Study Measures Scope of ‘Suicide by Cop’ Cases

Those who provoke shootings by police tend to be men with a history of violence and alcohol or drug dependency.
by Paul Dingsdale
Deirdre Anglin, associate professor of emergency medicine, along with a colleague at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, found that just 17 percent of suicidal individuals in the study used replica firearms to provoke officers.

photo: Irene Fertik

A NEW STUDY suggests that more than one in 10 fatal shootings by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies are provoked by a suicide -- someone who wanted to end his life and chose to instigate a shooting by threatening a policeman.

The study, whose principal investigators are Deirdre Anglin, associate professor of emergency medicine at the School of Medicine, H. Range Hutson of Harvard Medical School, and Sgt. John Yarbrough of the Sheriff’s Department, was published in the December Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The researchers examined 437 officer-involved shootings investigated by the Sheriff’s Department over the 11-year period 1987-97 and found that “suicide by cop” accounted for 46 (11 percent) of the total.

“This suicide-by-cop phenomenon has attracted a lot of attention recently,” Anglin said. “But this is the first study of its kind that goes beyond a simple collation of cases.”

Noteworthy are the similarities the researchers discovered in those individuals who decided to end their life in this way. They found that the vast majority (98 percent) were male and 39 percent had a history of domestic violence. Past history of suicide attempts, as well as a high incidence of alcohol and drug dependency, also tended to be characteristic. About 50 percent of the weapons used to threaten officers were firearms, with the overwhelming majority being operative and loaded. Only 17 percent of suicidal individuals used replica firearms to provoke officers. “Previous reports have implied that suicidal individuals are not a legitimate threat to officers or civilians,” Anglin noted.

The evidence gathered by the researchers also indicates that “suicide by cop” appears to be on the rise. Although there were 46 documented cases in the period 1987-97, 13 of these occurred in 1997 alone. Whether this was due to better documentation of cases by officers -- or an actual increase spurred by a “copycat” effect of suicidal individuals hearing about “suicide by cop” -- is not clear.

But whatever the reason for the escalation of the “suicide by cop” phenomenon, the trend has serious implications, the researchers said. Aside from the physical threat to officers and others posed by these suicidal individuals, there is the psychological impact on the officer to consider.

“Many officers second-guess their decision to shoot in such situations,” Anglin said. Additionally, deaths linked to this phenomenon are not generally recorded as suicides by coroners and medical examiners; the classification of these deaths as homicides may raise questions of legal liability for the officers involved.

Because law enforcement officers continue to encounter the “suicide by cop” phenomenon, the Sheriff’s Department was eager to participate in this groundbreaking study.

“The department was particularly helpful,” Anglin said. “They had the insight to recognize the importance of the problem, and are now actively developing protocols and implementing strategies to better handle these suicidal individuals in the field” -- using less lethal suppression such as Mace, Tasers and bean bag guns, for example.

AWARENESS OF the “suicide by cop” phenomenon is equally important to health-care providers, Anglin said. “Most medical professionals know little about this phenomenon, and this has an obvious impact on patient care.

“Health-care providers engaged in the resuscitation of individuals shot in these circumstances should be aware that they may be dealing with suicidal individuals. In addition, health- care providers involved in the evaluation of potentially suicidal individuals must be aware that ‘suicide by cop’ is an actual form of suicide.”