'Suicide by cop' is in the eye of the beholder

People mourn along Hwy. 7 near the scene of an officer-involved shooting.
People mourn along Hwy. 7 near the scene of an officer-involved shooting in Chanhassen on July 13, 2018.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Say a person in psychological distress wants to die. So, he threatens the police, often by waving a knife or gun. (As with more generic forms of suicide, most cases involve men.) Then the officers are “forced” to kill him — to protect themselves and others. The scenario is often said to be suicide by cop.

Some academic studies say the phenomenon accounts for as many as a third of fatal police shootings. But does it really? Or is it, as some critics say, just another way to let cops off the hook? It’s generally agreed that some fatal police shootings are suicide by cop.

The question is, which ones?

“There's no established medical or legal definition of suicide by cop,” said James Drylie, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey who has studied the question.

He said the result is that whether a fatal police shooting really is a suicide by cop depends on who's counting.

“It's almost impossible to objectively record these or to get data on it without having some subjective assessment,” he said.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

In his research, Drylie has come up with three basic criteria: He argues there has to be some clear evidence that the person wanted to die, such as a note or having told someone. There has to be clear danger to the officer, so a person standing 30 feet away and just holding a knife wouldn't count. And the threat to police has to be done knowingly. In Drylie's definition, it doesn't count if someone is so intoxicated or psychotic that he doesn't know what he's doing.

Drylie said agreeing on criteria could also help officers respond, perhaps without feeling like they have to shoot the person.

“Having this knowledge, this forbearing, maybe they could mitigate these cases a little bit more, a little bit better,” he said.

The concept of suicide by cop has been around for a long time. A criminologist first described it back in 1959 as "suicide by means of victim-precipitated homicide." The current term “suicide by cop” arose in the ‘80s.

More and more law enforcement personnel are getting trained in how to deal with people in a mental health crisis, such as a person who's clearly psychotic, or a nonthreatening suicide call.

But when the cases are less clear-cut, police often don't know what to do.

“Amazingly there are no protocols to teach police officers how to deal with these situations and adjust their tactics accordingly,” said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent law enforcement think tank.

Wexler said officers need to recognize that what may at first look like a routine traffic stop or an erratic driver could actually be a person in crisis. And police need to respond accordingly.

“Keeping distance from them and communicating is an important first step,” he said.

Wexler's organization has just begun putting together protocols to train officers to recognize potential suicides by cop and how to respond. He plans to present them to police officers from around the country next month.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of James Drylie’s last name.

This reporting is part of Call to Mind, our MPR initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.