A new study of suicide by cop that is unprecedented in its breadth, depth, and detail reveals that these encounters are “shockingly” on the rise, explains specific ways that they differ from “regular” OISs, and establishes emphatically that they create exceptional threats to civilian bystanders, responding officers, and the subjects themselves.
“The single most important finding in this research is its officer-safety implications,” the head author, Dr. Kris Mohandie, told Force Science News. “These suicidal individuals do, in fact, pose a lethal risk to other people—especially law enforcement—in their quest to die. Officers and the public need very much to be aware of this.”
The study, encompassing some 700 shootings from more than 90 North American law enforcement agencies, specifically “disabuses the widely held but false belief” that suicidal subjects do not present a substantial risk of homicide to others, Mohandie says.
“In fact, the opposite appears to be true: a suicidal individual poses a greater risk of homicide or at least violence toward others, than a nonsuicidal individual,”
because of the “high degree of desperation, hopelessness, impulsivity, self-destructiveness, and acting out” among these subjects, the researchers write in a report of their findings in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center, which was not involved in the study, says the findings “open an important window to the complex nature of these perplexing and often controversial events. Anyone doubting that officers commonly are compelled to use deadly force to save other lives, including their own, during suicide-by-cop confrontations needs to understand the vital truths documented by this research.”
Under the supervision of a team of scientists from the U.S. and Canada, headed by Mohandie, a high-profile California forensic psychologist, trained researchers spent nearly a year exhaustively analyzing “every single deadly force and less-lethal incident investigated as an OIS” by the participating agencies over a recent 8-year period.
Their goal was to credibly identify those cases in which a subject specifically engaged “in threatening behavior in an attempt to be killed by law enforcement” and to itemize some 110 variables in such cases, including:
- Incident characteristics, such as the type of original call, the location, the number of rounds fired, and whether the suicidal effort was “spontaneous or deliberate”;
- Suspect behavior and demographics, including evidence of suicidal thinking and communication within 2 months of the incident, weaponry, violence against others during the event, mental health indicators, intoxication, criminal history, and recent relationship problems; and
- Outcomes, “most notably whether injury or death occurred” to the subject, officers, or others. (The researchers refused to call the SBC suspects “victims,” because they played “a significant role in their own demise.” “The true victims in these cases,” Lewinski notes, “are actually the involved officers, whose actions are manipulated by the suspects.”)
CORE FINDING: A RISING TIDE
The most carefully designed and reliable previous study of SBC examined a 10-year spread of cases from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. during the 1980s and 1990s. That research concluded that 13% of all fatal OISs were SBC. The researchers noted that in the last year of their sample, SBC rose to 27% of all fatal police shootings.
The current study, the largest and most rigorously screened to date, finds that 36% of the 707 cases examined were attempted or completed SBC. “We were shocked at this number—more than 1 in 3 police shootings,” Mohandie says.
Another 5% of subjects attempted or completed suicide during a police encounter “without there being a known SBC motivation.” So in all, “41% of OIS subjects…evidenced suicidality: intending, attempting, or actually committing suicide during the encounter.”
This, Mohandie says, “is a factor that needs to be on the radar screen when homicide detectives, force review boards, independent review panels, and prosecutors are investigating any officer-involved shooting.” A suicidal element, where it can legitimately be confirmed, may help reinforce involved officers’ credibility and stabilize volatile communities after controversial encounters, he says.
INCIDENT CONTEXT. The subjects came armed to the encounter 8 times out of 10, while most of the rest “feigned or simulated weapon possession to accomplish their suicidal intent.” Among the fakers, nearly half reached or placed their hands in their waistbands as if going for a gun. Others presented a “replica-type” weapon. Mohandie added that in his experience, unarmed individuals sometimes also pose a risk through other behaviors (hand-to-hand lethal encounters, attempting to grab officers’ weapons, etc.) in their quest to get police to complete their suicide.
