The Problem With “Suicide by Cop”

The dangerous term that stops us from asking hard questions about police shootings.

Kajieme Powell.
Kajieme Powell, moments before being shot to death by police officers in St. Louis on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.  

Screengrab via St. Louis Police Department

Last week, roughly four miles from where Michael Brown had been killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, two St. Louis officers shot and killed a 25-year-old black man who allegedly came at them brandishing a steak knife. “Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me now, motherfucker!” Kajieme Powell can be heard yelling at the cops in a cellphone video of the fatal incident. Seconds later, the officers complied with Powell’s request.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, local authorities were quick to describe it as “suicide by cop.” In some respects, the video supports such a conclusion. Powell refuses to obey the officers’ commands as he moves toward them, then dares them to shoot. But the problem with the term suicide by cop is that it suggests the man’s death was inevitable—that the police have no agency and could do nothing else but fire their weapons until Powell was dead. That’s just not true, and we need to stop tossing around a phrase that implies that it is.

The term suicide by cop was coined in 1983 by a police officer­–turned–suicide hotline operator. “As a cop, I knew of a number of cases where it appeared that people had actually forced police officers to shoot them,” Dr. Karl Harris explained to the New York Times in 1998. “In the suicide business I saw all the different ways people attempted suicide, and it occurred to me that maybe some people were actually forcing cops to shoot them because they wanted to die.”

In the decades since, Harris’ neologism has become the default description any time someone appears to goad an officer into opening fire. In 2011, authorities used it to describe an incident in which four Florida officers shot Cedric Telasco, a 21-year-old man with schizophrenia, 20 times at his front door after he called 911 to report that a man with a knife was standing in his doorway. He gave a description of himself and told the dispatcher “just come and do what you have to do.” In 2013, a prosecutor in Washington state came to a similar conclusion after police shot and killed 28-year-old Patrick O’Meara, a suspect in a theft who was holding a metal cap gun when he died. In March, officials likewise cited suicide by cop as a motive in Sacramento after police shot and killed an unidentified 51-year-old man on the city’s light rail when he allegedly lunged at them with a knife. The phrase has become so ingrained that it even comes up when cops take a suspect into custody unharmed, as they did in Centerview, Missouri, this past January after a “highly intoxicated” 63-year-old threatened to shoot a cop and himself. “What I think it was, was a ‘suicide by cop,’ ” Sheriff Chuck Heiss told the Daily Star-Journal, describing what he believed to be the suspect’s motive.

It should come as no surprise that there is little concrete data available on just how many suicides by cop (or police-assisted suicides, as they are also known) occur in a given year. After all, there isn’t even a definitive tally for how many total Americans the police kill each year. Still, research suggests that such incidents make up a significant slice of police shootings. In a 1998 paper published by the FBI, a trio of criminal justice experts claimed that 16 percent of all police shootings were cases of suicide by cop. A more recent study, published in the Journal of Forensic Studies in 2009, examined more than 700 officer-involved shootings in North America and classified 36 percent of them as suicides by cop. The paper also suggested that the frequency of such incidents was on the rise.

Dig a little deeper into that 2009 study, however, and you see that the term is incredibly slippery. Only 30 percent of the shootings classified as suicide by cop were found to be preplanned by those who were ultimately shot by police. The remaining 70 percent were determined to be the product of a spontaneous decision made during an encounter with police. If we’re considering all of these shootings to be suicide by cop, that means there is no difference between a person who, in the moment, refuses to surrender and someone who actively seeks out the police as a means to end his life. That’s a distinction that absolutely has to be made. Otherwise, the phrase suicide by cop serves as a blanket excuse, a shrug of the shoulders when confronted with the worst possible outcome. In reality, these are the police encounters that need to be examined the most closely: ones in which a life may have been saved if officers made a different decision.

For law enforcement and for outside observers, it can be extraordinarily difficult to determine when it’s necessary to pull the trigger. That’s especially true when dealing with people suffering from mental illness, as Kajieme Powell may well have been judging by his erratic, unsettled behavior. Interactions with individuals who are mentally ill are more likely to result in the use of police force, according to research cited by the FBI. It’s likely no coincidence, then, that suicide by cop entered our vocabulary at the tail end of a deinstitutionalization trend that began in the 1960s.

