Suicide by Cop, Criminalization of Mental Illness, and the Need to Do Better

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Understanding how mental illness intersects police responses is an important step towards moving forward and saving lives. Photo by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay.com. 

There have been a lot of discussions recently of the systemic problems with our modern system of policing, with many calling for police departments to be defunded. These discussions, of course, come amid nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd by a member of the Minneapolis Police Department. The call to defund the police is typically a call to limit police authority, redefining their role in a more limited and well-defined way, such as responding specifically to violent crimes. This would allow large chunks of existing police budgets to be re-invested in things like community housing, addiction services, and mental health treatment. However, the purpose of this post is not to debate the role of police in our society generally. Yet since many proposals suggest having mental health workers respond to some of the calls currently handled by police, I wanted to use today’s post to focus on a specific intersection of mental health and policing, which is suicide by cop.

 

Suicide by cop, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a means of dying by suicide where the individual seeks to promote a fatal response from officers. Examples include pointing an unloaded rifle at officers or pointing a starter pistol (which of course is incapable of firing live rounds) at responding officers.

And to start with, I want to address some of the problems with discussing suicide by cop. The first is record keeping. This is the same problem faced by many advocates who are seeking to track instances of police use of force. However, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, 2015 to 2018 saw roughly 900 to 1,000 fatal police shootings a year, with possibly 10 to 29 percent of those shootings involving suicide by cop. Similarly, an analysis of 240 police shootings published in the August 1998 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin showed that roughly 16 percent of the shootings were probable or possible suicide by cop cases. Furthermore, 160 of the shootings analyzed had indeterminate motives, but 46 percent of those included details that could cause them to be categorized as suicide by cop. Lastly, homelessness and mental illnesses were specifically identified in 5 percent of those cases.

The first source I cited above noted not only the rate of suicide by cop, but also the second problem, which is that there seems to be a complete lack of training for police officers when it comes to handling a potential suicide by cop situation. Additionally, the FBI analysis detailed one situation where police, “observed a strange look on the subject’s face,” as he raised what turned out to be an unloaded rifle. But of course, the officers were untrained to recognize what that face meant.

On the one hand, few people would argue that officers were wrong to fire when a gun was being pointed at them. On the other hand, details of the situation, including the suspect’s facial expression and demeanor, could have been identified by mental health professionals or properly trained officers, possibly leading to a less fatal result.

Of course, these deaths are on top of those caused by police when dealing with non-suicidal individuals who are nevertheless suffering severe mental illness. Again, the problem of record-keeping and investigatory lapses noted above makes it difficult to know how many individuals with mental illness lose their lives unnecessarily. Yet we can safely say that number is certainly higher than zero.

While I am not here to comment on the defund police position, I will absolutely say that it is deeply troubling that we train officers for war, while failing to provide them with the training to handle the complex mental health problems they are likely to face. The lethal use of force should be the last resort, and the lack of training in the de-escalation of mental illness related conflicts suggests that in some cases we fall short of that standard. It is also easy to imagine how this failure feeds the mental health struggles that are also experienced by law enforcement officers themselves.

I still believe police are a crucial part of our society and that they can be a staple within their community. Yet when good parts are put in a broken system, we get broken results. Over militarization combined with a lack of mental health training and mental health professionals on the force demonstrate just one example of how our criminal justice system is broken. Even where these faults don’t result in death, they still potentially cause serious harm, both physically and mentally. And these emotional harms exacerbate underlying mental health issues that go unaddressed by a system not equipped for such issues. This brief look at the problem of suicide by cop and mental illness generally demonstrates that we could see hundreds of lives saved each year by having properly trained individuals responding to these calls. Because we can do better and we must do better.

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