Those actually armed mostly had guns (60%), which were loaded and fully operational 86% of the time. Other weapons included knives only (26%), blunt-force objects, a car, or an explosive.
Only 8% of SBC cases started out as a “suicidal subject” call. More often, officers responded initially to domestic violence or a family disturbance, although robberies, traffic stops, ADW, warrant service, weapons calls, miscellaneous crimes—a wide range of everyday police matters—proved also to be starting points for an SBC culmination.
Fewer than 1 in 5 SBC incidents were planned. Most (81%) apparently were “spontaneous,” the study concluded. In other words, Mohandie explains, rather than laying a specific plan in advance, “a subject may just be primed for self-destruction because his life is not going well. In muddling along, he does something that draws police attention and this becomes the last straw, the final peg that comes out of his board of stability. He says, ‘Fuck it, I’m outta here,’ ” and proceeds to provoke the SBC.
Whether the event is deliberate or spontaneous, officers almost always become involved in the suicidal decision “without necessarily being aware of the agenda.”
SBC VS. “REGULAR” POLICE SHOOTING
Certain characteristics distinguished SBC confrontations from other police shootings, the researchers found. Among other things, the suicidal subjects’ emotional state was different. They were more likely to be described as angry, resolute, desperate, and agitated, whereas suspects in other police shootings more often seemed panicked, startled, confused, or defiant. “SBC subjects are much more likely than regular OIS subjects to be deliberate, willful, and resolved in their actions that provoke and draw fire from law enforcement,” the study states.
SBC subjects were older by a mean of 6 years. More were under the influence of alcohol or meth and were more likely to be armed with a knife. A higher proportion of regular OIS suspects were unarmed. SBC subjects were much less likely to flee the police during the incident. However, SBC and regular OIS subjects were just as likely to involve themselves in a police pursuit. Mohandie explains: “A suicidal individual during a police encounter may, in fact, initially try to escape, but as he realizes the futility and hopelessness sets in, ‘escape’ with a small ‘e’, transforms to ‘Escape’ with a capital ‘E’. It is important to recognize that this apparently paradoxical behavior—ambivalence—is commonly observed in suicidal subjects.”
By wide margins, they were more likely to be psychotic, to have experienced recent behavioral changes, to have spiritual issues and relationship problems, and to be divorced or separated. They were less likely to be on parole or probation or to be known gang members.
Perhaps the most important difference identified: “SBC subjects are more likely to fire their weapon at officers than are [other] OIS subjects,” the researchers found. In turn, the study reveals that officers fired more rounds at SBC subjects than they did at others.
Overall, “there was a 97% chance of injury or death to the subjects who precipitated these incidents, with a slight majority (51%) dying,” the study reports. In regular police shootings, suspects were more likely to survive even if wounded, or to emerge from deadly force physically unscathed. Only about 36% die.
The mortality rate of SBC subjects comprises “a huge public-health issue,” Mohandie says. “This information needs to reach mental-health professionals who are assessing and treating clients, in an effort to prevent individuals who may be fantasizing about SBC from being kicked loose into the community prematurely.”
The researchers’ findings leave little doubt about the danger to innocents at SBC events. Combining casualties among LEOs and bystanders, the study reports that there is a one-in-three chance of someone other than the subject being injured or killed during an incident.
“[A] ‘normal’ subject involved in a shooting gives up his agenda—likely escape—or reacts with fear and surprise once rounds are fired at him,” the researchers explain. “He realizes it is futile to fight, has a will to live, and usually surrenders. The SBC subject, on the other hand, appears to continue his threatening or provocative behavior once firing has begun by the police, perhaps consciously realizing that his desire to die…is momentarily within his grasp.” Mohandie believes this may be why more rounds are fired by officers in SBC events.
Virtually all (98%) of the subjects “demonstrated a behavioral threat,” such as pointing or gesturing with a weapon at another person or attempting to shoot someone during the incident. Ninety percent “aggressed against the police” and nearly half “harmed or attempted to harm civilians.” About 50% of the subjects who had a firearm actually fired it at the police.
