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Tactical challenge: Suicidal person with a knife

You need to be constantly on the alert that the negotiation can break down at any second and become violent, perhaps necessitating a deadly force response

I recently received the following email from a local police agency training sergeant:

I recently attended your use of force update class. I am a TASER instructor for our department and we will soon be teaching re-cert training. A fellow sergeant, also an instructor, has set up some scenarios for the practical application. We have a disagreement.

The scenario deals with a female inside her home, despondent, holding a knife to her stomach. She tells the officer(s) that if they come any closer, she will kill herself. The way this is set up (according to the other sergeant): no one else is in danger, she is in her own home and has not threatened anyone else. He is adamant that he has a “duty” to act and would deploy the TASER when he had the chance in order to resolve the situation. Pretty cut and dry as far as he is concerned.

I disagree. While I agree the TASER certainly could be used in this situation if absolutely necessary, I have argued that the situation is a bit more complex than he sees it. Many in our department (including myself and the other sergeant) have attended crisis negotiation training schools where the point has been made that we do not have a duty to save these people from themselves and not to force a bad situation into a worse situation (i.e. tase the woman causing her to fall on the knife or trying to work an angle on her and potentially end up with a “suicide by cop” situation).

Now I assure you that we will do everything in our power to talk to her and attempt to resolve the situation peacefully (and not just walk away) etc, but I would really like your input on the matter. What have you seen in regards to legal ramifications? Are we getting bad info that if this is one of those no-win situations that we could in fact walk away and maybe check on her later? Your thoughts/comments/criticisms are greatly appreciated. [email edited for brevity]

So, Police1 readers, what are your thoughts? Experienced officers know that this tactical challenge is realistic, and that there are numerous situation-specific ways to handle it. Here’s how I answered the inquiry:

You raise a very good question. As with so many situations in police work, there is not a “one-size fits all” answer. It’s a rock and a hard spot. Here are my thoughts, based on my own street experiences with such situations, as well as my litigation experience with both police shootings and TASER uses involving knives.

In a knife situation such as the one you describe, if there is time for talk, it is wise to use verbal techniques to try to talk them down, to a point (no pun intended). You need to be constantly on the alert that the negotiation can break down at any second and become violent, perhaps necessitating a deadly force response or a nonlethal response with an immediate deadly force back-up capability.

Remember my admonition in class, “Don’t talk them to death.” If you’ve got time and distance (and maybe some quickly available cover) on your side, you might keep talking for awhile, but the officers on the scene have to constantly weigh the threat level. Is the subject becoming more cooperative, or becoming more resistant? It is a tactical dilemma, a legal dilemma, and a moral dilemma. If you keep talking without acting, will the subject be encouraged by the officer’s non-action and suddenly act aggressive but then get shot, when earlier a nonlethal weapon deployment might have resolved the matter? Will the subject become one of the 15 percent or so of all fatal officer-involved shootings in recent years when TASER is attempted but fails, and the subject is shot to death? Will the subject be subdued by TASER use in a deadly force situation, and it works so that the firearm does not get used? Or will the subject carry out the suicide threat right before the officer’s eyes? Obviously the desired outcome is for the subject to put down the knife then be taken in for mental health treatment, but it just doesn’t always happen that way, as we all know.

More regarding my “Don’t talk them to death” thinking: The thought is to attempt a nonlethal takedown relatively early in the confrontation, with the officers being proactive to end the threat on their own terms (by acting in ways they were able to rehearse in dynamic training), instead of being disadvantaged by having to adapt and react to the subject’s sudden, unpredictable moves. But also in my view, there is a qualitative difference between having a standoff with a despondent suicidal person with a knife, and having a standoff with an enraged drunk or doper with a knife.

With the suicidal person, if they’re not immediately threatening to the officer or others (i.e. they are only threatening themselves, and you have time and distance on your side), there may be time for more verbal effort. With the enraged drunk or doper, it’s like “Put the knife down! Put it down now!” And if he or she doesn’t, don’t wait, deploy the nonlethal option (TASER, OC, beanbag, what have you) with a deadly force back-up. Of course, there are many threat levels in between those two situations. So our tactics and responses must, as always, be situation-specific.

So to answer your question, it seems that you and the other trainer have each staked out positions on the matter. And my thought is that both of your views have great merit standing alone, but what is needed is to fashion the response to the suicide by knife standoff scenario to incorporate a broad range of thinking of various options dependent on the threat level, which might be static or might be dynamic.

Regarding just walking away from it and checking on her later, that’s a damn good legal question. The law may allow it, but I’m not a lawyer. In my experience, I can’t picture doing that. The primary concern is that if she’s a danger to herself, is she also a danger to others she may come in contact with after we leave? You might consult with your department’s legal advisor on that one. Whatever you do, it seems to me important that your students walk away with an appreciation of the complexity of the event and the complexity and need for flexibility in the response options, while always respecting the need for safety of the officers and any bystanders.

Finally, here are some legal cases that touch on the question of duty in these matters. I got the list from the Americans for Effective Law Enforcement (AELE) website, and you can see the relevant cases within the list here:

So what do you think? What considerations come to mind for how to handle such an incident. Do you do dynamic training on this scenario? Are you ready for it?

P.S. Three recent developments of interest...
1.) In early June, former BART officer Johannes Mehserle, sentenced to two years in prison upon conviction for involuntary manslaughter after shooting and killing Oscar Grant when Mehserle accidentally deployed his sidearm instead of his TASER, was recently released after serving a combined one year in county jails in Oakland (after his arrest) and Los Angeles (after his trial). Serving half time is normal in California when one maintains good behavior.
2.) Also in early June, the National Institute of Justice published two brand new major reports on TASER safety (one involving death risks, one involving injury reductions). You may obtain the reports electronically here.
3.) In mid-June, Dr. John Peters and I announced the creation of the Association of Certified Litigation Specialists (ACLS) to support litigation specialists certified by Americans for Effective Law Enforcement (AELE). This is a pro bono effort. You may read about it here.

Greg Meyer, a retired Captain from the Los Angeles Police Academy, served for 30 years, including eight years as a commanding officer. Greg is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center, a member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).