What is ‘Suicide by Cop’ and How Do We Stop It?

“It can’t be a way of hiding behind a phrase to protect your own missteps in a situation.”

By Alain StephensNovember 14, 2016 12:55 pm

This is part one of a series on “suicide by cop.” What does it mean? Who are the victims? Why is this happening? We’ll answer these questions and more.

In October, the husband of a 26-year-old Austin woman called 911 to request help for her from a mental health officer. A few hours later, she was dead.

After police officers arrived at the scene, the young woman pointed a BB gun at them, saying “Shoot me, shoot me, kill me.” Officers deemed her a threat and shot her multiple times. She died later from the wounds.

Speculation surrounding her death said she may have been attempting “suicide by cop.”

Jim Harrington, civil rights attorney and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project, says the loaded term refers to a situation in which a person with a mental health challenge attempts to incite an officer to kill them.

Harrington says about 20 percent of police calls are what they call “social work” calls – and a large percentage of those are incidents involving people who have mental health challenges and are in need of help. But officers don’t have a template for every dangerous incident involving someone with a mental health challenge, Harrington says.

“But when you have a clear call, that ought to trigger a process and a procedure so that we don’t end up with that person killed,” he says.

Harrington says to keep “suicide by cop” incidents from happening, officers need to look at the situation in a way that will help the victim, rather oblige them, which may include bringing in a crisis intervention team of specially-trained teams of officers to deal with people who have mental health challenges.

“The officers have to take these calls seriously and get the crisis intervention team on the scene ASAP,” Harrington says. “Then what that crisis intervention team does is try to de-escalate – essentially talk … until that person basically is in a sufficient enough position where you can take that person off-site and get some psychiatric help.”

Harrington also wrote a letter to Austin Chief of Police Art Acevedo calling for reform.

“It appears that the time has come for the police department to employ an independent consultant to re-evaluate and reform its procedure with regard to mental health calls,” he wrote in the letter.

But that’s not what’s happening, he says.

“The worst possible thing that can happen – and this is what repeatedly happens – is that the officer moves towards that person and confronts that person,” Harrington says. “More often than not the person ends up dead, having been killed by the officer.”

Too often, the term becomes a code to blanket an officer with immunity after such an incident, Harrington says, so that officials don’t inquire further into an officer’s use of force.

“It’s an easy phenomenon for us to explain in three words,” he says. “But it’s got to be a neutral phenomenon. It can’t be a way [for police officers] of hiding behind a phrase to protect your own missteps in a situation.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.