<<< 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.