Suicide intervention: How cops can avoid getting sued

With such difficult and complex legal traps and hurdles to overcome, it becomes legally perilous for officers to intervene in suicidal situations

The second Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) session of the 2016 SHOT Show was led Wednesday morning by Commander Thor Eells, of the Colorado Springs Police Department.  Thor serves as the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) Executive Director, and is an expert on law enforcement interaction with suicidal people.

His discussion on this topic highlighted the delicate nature of these calls and the legal minefield that officers and agencies have to tread when they get involved in these emotionally-charged situations.

Space will not allow a suitable review of the myriad of thorny issues that Thor addressed in his presentation, but one of the most critical takeaways from the lecture was that because suicide is not classified as a crime under most state laws, it complicates the situation for law enforcement and limits their lawful ability to assist in resolving these crises.

Although officers, agency leadership and the public may feel that law enforcement has a moral obligation to assist in resolving these situations, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement has no legal duty to intervene in "personal violence" (suicide), because suicide itself is not a criminal act. As such, officers can actually be sued or found guilty of civil rights violations as a result of actions they take while trying to prevent a suicide, because it falls outside the scope of their legal duties.

Asten V. City of Boulder

As an example, Thor cited the case of Asten v. City of Boulder (D. Colo. 2009), in which a pair of officers used a TASER to subdue a noncompliant, suicidal, and emotionally disturbed woman (who was bleeding from self-inflicted wounds), and arranged for EMS to transport her to a hospital for medical treatment and an emergency mental health evaluation.  

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court found the officers could be held liable for 42 U.S.C. 1983 (Deprivation of Civil Rights) violations for doing so. It held that the officer's actions merited a trial to determine whether their actions did in fact violate her civil rights, and whether or not her claims of unlawful detention, and unreasonable and excessive use of force were warranted.  

Interestingly, the court indicated that the officers should have called for assistance from "someone specially trained for such situations," rather than using force, and that the requirement to use force may have been created by the officer's actions, not the woman's.

Of great importance to law enforcement officers, the Court in Asten held that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, even though they believed they were acting within the bounds of the relevant agency policies and state statutes. This is very troubling and indicates the potential legal danger attendant with these dynamic and emotional events.

Legal Intervention

Thor discussed the Emergency Aid Doctrine that is often cited as a legal justification for law enforcement intervention in suicide cases, and pointed out that all of three separate requirements must be satisfied to justify actions under this concept.  First, the officer must have probable cause that there is an immediate crisis, and that his assistance will be helpful.  Second, the primary purpose of a warrantless entry must be to render aid. Third, there must be probable cause to associate the emergency with the location to be entered or searched.  If any of these components are not satisfied, then the Emergency Aid Doctrine does not apply.

The difficulty for LE in suicide cases is often to prove that the crisis is immediate. In a typical "welfare check" call, a significant amount of time passes between the time of report, dispatch, response, and investigation – enough that it could be reasonably argued that even if a caller was concerned about a potential suicide, the crisis could not be considered "immediate" by the officer, and would not warrant his immediate intervention

. Although the caller, and possibly even the officer, may fear that there is a danger the suspect may hurt themselves in the near future, without a specific probable cause that indicates such action is immediate, there is no Fourth Amendment exception available to the officer under the Emergency Aid Doctrine, and he may be guilty of a rights violation if he enters a residence without a warrant to intervene.

With such difficult and complex legal traps and hurdles to overcome, it becomes legally perilous for officers to intervene in suicidal situations. However, the public expects officers to handle these situations on a daily basis, and would not support an officer simply walking away from the situation to avoid legal entanglements.  Therefore, law enforcement must find a way to balance the expectations of the public it serves, and the constraints of the legal system.

Do Your Homework 

In an effort to resolve this conflict, Thor recommends improved education and tactics.  

Officers should receive better Crisis Intervention Training and should be educated in the nuances of complex legal constructs like the Emergency Aid Doctrine that they regularly invoke without a full understanding of its components.  

Additionally, officers should be encouraged to make use of available opportunities to charge suicidal persons with the crimes they have committed, because criminal activity would warrant and justify the police intervention that would lead to life saving medical and psychological help, while simultaneously providing legal protection for officers.  Thor also recommends that officers should be taught when it is appropriate to disengage and seek assistance from qualified professionals who are trained to deal with these circumstances.

Thor is also a strong advocate of the "Crisis Response Team" concept, in which trained mental health professionals, EMS, and social workers are teamed with law enforcement to provide a rapid response to suicidal situations. Such a team places all of the required skills and knowledge in place to deal with this most difficult of challenges in a safe, comprehensive, humane and legal manner.

There was so much more that Thor covered in this session, and he challenged every officer present to go home and do their homework on the agency policies and state laws that influence dealing with suicidal persons.  You should accept that challenge too.

To learn more about NTOA and NTOA-sponsored training opportunities, visit

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