Suicide by cop: 15 warning signs that you might be involved

These highly pressurized, seemingly no-win incidents threaten officers tactically and emotionally, with potential legal and professional consequences

One of the worst nightmares in law enforcement is a suicide by cop (SBC) situation. These highly pressurized, seemingly no-win incidents threaten officers tactically, emotionally and, should the shooting end up in court – and it likely will – possibly even legally and professionally.

Barry Perrou, PsyD, a former crisis negotiation team commander, is a leading expert on the suicide by cop phenomenon. He served as a contributor to a book, "Suicide by Cop: Inducing Officers to Shoot," compiled by Dr. Vivian B. Lord and published by Looseleaf Law Publications.

Through his research and personal experiences, Perrou has identified 15 indicators that can help officers recognize when they may be facing a suicide by cop event. The 15 indicators are:

Your recognition of the fact that a subject is interested only in having you shoot him should NOT cause you to hesitate to do so if at any point you feel your life is threatened.
Your recognition of the fact that a subject is interested only in having you shoot him should NOT cause you to hesitate to do so if at any point you feel your life is threatened. (Photo/Pixabay)
  • The subject is barricaded and refuses to negotiate.
  • The subject has just killed someone, particularly a close relative, his mother, wife or child.
  • The subject says he has a life-threatening illness.
  • The subject's demands of police do not include negotiations for escape or freedom.
  • The subject has undergone one or more traumatic life changes (death of a loved one, divorce, financial devastation, etc.)
  • Prior to the encounter, the subject has given away all of his money or possessions.
  • The subject has a record of assaults.
  • Subject says he will only surrender to the person in charge.
  • Subject indicates that he has thought about planning his death.
  • Has expressed an interest in wanting to die in a "macho" way.
  • Has expressed interest in "going out in a big way."
  • Subject expresses feelings of hopelessness or helplessness.
  • Subject dictates his will to negotiators.
  • Subject demands to be killed.
  • Subject sets a deadline to be killed.

If you find that several of these indicators are present, you may be dealing with a subject who wants to be killed and someone who may be willingly to take any steps to reach that goal including, of course, firing on you. In situations like this, tactical vigilance is critical. Your recognition of the fact that a subject is interested only in having you shoot him should NOT cause you to hesitate to do so if at any point you feel your life is threatened. Remember, this subject wants to die, and he may stop at nothing to reach his goal, including taking you or a fellow officer with him.

In "Suicide by Cop: Inducing Officers to Shoot," Perrou explores two interesting dynamics that he has seen develop in the suicidal situations he has dealt with as a tactical officer. One directly impacts your safety and the other may impact the outcome of the event.

The first dynamic can best be described as the "rescue dynamic," a subtle but dangerous phenomenon that can threaten your life. This dynamic is fueled by the fact that most officers are not specifically prepared to face suicide by cop situations. When most officers find themselves face-to-face with a subject who wants to die, the officer's primary objective can have a tendency to shift from personal safety to subject preservation.

In a suicidal situation, a subject's death may be inaccurately perceived by the confronting officer as a failure that reflects that officer's inability to "do his job" which, at that time, he perceived as keeping the subject alive at any cost. In an effort to avoid this "failure," officers may take such tactically unsound steps as hesitating to fire when a weapon is pointed at him, coming too close to the subject in an effort to create an emotional bond, or making risky "last ditch efforts" to disarm the subject.

Remember that although a peaceful resolution is certainly the desired outcome, it MUST NOT come at the expense of your safety.

The second dynamic Perrou describes in the book could be termed "the annoyance factor." In observing scores of SBC situations, Perrou has determined that in some cases, an officer's earnest attempts to help may in fact be perceived by the suicidal subject as an annoyance strong enough to actually expedite the suicide.

Perrou writes that in instances where a "connection" between the suicidal subject and the intervening officer is lacking, the subject may see death as his only escape from the agitating voice of the officer. Sadly, the officer, seeing that his efforts to resolve the situation peacefully are not being effective, tries even harder, which only compounds the subject's interest in escape.

Unfortunately, a clear means by which this dynamic can be accurately identified and resolved is not readily available. To comply with a subject's request that you simply "go away" is not an option. However, you should remain aware that a subject's claims that your efforts to talk him out of the situation are seriously annoying him may in fact be true.

If and when possible, enlist the assistance of professional crisis negotiators as quickly as possible. If they are not readily available, consider transitioning the intervention to another officer if feasible.

In "Suicide by Cop," Perrou also shares some potential indicators that a peaceful resolution to an SBC may be at hand. Some things that he has observed in subjects prior to peaceful resolutions:

  • Less interactive tension
  • Lowered voice
  • Less anger
  • Less profanity
  • Diminished aggressive body language
  • Increased non-aggressive body language
  • Diminished threats of violence
  • Less hopelessness and helplessness
  • Greater willingness to listen to the officer's suggestions
  • Solicitation of situation outcome promises and safeguards, such as "No handcuffs, no press and I will surrender if you will…"

It is important to keep in mind that these indicators should not entice you to compromise your safety by weakening your tactical awareness. However, they may serve as tips for the direction of your verbal negotiations and the speed at which you may push for an end to the encounter.

Additionally, Perrou shared three possible indicators he has seen that can tip officers off to the fact that a suicidal person may be preparing to die.

  • Hyper-vigilance/intense scanning: This involves a subject scanning from side to side and appearing increasingly tense and agitated. Body language indicates that the subject is perceiving the setting and the first responders involved as increasingly untrustworthy and threatening.
  • Change in breathing rate: This is usually detectable visually, audibly or both, but not always. Sometimes it can be subtle enough to be spotted only by someone who is looking for it. Keep an eye on the breathing.
  • Counting down: This is often illustrated by a rocking motion…the subject rocks back and forth as if preparing to jump.

Being aware of these indicators can help you monitor the status of the subject’s state of mind and be better prepared for the level of willingness to take the situation to a violent end.

This article, originally published 04/06/2006, has been updated.

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