) He demands to be directly executed by the police. (4) In asking the police to kill him, he will set a deadline for them to do so. (5) He may have learned just recently that he has contracted a dreaded and life threatening disease and he could not deal effectively with the matter (Van Zandt, 1993).
In addition to that, (6) he shows prior preparation and planning for his own death. Usually, however, this is only detected after the incidence of a suicide by cop. (7) He demands to talk to one of the most senor officers such as the chief of police or the sheriff. (8) He wants to die in a spectacular manner, (i.e. with media coverage). (9) The demands he presents to the police do not include plans for his escape or freedom. (10) He usually comes from the lower echelons of the society. (11) He presents confidence and will in the things that he does (Van Zandt, 1993).
Furthermore, (12) the manner of dying he is looking for may be characterized as macho as opposed to the more disgraceful death by hanging or by taking pills. (13) All of his possessions have been given away recently, as if in preparation for his final departure. (14) He displays aggressive behavior and already has record previously. (15) A recent experience of his has been traumatic to him such as the loss of a family member or a very dear friend. Lastly (16) he displays and expresses despair and outright hopelessness (Van Zandt, 1993).
Criteria for Suicide by Cop Incidents
Hutson, et. al. (1998) investigate cases of suicide by cop in Los Angeles and established a set of criteria for determining if an assault against an officer may be considered as attempts for suicide by cop. The following criteria have been proposed by Hutson, et. al. (1998). (1) There should be evidence that the person is suicidal. (2) There should also be evidence that they provoked or at the very least, they wanted the police officers to shoot them to their death. (3) There should also be evidence that they were in possession of a deadly weapon or a semblance of one. Lastly, there should also be evidence that they committed acts that clearly indicated that they wanted to shoot the police or cause harm to other people.
Response of Police to Suicide by Cop
In order to respond more effectively to suicide by cop incidences, the response of the police should be low profile and as non-dramatic as possible. The arrival of the media may tend to aggravate the situation and their involvement in the affair should also be minimized. At the first instance of arrival of the police, the situation should be assessed very quickly if the person is a potential suicide by cop or if the incident is another crime being committed. This is not easily accomplished though. As such, responding to this kind of cases involves coordination with different agencies and professionals that do have the ability to tell if the person is indeed a would-be suicide by cop. The situation should be identified as quickly as possible, controlled, and safely resolve it as much as possible and as quickly as possible to avert any danger to civilians and police officers alike (Van Zandt, 1993).
The worst part that could happen in a suicide by cop is when the police officer realized that he has been used for the suicide and he had no choice in the matter. He might regret it for his whole life and experience trauma after that. As such, it would be necessary for them to undergo counseling sessions and even therapy if such an incident would have a profound impact on them.
Police officers also run the risk of being sued for wrongful deaths. As such, the danger to them of suicide by cop becomes doubly great. The psychological trauma and guilt may be difficult to deal with, but if that were also coupled with legal action, the police officers may be put in a position of difficulty and he has had no choice in the matter (Lubbock Online, 1998).
Implications of Suicide by Cop
The police officers are not the only ones affected negatively by suicide by cop. There are several serious implications on the society as a whole. For one, this has important effect on the relationship of the police and the citizens in the community. The people in the community still rely on the police to protect them from harm and apprehend any would be criminals. Yet, the attitudes of citizens towards the police are also crucial in ensuring that the police do their job (Kennedy, Hamant & Hupp, 1998).
The stress that police officers are subjected to in instances of suicide by cop is also another important factor. If a police became instrumental in the suicide of a person, then that would become a major problem because of the guilt and the post-shooting stress that police officers may feel. As such, psychologists and other professionals would also need to participate to curb the incidence of this form of suicide (Kennedy, Hamant & Hupp, 1998).
Another important implication of suicide by cop is the litigation that a police may go through in the case that wrongful death accusations are thrown against the police officers. On the one hand, inducing other people to kill oneself is a very selfish act and does not consider the welfare of the police officer. Yet, on the other hand, police officers may not simply say, without proper evidence, that the shooting incident was suicide by cop. A middle ground should be arrived at and juries should be educated about suicide by cop so that they will be more aware of the implications of the decisions they will make in case of litigations (Kennedy, Hamant & Hupp, 1998).
Lastly, a deeper and more thorough analysis and understanding of suicide by cop is necessary in order for the police to be trained in dealing effectively with this form of suicide without endangering civilians and themselves in the process.
Suicide by cop is an increasing phenomenon in the United States and other areas of the world. It is the deliberate attempt of a suicidal individual to appear to assault police officers in order to provoke them to shoot him to death. As a form of suicide, this has serious implications for the police officers and for the community as a whole.
There have been attempts to study this matter; however, there is still a dearth of research in this field. Nonetheless, based on what is already known, there are indicators that are helpful in showing what incidences may be possible suicide by cop incidents as opposed to a usual criminal act. The police officers, as well as concerned civilians should be able to implement a training program that will effectively deal with this matter. In addition, people who will appear as juries in case related to this should also be educated regarding suicide by cop so that the decisions they will arrive at will not be detrimental to the police officers being sued. There are still a number of issues that has to be clarified. As such, further research should be conducted in terms of profiling the would-be suicide by cop as well as the most effective means of dealing with it.
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Hutson, H. R., Anglin, D., Yarbrough, J., Hardaway, K., Russell, M., Strote, J., Cater, M. & Blum, B. (1998). Suicide by Cop. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 32 (6), 665-669.
Kennedy, D. B. Hamant, R. J., & Hupp, R. T. (1998). Suicide by Cop. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Web.
Lindsay, M. & Lester, D. (2004). Suicide by Cop: Committing Suicide by Provoking Police to Shoot You. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company.
Lubbock Online. (1998). ‘Suicide by cop’ makes victims of both sides: Studies find such deaths becoming more common. Web.
Stincelli, R. (2006). Suicide by Cop. Web.
Van Zandt, C. R. (1993). Suicide by Cop. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime: FBI Academy.