Suicide by Police: An Alarming New Trend

In March of this year, a man wielding two meat cleavers entered a day care center in Madison, Wisconsin and slashed one of the teachers in the head, arms, and shoulders. When two veteran police officers arrived, they saw no other choice but to shoot and kill the perpetrator, Gregory E. Velasquez. The actions themselves, although deeply disturbing, are unfortunately not entirely shocking in this day and age; however, the coroner's ruling the death "suicide by police" may be for some.

Suicide by police is an alarming new trend that has police departments across the country worried, and for good reason. It seems to be occurring with more frequency—the three examples discussed below happened within the last several months.

This method of suicide occurs when someone intentionally acts in a menacing way toward law enforcement officials in order to provoke the use of deadly force. The person is often depressed and/or despondent and wishes to die, but for some reason does not want to commit suicide directly. Often times, the person doesn't even brandish a viable weapon, often wielding an unloaded weapon or even a toy pistol or starter gun.

Such was the case of Kevin R. King, who, in May of this year, responded to police knocking at his door with what looked like a .22 caliber rifle. Police had been notified by the local rehabilitation center which recently released King that he was home, armed, and intended to commit suicide by police. When an officer opened the door and stared down the barrel of King's gun, he fired three times into King's abdomen, killing him. When King's weapon turned out to be nothing more than a pellet gun, the incident and subsequent shooting became a clear case of suicide by police.

An Arkansas man's death in February of this year is also under investigation as being a possible case of suicide by police. When police responded to an alarm at the home of Benny Spears, they were greeted by an angry Spears yelling from inside the house. Spears stepped out of the house, pointing a gun at the police, who then shot and killed him. Although friends and neighbors initially denied the possibility of "suicide by police," the local prosecutor noted that Spears had committed no crime and had no criminal record and stated that "there's no reason on earth for him to step outside with a gun—I mean none, whatsoever."

Also called "suicide by cop" or "officer- (or police-) assisted suicide," this phenomenon first came to light around 1981 when an account of one such incident appeared in the news. In 1985, suicide by police was documented in a scientific journal and since then, has been featured in a motion picture (Falling Down), television programs (Without a Trace and Law & Order:Criminal Intent), and also a novel (The Outsiders).

The term is thought to have originated in the United States, but a 2003 article in the United Kingdom publication "The Guardian" shows that this trend is not limited to our borders. In an inquest into a police shooting in the UK, a jury ruled the death in question a suicide. Before he was shot, the perpetrator/victim warned, "better get your guns out lads, I'm coming out;" there was also a suicide note found later at the scene.

What can we, as a society, do to counteract the disturbing trend of suicide by police and close this latest gash in our collective well-being?

Mental health issues are at the center of this debate. Without a doubt, better mental health services, including the elimination of the stigma associated with needing such help, are vital. Making services affordable and accessible for everyone is a good first step, while dealing with problems such as depression and anger management will help not only this social problem, but others as well—particularly those that involve violence.

On a more practical, everyday level, police departments must respond to this trend by offering training and a particular system of dealing with such circumstances. Indeed, many law enforcement programs around the country have already instituted such instruction, but an even more uniform approach wouldn't hurt. If law enforcement officials are better versed regarding this issue, fewer officers will be placed in danger and hopefully, fewer potential suicide by police situations will end tragically.

As more instances occur, many cases, both criminal and those privately filed by family members of the perpetrators/victims, will make their way into the court system;this may mean that some homicide/manslaughter statutes need tweaking by state legislatures, perhaps including an officer's response to an attempted "suicide by police" as a valid form of self-defense.

At least one court has dealt with this issue without new legislation, instead analyzing the situation under normal standards regarding a police officer's use of deadly force. In a wrongful death case against the city of Leavenworth and three of its police officers, the estate of Shawn Perryman alleged both a violation of 42 U.S.C. ¤ 1983 and common law negligenceafter officers was shot and killed Perryman. The Kansas Court of Appeals found the officers justified in their use of deadly force; Perryman had charged within 8 feet of an officer brandishing a sharp, metal object over his head, having shouted "I want to die."

Although the increasing problem of suicide by police is well documented, there hasn't been much discussion as to how we, as a society, should handle it. When it does happen, the most effective dialogue will involve representatives from the various disciplines involved, including mental health, law enforcement, and legal professionals. It is only through the input and involvement from all angles that we can finally stitch up this wound instead of simply applying a band-aid.