The fact that these subjects “are more likely to shoot at officers and harm civilians…, draw more fire from officers, are more likely to die, appear to be more threatening to others, and are more likely to be armed than regular OIS subjects” speaks to their enhanced threat level, the study notes.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
The SBC subjects ranged from 16 to 76 years old, with a mean age of 35. Ninety-five percent were male and the vast majority heterosexual, with Caucasians (41%) and Hispanics (26%) predominating. Thirty-seven percent were single, 27% married or cohabiting, and 16% separated or divorced, with the marital status of the rest unknown. Of the 29% who could be confirmed as having children, frustrating issues related to the kids (custody, financial support) were a factor in 18% of the confrontations. More than half the subjects were confirmed as unemployed and 14% had experienced a job loss within 6 months of the incident. Nearly 30% were homeless. Nearly 4 in 10 were on parole or probation.
At least roughly two-thirds had “a confirmed or probable mental health history”—a very conservative estimate, in the researchers’ opinion. Of the known EDPs, nearly half were “clinically judged” as suffering from depression or some form of mood disorder, 20% were “delusional and/or hallucinating,” and 17% had a substance abuse disorder. About 1 in 5 had a known psychiatric hospitalization in their past, about the same percentage were currently under mental health care, and nearly 30% were supposed to be taking psychotropic medications, although the rate of compliance could not be determined.
More than 8 out of 10 had “reportedly experienced recent behavioral changes.” Nearly three-fourths were entangled in relationship problems, and more than two-thirds “were struggling with spiritual issues/conflicts.” The researchers note, for example, that subjects “sometimes expressed strong Catholic beliefs about sin and suicide, stating, e.g., that ‘I’ll get the cops to shoot me so I can still go to heaven.’ ” Others held concepts about God, the devil, and demonic possession of “delusional proportions.”
“Sixty-one percent of the SBC subjects talked about their suicidal ideation during the incident,” the researchers report, with the vast majority speaking specifically about SBC to responding officers.
The problem, Mohandie points out, is that nearly half the time SBC subjects say nothing about suicide to anybody before the incident. This can lead surviving relatives to regard officers’ reports of suicidal remarks with skepticism and distrust. To enhance officer credibility, “I’m a big believer in making audio and video recordings of the incident in progress whenever possible,” Mohandie says.
MORE TO COME
Interestingly, Mohandie launched the SBC study after he and Lewinski were involved as expert witnesses in defending a California narcotics agent charged with manslaughter for shooting a fleeing ex-con. The subject had gestured as if going for a weapon, even though he turned out to be unarmed.
During the trial, Mohandie offered nearly 2 dozen reasons the case should be considered SBC. “That’s the point where I decided we needed more empirical information to better understand these events,” he recalls. His and Lewinski’s respective analyses resonated with the jury, which found the agent not guilty. [click here for a PoliceOne report on this case.]
From the data amassed in his study, Mohandie says there will be more reports in the future. He wants to analyze verbal strategies that were attempted by police during the confrontations, to study female SBC subjects as a distinct sub-group, and to test a 16-point checklist that he believes will help investigators distinguish SBCs from other OISs.
Force Science News, of course, will report on these additional findings as soon as they become available.
Mohandie, a former LAPD psychologist who now heads an independent firm called Operational Consulting International, which addresses business and policing issues, can be reached at: email@example.com. His co-authors are Dr. J. Reid Meloy, with the University of California-San Diego, and Dr. Peter Collins, with the University of Toronto in Canada. Their study is printed in full in Vol. 54, Issue 2 (Mar. 2009) of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
[Thanks to Greg Meyer, a board member of the Force Science Research Center, for giving us a heads up on the SBC study. Meyer, formerly a captain with LAPD, appears frequently as an expert witness in law enforcement-related litigation.]