Suicide by Cop

<<< This post is a continuation of a previous article on Suicide.

Suicide by Cop

Something which needs to be added to this ‘general’ duty to respond to suicide is a comparatively new phenomenon being somewhat inelegantly described as “Suicide by Cop”.

It has been noted in several inquests or legally comparable hearings abroad, that police officers can be placed in a very difficult position by someone intent on achieving their own death.  This occurs by inducing officers to use lethal force, ‘having’ to shoot the individual because they are deliberately creating an impression or a reality whereby others are at grave risk.  It attempts to force the officers to do the least worst thing and kill the suicidal person to maintain broader public safety and of course, during investigation subsequent to all police shootings including incidents like this, links are often made to victims’ mental health histories which compounds the emotional complexity of the action taken seen in hindsight.

Of course, this is extremely delicate and controversial territory, but undoubtedly some cases have involved this.  The Inquest into the death of barrister Mark SAUNDERS – fatally shot by the Metropolitan Police in 2010 heard that the police inspector in charge of the tactical firearms officers consider throughout the incident that ‘suicide by cop’ needed to be considered.  Inspector Nick BENNETT described this phrase as ‘inelegant’ and ultimately it was not clear whether this was such a case.  However, the impact upon police firearms officers who kill members of the public – even where this is lawful and necessary – is potentially massive.

Firearms officers have often said that you cannot know how an individual armed officer will respond to taking that ultimate professional decision until they’ve done it and the stresses involved in post-incident management of police firearms usage mean that to then learn you were used as a ‘method’ of suicide can surely only compound the emotional reaction?  Such things have caused police forces to consider “less-than-lethal” options for handling armed conflict and for example, it was speculated during the hunt for David RATHBAND’s attacker that he wanted ‘suicide by cop’.

When Northumbria Police went to the extent of trying to detain him by using (unlicensed) Tasers – rifle-style weapons with a longer firing range than normal pistol-style Tasers – he took the decision to kill himself using his shotgun.  However, conscious of his desire to be ‘taken down’ by armed police, Northumbria Police senior officers took a decision to deploy these unlicensed, ‘less-than-lethal’ options to prevent his death.  Bearing in mind he’d already attempted to murder a police officer, threatened to kill yet more and gone to significant lengths to advertise his desire to die, this approach was an extraordinary one to detain him alive.  (The decision around using the weapons was somewhat vindicated by HM Coroner as reasonable in the circumstances, a genuine attempt to achieve a non-fatal outcome; but ultimately not until after the Home Office withdrew the operating licence of the company who supplied the weapons.  This in turn lead to the suicide of Pro-Tect director Pete BOATMAN, a former police inspector and of course, this had to be attended by … police officers from his own previous force in Northamptonshire.)

On the face of it, reports of ‘a suicide’ to be dealt with can appear straight forward: you call a senior officer, who gets a detective and forensic scene examiners; you preserve everything til that is done by which time most-decision making is out of the hands of your frontline police officers.  Of course, in truth the complexity and the emotional impact can be huge given this wide range of circumstances into which the police are drawn when dealing with suicide, including quite dynamic attempts to achieve death by actively suicidal individuals.

Suicide and Crisis Intervention

Finally, a few comments upon suicide attempts to which the police are called in an attempt to persuade an individual not to take their own life.  Within the last few months at work, I have personally attended two incidents whereby my officers and I have been invited to persuade someone not to kill themselves.  One involved threats by an out-of-area mental health patient to jump from a very high bridge over an arterial road into Birmingham which had to be closed for the duration of the threat.  He was eventually persuaded back over the barrier and arrested under mental health law.  The other involved a man who barricaded himself into his own bathroom with a knife and threatened to take an overdose and / or self-harm.  His wife called the police in desperation after he own attempts to ensure his safety failed.  He was persuaded, hours later, to come out and go to hospital – bearing in mind the police had no legal powers in this private dwelling as his conduct never quite reached ‘breach of the peace’ territory and he committed no offences.  Both incidents involved calling for “hostage / crisis negotiators”, although the first one was resolved before they arrived on scene.  Their skills at the second were very impressive indeed.

More needs to be known – as in proper research – about the impact upon officers; about effective training to prepare for and handle calls to suicide; and about how the police could improve their responses to “suicide by cop” and to post-suicide family liaison.


17 thoughts on “Suicide by Cop

  1. In the last instance, why weren’t mental health crisis services involved? As you’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s not in the core skillset of police officers to negotiate distressed people out of situations like this, and as you mentioned there isn’t even legal jurisdiction.