As the New Republic’s Rebecca Leber and others have already detailed, police officers are typically trained to establish authority upon arriving at the scene. According to mental health experts, this is a terrible approach when dealing with someone with a mental illness. At best, standard police procedure does little to help officers deal with mentally ill suspects, victims, and ordinary citizens. At worst, the disconnect between typical law enforcement behavior and the preferred protocol for interacting with the mentally ill can turn difficult situations into tragic ones.

There are special training programs to help officers deal with mentally ill people in the field. The programs—known as Crisis Intervention Teams—typically instruct officers to give such individuals more space and time than they’d normally afford suspects, and to generally use a softer touch by engaging in conversation instead of shouting commands. But to date, such programs have only been implemented in an estimated 2,700 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments. And while the early returns suggest the programs help, the training can’t guarantee a shooting won’t happen. The Metropolitan Police Department in St. Louis told New York magazine that one of the two officers who shot Powell was indeed CIT-certified.

Still, the footage of Powell’s shooting suggests that this wasn’t a kill-or-be-killed situation for police. While allegedly armed with a knife, Powell was not carrying a firearm. Even so, it took officers less than 16 seconds to open fire from the time they left their car. While the video of Powell’s death is disturbing, I’m choosing to embed it here so you can watch it yourself and make your own judgments about the officers’ actions.

Given what little information they had upon arriving at the scene, it makes sense that they would have drawn their guns immediately upon their arrival. It’s less clear why they opted to use their firearms instead of a nonlethal weapon like a Taser or why they didn’t initially simply back away in hopes of avoiding a confrontation with a man who was not within striking distance of anyone.

Police officers are put in similar positions all too often. Consider what played out this past weekend in Ottawa, Kansas, where police shot and killed 18-year-old Joseph Jennings in the parking lot of a local hardware store. Jennings was said to be suicidal and, according to his aunt, had been treated for an overdose at a nearby hospital shortly before he was killed. While the shooting is under investigation, local authorities say their officers responded appropriately given that they believed Jennings was armed. “They reacted based upon the training that they’ve been given from the academy,” Ottawa Police Chief Dennis Butler said during a weekend press conference. “We were thankful that no officer was injured from protecting themselves from risk of great bodily harm.”

The teen’s family tells a different story. “[The officers] knew him,” Jennings’ aunt, Brandy Smith, told the local paper. “They dealt with him the day before. He was suicidal. He had only been out of the [psychiatric] hospital for three hours when they shot him. I was screaming at the top [of my] lungs, ‘That’s Joseph Jennings! You know him, don’t shoot him!’ ”

We’re still missing crucial details from the Kansas case—most notably whether Jennings was actually armed as the responding officers believed he was in the moment. And without a video or a fuller accounting of what happened, it’s too early to pass judgment on whether the cops were justified in their use of force. But history suggests that in a case like this one, authorities will never have to differentiate between a justified shooting and an unavoidable one. That’s the danger of thinking of a shooting like this one as suicide by cop: It means that nobody has to answer the difficult questions that should be asked.

It’s also worth pondering whether the mere existence of the term suicide by cop could play a role, however small, in these sorts of shootings. That language doesn’t just take police officers off the hook in the aftermath of potentially avoidable deaths. It also gives the false impression that if police have a reason to shoot you, they automatically will. Such a notion could encourage people who are indeed suicidal to place themselves in risky, dangerous encounters with the police. As Smith said of her nephew: “I think he was on a suicide mission.”

To be clear, police officers do sometimes have little choice but to use lethal force. And we should have tremendous sympathy for those who are put in that horrible situation: Research suggests that those officers who take a life in the line of duty are more likely to suffer PTSD-like symptoms and to retire early from the force.

Take the story of Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Deputy Glenn Vincent, who shot and killed a 30-year-old woman who pointed a gun at his chest from close-range. Police would later discover a note in the women’s car that read, in part: “Please forgive me. My intention was never to hurt anyone. This was just a sad and sick ruse to get someone to shoot me. I’m so very sorry for pulling innocent people into this. I just didn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger myself.”

Cases of this sort are all the more reason to do away with a term that puts too many disparate types of police shootings on equal footing. That was a suicide by cop. The Kajieme Powell case was not. It’s time we understood the difference.