Investigating Suicide by Cop incidents: What to remember & what to get
Suicide by cop scenarios can be emotionally trying to the officers involved, which can pose additional issues if officers start to second-guess their actions
Suicide by cop (SBC) incidents pose a number of unique tactical challenges and they can pose considerable investigatory challenges as well. In addition to the usual exploration into how a shooting occurred, more focus than usual needs to be dedicated to explaining specifically why it occurred in SBC encounters.
The aftermath of SBC incidents is often emotionally charged and barbed with claims of excessive force and criminal intent on the part of the officer(s) involved. Rarely will the public and media accept law enforcement claims of being forced into shooting someone. More likely, officers will be challenged with the idea that they should have recognized that the subject was emotionally distraught and offered "help" not gunfire.
Additionally, SBC scenarios can be emotionally trying ‒ sometimes devastating ‒ to the officers involved, which can pose additional issues. They may begin second-guessing their actions and wonder whether they actually could have done something differently to avoid the need to deliver deadly force. Believing that they had no choice but to respond as they did ‒ actually accepting the fact that the suicidal subject did have control of the situation enough to force the officer's hand ‒ can be a tough pill to swallow.
SBC expert Dr. Barry Perrou, former commander of the hostage/crisis negotiations unit of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office and the person responsible for creating the agency's Peer Counseling Program, has identified four things to remember when dealing with SBC investigations:
1. Emotions of witnesses may change following an SBC, so timely investigations are essential
Suicidal people often make comments to those close to them that reveal their tendencies. This can be trying on these "confidants," who may spend a great deal of time and energy worrying about them and exhaustively trying to reverse the person's thinking.
When the suicide has been carried out, these people may be fully willing to confirm that the subject was suicidal and to admit that they've been trying to re-route the person's self-destructive path. They may be quick to support an officer's claim that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the need to deliver deadly force and may even empathize with the officer, given the fact that they, too, have tried to talk the subject out of his suicide mission but were unsuccessful.
As time goes by, however, understanding and empathy may change to confusion, anger and second-guessing of the officer's actions. Witnesses may begin to believe, in hindsight, that less-lethal means could have been used to control the subject and end his threatening behavior. They may forget the true deadly dynamics of the encounter and begin to come to dangerous conclusions relative to the officer's handling of the situation (Claims like, "Maybe he should have just kept talking to him. He wanted to kill himself, not the officer." Or "Come to think of it, how come the officer didn't try to just shoot the gun out of his hand?")
The sooner witnesses and those close to the subject can be interviewed, the better.
2. Don't jeopardize an investigation with second-guessing
Police psychologists have found that one of the most emotionally distressing experiences an officer can have is to be put in a situation over which he or she has no control. Admitting and accepting that he was not able to direct an encounter can be a difficult reality for an officer to come to grips with and in some instances, they just can't do it. They will fall into a trap of believing that there just had to be something else they could have done to prevent being forced into shooting someone. They would rather believe that they failed in some way than accept the fact that the subject had control and was successfully able to force him to pull the trigger. This kind of thinking can be dangerous for the officer emotionally, professionally and legally.
During investigations, it's important to remember your training and the realities of the deadly force encounter you were involved in. Suicidal subjects can become homicidal if their plan to die isn't working out as they had hoped, and any threatening claim or action against you must be taken seriously.
If your life or the lives of others was in danger, you are called upon as a police officer to cease that threat. If that involved delivering deadly force to a subject who refused to comply with your orders and continued to act in a threatening fashion, so be it. You did what you had to do. Believe that. Don't fall prey to voices of doubt that may surface after the fact. Believe in the justifiable nature of your actions and stand firm during post-incident investigations.
3. Remember that you were manipulated…and that can be painful
In SBC scenarios, officers become foils in a subject's plot to die. This experience can be so emotionally intense, says Dr. Perrou, many officers exhibit several of the same symptoms as rape victims. During the investigation, they're required to relive that experience. The resulting emotional aftermath can be extremely painful and if not dealt with appropriately, can have significant and far-reaching consequences.
Realize that painful emotions are common after SBC events and they're normal. Be sure you get some emotional help. If your department provides that kind of support, take advantage of it. If not, seek your own assistance. If another officer in your agency or a neighboring agency has been involved in an SBC, seek him or her out. What did they experience? How did they feel? For the sake of yourself and your career, you must take care of yourself emotionally.
4. Investigatory details that can help prove that the incident was a subject-driven suicide by cop situation are critical
In “Suicide By Cop: Inducing Officers to Shoot,” Dr. Perrou along with former Santa Rosa (Calif.) City Attorney Brien Farrell write, "Recognizing that SBC situations are lethal traps designed to place officers in a no-option situation, it is important to capture all aspects of the subject's psychological 'being' and 'existence' at the time of the shooting, and collect evidence of their psycho-social mind set in the days and possibly weeks leading up to the encounter. SBC situations are emotionally charged investigations. For the public, the media, your agency, the DA’s office, and defense attorneys representing the law enforcement agency and the officers involved, an immediate and comprehensive investigation is critical."