      1. It’s fair to say, that capacity to respond out of office hours is ‘variable’, and practically impossible in some areas. There are also many stories of particular mental health emergencies not meeting their ‘remit’ for a response, even where the consequences of a non response are a legal inability by the police to resolve a crisis or safeguard someone.

        All a shame, really.

      2. Absolutely on the nail! We’ve had talks from MH professionals who ended up saying ‘Call us – we will come out and help etc etc etc’ Reality…after 1630hrs until 0930hrs, you’re on your own kiddo! Good luck.

    1. I really felt the need to reply to this. Mental Health is minimal after normal working hours. Between the hours of five and twelve you may get someone to respond if you are very lucky after that you have not got a hope in hell.
      Mental Health out of hours coverage is so sparse that I have sat in accident and emergency all night waiting for my son to be seen. Come nine am then they appear.
      At stupid o clock when my son is in meltdown smashing the place up and trying to find anything he can use to just end his pain. I ring the police because they respond , Mental Health won’t.
      Too often the crisis is over by the time he is seen by Mental Health. At that point he is no longer a risk so he would no longer qualify for input from them. So it goes on. Police get frustrated by our situation and often apologise to me for not being able to access help when we need it. It is not down to them, they are a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. They can help immediately but its the problem that needs tackling.
      Mental Health is not nine till five unfortunately their staff are.

      1. Good post, always grateful for the validation that this sort of perspective provides. Interesting how there is little to balance this kind of view or the problem that I see the police encountering.

        I worry that without proper planning and preparation we’ve turned the police into a de facto crisis service with neither the training nor the skills nor the legal authority to do it properly.

    2. Mental Health Crisis professionals do not have the training or legal jurisdiction to deal with situations like the 2nd incident mentioned. The specially trained police negotiators were clearly skilled and trained to deal with this safely. What mental health professionals can do is treat and provide care for these people once the immediate risk situation has been dealt with. Mental health services are not resoursed to provide an emergency service. We do not have blue light vehicles for example and such resources would be required as well as the training if you wanted us deal with these sorts of situations. In this era of cuts I doubt this is realistic, practical or the best use of our skills, experience or time!

      1. Simon, thanks for this. I have to push back with one point: how do we deal with the immediate risk situation? … there’s no offence, no breach of the peace so no police legal authority to coerce. Police present – negotiators or otherwise – have mouths with hich to hope to influence but little else.

        The situation as described is something that MH do have legal jurisdiction to deal with if it is felt that urgent assessment for admission is needed. The police most certainly don’t. I chose the example specifically for this reason.

        I’m referring to the ‘locked in bathroom’ with mental disorder but not breaching the peace (as defined) and not committing an offence situation. We’ve all got a legal right to lock ourselves in our own bathroom. It’s perfectly right to say that hostage negotiatiors may well lead and be required but the police can bring no coercion to this matter, or force off someone’s bathroom door, until they’ve breached the peace or offended.

        The example was chosen deliberately to create the impression of police incident which of necessity may need to be a joint enterprise. Resources or not, there are expectations of MH or
        AMHP led crisis incidents because legal authority rests where it rests. It is the decision not to resource such demands that creates such ‘failure demand’ elsewhere is services.

        Of course and for the record, I’m referring not just to any old ‘MH crisis’ where the police think they could send a job towards MH; but ones where the background and circumstances give genuine rise to health-led views that MHA assessments / admissions are required.

      2. I am not sure what you expect MH services to do in the situation of someone locking themselves in a bathroom with a knife! Once bathroom is opened and the person disarmed then we can do something. Until then we do not have the training or resources to intervene. I am not clear what you think can be done differently? The if the person is in a private dwelling and there is risk to life or limb, then s17 PACE gives police power to enter and search the premises for the person concerned. Once the police have carried out that power, then MH services can intervene, either through MH crisis services or via an assessment under the MHA. Until then we can’t unless we have a warrent under s135(1) MHA. This is not available in an emergency as it can take hours or days to get one. So my argument here is that emergency powers are available to the police either through PACE or the MHA. I do agree that when police have contained the immediate situation and the imminant risk has reduced, it is not always easy to get the MH resources on scene to deal to take the next step. However, I do want to stress than AMHPs and MH Crisis teams are not emergency services and we cannot always respond immediately.

