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Can ‘suicide prevention’ stop mass shootings?

While searching for protective measures such as increased security, we may be overlooking the most significant way to prevent future incidents: suicide prevention

A shooter goes to a school, business, military facility, or elsewhere. There, he begins to shoot indiscriminately at bystanders, killing some and wounding others before the police respond and the threat presented by the suspect is neutralized, either by first responders or by his own hand.

In the weeks following this event, medical records will be explored, neighbors and casual contacts will be interviewed, and we will learn of a troubled individual who was having difficulty functioning in society.

We will see how this individual — who in most cases suffered from a mental illness — became depressed or delusional, identified a target, planned the attack, and committed his act of violence. The media, law enforcement, and the public will begin to search for how this could be prevented. Legislators will look at gun control measures as a possible solution; law enforcement will reexamine active shooter protocols; family and friends will search for reasons to explain why their loved one and friend committed such a heinous act. Experts will render opinions on how this action this act could have been prevented by hardening the target.

While searching for preventative measures such as increased security, metal detectors, bullet-resistant glass, or other structural or tangible devices used to harden the target, we may be overlooking the most significant measure that may prevent future incidents of this nature: that of suicide prevention.

Suicide by Cop
The concept of suicide by cop is not a new one. Law enforcement agencies across the nation have or will experience an incident of suicide by cop at some point. Nationally, it is estimated that 30 percent of police shootings are suicides, with some studies indicating that it is closer to 40 percent.

Tragically, that number rises significantly when the suspect in the officer-involved shooting is a recent military veteran. It is estimated that up to 70 percent of police shootings involving a recent veteran are actually suicide by cop.

The Los Angeles Police Department indicates that between 2004 and 2009, 12 percent of their officer-involved shootings were suicide by cop. Statistically speaking, smaller agencies, with fewer shootings overall, may have a higher percentage.

Regardless, the pattern is the same, with several consistent events:

The suspect commits an act that results in the police being called (sometimes calling on themselves and describing their own appearance to dispatchers)
The suspect’s actions are of such a nature that responding officers must take action to confront him/her
The suspect feigns a weapon or uses a weapon
The suspect commits acts that force officers to use deadly force and prevents them from “talking the suspect down” (this includes attacking the officer or shooting at civilians)
The suspect has no plan to escape

Suicide is usually not a spontaneous act. It is an act that is thought out many times, with the subject weighing the pros and cons of this course of action. Additionally, most suicidal subjects communicate their intention to commit suicide in advance of the incident.

The Subject Often Speaks
While some may be comments that appear dramatic, such as “I wish I was dead” or “maybe I should kill myself,” others will be more intentional comments like “I wanted to say goodbye.”

Police agencies have had a number of successful interventions when the subject goes to social media and tells the world of his desire to commit suicide. Each of these postings becomes an opportunity for intervention, but must be taken seriously and communicated to law enforcement or mental health professionals.

As we saw at the Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, November 1, 2013, and again at the mall in Paramus, New Jersey the next Monday, November 3, the suspect went to a heavily populated location with the intent to commit suicide with his actions. One chose to kill himself, the other waited for police to kill him.

We knew this early in the LAX investigation because the suspect sent texts to family members expressing his desire to die and to do something big. However, by the time this was communicated to the police, he was already on his way to the target location.

And the suspect in New Jersey repeatedly told possible victims that he wanted to die. This raises the question: are most law enforcement agencies prepared to conduct a “high risk intervention” with a person who is suicidal?

The Family Usually Knows
Law enforcement responds to such calls every day. Making these assessments as to whether or not the individual is suicidal can be difficult. The subject is usually able to maintain his/her composure and “presents well” during their interview with law enforcement — most have had lots of practice in “passing” as normal in society.

Ninety-five percent of law enforcement calls involving mentally ill persons come from family members or caregivers. These are people who have been living with, caring for, nurturing, and loving the mentally ill subject for years, if not decades. They have called the police because they know what the subject’s triggers are and also recognize that the subject’s condition has deteriorated to the point that the subject now represents a credible danger to themselves or to others.

Cases like these can be difficult enough to assess even with the family members present, which allows the officers to check the story that the subject gives and confront inconsistencies. However, when the reporting family member is across the country, as in the case of the LAX shooter, it can be much more difficult. But it can be done.

Identification and Intervention
In 2007, after the murders at Virginia Tech, the Los Angeles Police Department —and their partner, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health — developed the School Threat Assessment Response Team (START) protocol. This combines law enforcement, mental health professionals, and education professionals from schools, colleges and universities in the Los Angeles region.

In the eight months following Virginia Tech, START successfully intervened in 32 school violence incidents. Additionally, according to Dr. Tony Beliz, director of the Emergency Outreach Bureau for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, these teams intervened in 14 copycat cases in the two weeks following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Protocols like START and others exist in varying forms across the nation. Recognizing that “one size doesn’t fit all,” they all still have the same core objectives:

Identification of the risk or subject at risk
Intervention before the act of suicide comes to fruition

In order to help to prevent mass shootings and acts of suicide by cop, these are techniques that must be available to law enforcement officers across the nation.

Rick Wall is a retired police chief from Cal State University – Los Angeles. In his 38-year career, he worked for the Los Angeles Police Department, retiring as a captain and the University of Texas-Houston where he oversaw criminal intelligence and threat management. He developed the LAPD’s response protocols to persons in a mental health crisis and oversaw the mental illness project. Rick has worked extensively as an expert in use of force incidents involving the mentally ill and suicide by cop. He has testified before the United States House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, on the impact of the mentally ill on law enforcement and has served on advisory boards of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and currently provides POST training on suicide by cop to law enforcement agencies.