Perrou and Farrell provide the following investigative checklist to better ensure your ability to support a claim of suicide by cop. "Please remember that as mentioned above, time is of the essence," Perrou said. "This information must be gathered immediately. If you wait 12 hours, it will be cold."
He also points out that it's also important to act promptly to preempt any obstructive moves an attorney might make that could hinder your ability to gather what you need quickly.
"Investigators need to balance the search for shooting-specific evidence with the collection of the information [below] that will greatly help with case preparation and evaluation in the likely event of litigation against the police agency, the municipality and the officer," write Perrou and Farrell. "As the solicited information may not appear necessary at the time of the shooting investigation, it is absolutely essential in defining the actions of the subject/suspect, the dynamics of the incident and helps with advising and/or defending the department in the event of a lawsuit."
Investigator's Checklist for Suicide by Cop Incidents
Signs of suicidal consideration
- Any suicidal notes or messages left with anyone (written, emails, texts, voice mails, etc.)
- Statements about suicidal ideas or shooting it out with the police or wanting to be killed by the police
- Anything that would suggest morbidity or preoccupation with death
- Giving away personal property
- Abnormal attraction to high-risk, potentially para-suicidal behavior (sky diving, bungee jumping, street or track motorcycle racing, unannounced disappearances, etc.)
- Any fortification inside subject's residence
Mental health and medical records
- Public mental health records
- Private mental health records
- All physical health medical records
- List of all medications ever taken
- List of all medications found in the house and location
- List of medications found in bedroom nightstand
- Information regarding family history of mental illnesses
- Scars indicating self-mutilation or cutting of wrists
- Questionable gunshots wounds or scars
- Criminal/scene investigation
- Photos of everything
-- Autopsy (clothing on, clothing off)
-- Position of fallen body
-- Subject location
-- Aerial photo
-- Trajectory of shots fired
-- Subject's residence with emphasis on any kind of death 'shrine,' weapons, death wishes, or indications of preoccupation with death
- Police event index (E.I.) search
- Computer-aided dispatch search (computer hazard warnings)
- Rap sheets (all states)
- Statements by witnesses and friends regarding strained family relationships, work difficulties, deaths, violent behavior, future, despair, etc.
- Check for weapons restrictions
- Neighbors' statements of subject's behavior for the seven days before shooting (raging, angry, loud, banging, slamming doors, crying, sad, depressed, resigned, etc.)
- Examination of gunshot residue on hands
- List and photos of all weapons, including guns and knives
- Full photos inside subject's home or residence (Note: Where "photo" is indicated, a photo and a video should be taken.)
- Full photos inside subject's vehicle
- Photos and information regarding injuries sustained by spouse or significant other (domestic partner) or family member
- Close-up photos of bedroom areas, especially anything suggesting that the subject was feeling melancholy, photo albums of a past "better" time, photo albums of children, etc.
- Camouflage attire
- Photos and information regarding favorite hangouts
- Photos showing lighting at the time of shooting if at night. If necessary, photograph the following night.
- Any juvenile victim history/cases (i.e., child/sexual abuse cases)
- Any juvenile suspect history/cases
Civil court matters
- All civil court filings involving subject and immediate family (family law, bankruptcies-federal court, collection matters, small claims, etc.)
- Eviction notices
- Restraining orders
- Notices of repossessions
- Statements by friends, neighbors, co-workers, spouse or significant other about domestic matters (divorce, separation, violence, etc.)
- Both subject and/or spouse's extra-marital affairs/issues
- Employment history including personnel records (discipline, job search, etc.)
- Financial information
- Drug and alcohol history
- Blood alcohol and all drug toxicology reports
- All self-medicating history and behavior (check local liquor store)
- Drug paraphernalia
- Driving history (reckless and high-speed driving)
- Military history
- Military occupational specialty (MOS)
- Tattoos (get clear photos)
- Bumper stickers on all vehicles (looking for references to death)
- Anything that would suggest paranoia (guns hidden throughout house, gun hidden under the mattress)
- Organizational affiliations
- Type of dog and dog's name
- Other pets
- Biological parents married or divorced? If divorced, when?
- Parents deceased? If yes, when?
- Any children predecease them? If yes, who and when?
- Any sexually explicit photos or videos of subject or of subject with others
- Photos of t-shirts, ball caps, etc. with slogans that could be considered morbid, suggesting a death wish, violence or anything anti-social or anti-authority
- All recent writings, letters to others, diaries, etc.
- All "doodles" on paper lying around (look near telephone)
Note: Confer with the District Attorney's Office regarding the right to collect specific documents, photographs or other evidence.
This article, originally published 03/29/2009, has been updated.