      3. Simon, you should know perfectly well that the police have NO powers for this situation in a private dwelling under the MHA – ABSOLUTELY NONE WHATSEVER.

        And so I’ll say again, the example was deliberately picked that no offence was being committed and no breach of the peace was occuring to see what the response was. Such a scenario, whether or not it involve a knife, is common occurance in policeland and officers are expected to manage it without any legal powers to do so and whilst working alongside community crisis services whose willingness and capacity to response is below the required levels to match the nature and variety of demand faced. If it helps – repeat the scenario without the knife (given that possession of your own knife in your own house without threatening others is not an offence) and recall the threats were not being realised.

        I’m sure you’d realise the I understand the power to force entry to premises under s17 PACE to save life / limb (as well as to arrest for offences) but as you also (should) know, the courts place a very high threshold on this where the fear of threat to life must be literally perceived.

        THe issue here – for me at least – is that until that offence is committed or that breach of the peace apprehended, there is no legal power to do anything than ask / persuade. If you want to start getting into the scenario of forcing the door off the bathroom and removing to a place of safety – which is of course what the police would do if in a place to which the public had access – then you’d need a warrant … which can only be obtained by an AMHP.

        So it’s not so much about AMHPs being emergency services: we get that you’re not, but it is about AMHPs and CrisisTeams recognising that one thing that may be needed in responding to any mental health crisis in a private dwelling is tham supporting the emergency services, in this case by being potentially available to apply for a warrant to allow the police to tools to do the job.

  2. Great blog.

    As a firearms officer and instructor here in the UK I whole heartedly agree with your comments. Having been in the position more than once where you are staring down the sights of a weapon at someone who has reached a point of such desparation that they want to end their life , the stress is immense.
    Having done some very basic research for a lesson I would roughly estimate that more than 70% of recent police shootings, both fatal and non fatal could potentially be classed as suicide (or attempted) by cop I wont start mentioning any names but some very high profile fatal shootings could have been labeled as suicide by cop.

    In America it is recognised and researched properly. a group called force science research. Headed Dr Bill Lewinski, a very pro police gentleman, regularly hold lectures on the effect of suicide by cop, on the officers who have to deal with it.

    One very minor point for you… We class TASER and baton gun as less lethal, not less than lethal, due to the fact that there is still a slight chance of causing fatal injuries with them.

  3. From (many) personal experiences, I can agree that cops are often ‘out of their depth’ dealing with people with mental health problems/suicide risks, but on the whole seem vastly more capable and frankly nicer than mental health professionals, who, if they even respond seem even more unaware of ‘how to handle the situation’. There’s a massive gap in services and training (of MH professionals) that the public are unaware of.
    Were these services provided, the impact would be immense – much police time freed up and less antisocial behavoir/other crimes, this ‘suicide by cop’ would not seem necessary to these people with proper intervention and compassionate help long before they got so desperate.

  4. Hi, A comment about a general resource if I may (thanks!):

    I know mental health service — police liaison has been happening for a long time, but great to see this blog and forum. As ever with mental health there’s always room for improvement. I champion Hodges’ model a generic conceptual framework that can be appreciated and used by the majority of people. The model is an excellent resource in terms of ‘political’ and criminal justice concepts and their attendant features of care.

    The model’s incorporation of ‘INDIVIDUAL’ and ‘GROUP (population)’ immediately prompts consideration of the ‘needs of many vs. the few: the ONE’. The person vs. the State. As well as identifying SCIENCE, SOCIAL, and INTERPERSONAL care (knowledge) domains the model includes a POLITICAL domain.

    The model is agnostic in terms of disciplines, speciality, media form and is not too difficult to learn and use. The model is used to guide care philosophy in one medium secure unit (a related paper is with a journal under review).

    There is a recent slide presentation from a conference in Liverpool, Hope university:

    The blog below provides some examples of the model with concepts related to the domains.
    This page may also help:

    It’s an A4 format page with indicative content. In use of course the model’s content is determined by the situation and should be person centred.

    The homepage for the website basically presents the model, its two axes and care domains:

    I have added you to the mental health resources at:

    This framework could really facilitate police training (situated, person-centered)!
    If I can f/w a paper, respond to any questions, explore a possible position paper let me know.

    Many thanks
    Peter Jones
    Intermediate Support Team: Older Adults
    Lancashire, UK
    Blogging at “Welcome to the QUAD”
    Hodges Health Career – Care Domains – Model
    h2cm: help 2C more – help 2 listen – help 2 care!/h2cm

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