Tag Archive for: suicide by cop

Each year, somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people commit suicide in the United States. They take their own lives, leaving behind an average of six or more suicide survivors, the friends and family who deeply cared for the deceased person. And it is that half-dozen people who are left to deal with the aftermath and the very real emotional struggle to understand why their loved one chose to end it all.

Additionally, there’s another group of individuals who are unfortunately forced into the survivor category, the police officers who’re chosen as the weapon of choice for the person who elects to die in the manner known as suicide-by-cop. They, the officers involved, have their own special process of grieving with which to contend.

Shame and Guilt

In cases of suicide where a person takes their own life, the hours, days, weeks, and even years after are often filled with emotions that include shame and guilt. Shame, perhaps, because the survivors’ religions or personal beliefs view the act of suicide as a sin. Guilt, because the survivor may think they could have done something to prevent the death. There are other reasons, of course.

Outsiders may shy away from family members of the suicidal person because they simply don’t know what to say or do. Doing so adds to the sometimes self-isolation and feelings of abandonment experienced by survivors.

Then, adding to the trauma, come the police who enter the scene because the death must be investigated. It’s a necessary evil, one that unfortunately causes the family to relive the entire event. It’s an unpleasant and uncomfortable situation for the investigating officers, and a traumatic one for the survivors. Not to mention that survivors sometimes blame the police for the death, placing the fault squarely on their shoulders.

Why Do They Do It?

Some individuals who’ve made the choice to use a cop to do “the deed” for them are often attempting to avoid the issue of committing suicide, the act of taking one’s own life. Since suicide is often thought of as taboo, having someone else do it for you releases them (in their minds) of the stigma of suicide.

Sometimes a person sees suicide-by-cop as a fitting punishment for a sin. Others, well, they simply didn’t have the nerve to jump from a tall building or to use a gun to violently end it all. So they choose armed police officers to do it for them.

Mentally ill patients sometimes see the officer as a stand-in for a parent or other family member they absolutely despise. Therefore, they act out, using the officer as a means to thumb their nose at people in charge by forcing the authorities (the officers) to cause the destruction of the suicidal person. Sort of an “I win because I made you kill me,” scenario.

How Does Suicide-by-Cop Affect Police Officers?

Police officers who encounter individuals who’ve made the choice to use a cop to do “the deed” for them are often psychologically scarred and become depressed, and even angry that they were used as tools to kill another human.

Officers can develop various stages of PTSD, from mild to severe, and may forever second-guess the action(s) they took “that day,” contemplating the “what-ifs” on a never-ending loop that replays inside their minds day after day after day.

Officers who’re involved in suicide-by-cop situations may develop severe insomnia, irritability, and anxiety. They experience nightmares centered around the event. Flashbacks often occur, taking the officer back to the moment when the event took place.

Officers often feel an overwhelming sense of guilt after a suicide-by-cop incident. Reinforcing the guilt is that family and friends of the deceased often blame the police for the death, placing the fault squarely on their shoulders.

Shattered Lives

Officers may become absolutely broken over the incident. Their lives are shattered and they don’t know how to cope with changing from a strong and emotionally sound person to someone who can’t cope with day-to-day life. Even things as simple as going outside for a breath of fresh air can become a terrifying act.

Each officer reacts differently to suicide-by-cop situations. Like snowflakes, no two are alike.

To add to the officer’s troubles, while dealing with the psychological issues along comes a police shooting review board/team who question the officers every movement and action. They interrogate the officer in an attempt to make certain he/she followed the book, or not. The officer is investigated by strangers from outside agencies. They’re placed in the same “hot seat” where they’ve seated numerous criminals over the years.

The officers are most likely suspended from duty pending the outcome of the investigations. They’re stripped of their badges and guns. Civil suits pop up, filed by the attorneys representing the family of the deceased person. The public and press quite often side with the victim and place blame on the officer.

If the suicidal person was of a different race than that of the officer, accusations of racism often appear in the media as well as in the form of protests and marches. These actions compound the officer’s feelings of guilt which, in turn, sends depression and anxiety spiraling out of control. They’re hit from all sides with negativity.

The walls around them seem as if they’re closing in. Startle responses become hypersensitive. Paranoia sets in as the officer senses a lack of support from his department and from the general public.

Fear, anxiety, depression, and anger

Some fellow officers give the impression that the officer involved in the shooting is weak and should’ve been able to take the killing of another human in stride. However, this only serves to increase the officer’s feelings of doubt and depression.

Family life for the officers can quickly begin to crumble due to symptoms of PTSD—the flashbacks, irritability, the “I can’t concentrate and can’t seem to do anything right” syndrome. They give up and shut down, basically leaving only two options—seek professional help, or not.

Those who do not elect to accept counseling and other professional services often self-medicate by turning to alcohol and illegal drug use as an attempt to make their problems go away.

Even those who do turn to mental health professionals sometimes find that prescribed medications have adverse effects, enhancing the symptoms of PTSD. That or they’re overmedicated and plunder through life in a near zombie-like state. Sure, mental health care works for many, but a few don’t fare as well.

Many times, unfortunately, officers who are unable to cope with their involvement in a suicide-by-cop incident are unable to return to work as police officers. And, sadly, their mental instability and insecurities make them unlikely candidates for employment in the public sector.

Therefore, they oftentimes remain at home alone, broken, sad, anxious, depressed and, left to their thoughts and day- and nightmares while heavily medicated or high on illegal substances or alcohol.

They’re alone because their families were unable to deal with the angry outbursts and both physical and mental abuse, so they packed their bags and left.

And there sits the once proud officer, alone, scared, confused, and wondering a million times each day … “what if?”

And some, in a weird twist of fate, finally reach the end of their ropes and take their own lives … another suicide-by-cop.

Suicide by Cop was a theory that developed after the young man whose life ended shortly after he sent several bullets flying in my direction. He’d left his hometown possibly to avoid a sexual assault trial centered around a serious crime he’d been accused of committing. The trial was on the horizon, therefore, some believed he’d decided to skip town. So he packed clothing into a military duffel bag and loaded it and a small amount of fishing gear into a station wagon he’d borrowed from his father. Then he headed southeast from the upper mid-West state where he and his family lived.

If his wish had been to die at the hand of police officer, well, that wish came true a few weeks later when he and I met alongside I95 in Virginia. He’d just robbed a bank and during a police pursuit, crashed his car into a culvert at the end of an entrance ramp leading onto the busy highway. The pursuing officer was a rookie I’d trained in defensive tactics and officer survival during his time at the police academy.

Long story short, since many of you know the details, he came out of his car with gun in hand and after a few moments, came up shooting. After I’d returned fire, hitting him with all five of the rounds I fired, he leapt to his feet and charged with gun in hand, pointed at other officers who’d arrived after the initial shooting began.

I and a sheriff’s captain tackled him and handcuffed him. He died a few minutes later. I was the only officer whose rounds struck the robber and four of the five rounds I fired caused fatal wounds. The fifth, a shot to the side of the head, caused extensive damage but most likely, according to the medical examiner, would not have ended his basic life functions.

Whether or not he’d planned to kill himself by using my, or another officer’s bullets, will forever remain a mystery. He took those thoughts to his grave.

I’ve told this story again to bring to light an aspect of suicide by cop that’s often buried with the victim of police gunfire—the psychological trauma experienced by the officer who was forced to fire the fatal rounds that brought about the conclusion to someone’s quest to die.

It’s within our nature to feel guilty about our actions. After all, most of us are taught at very early stages of our lives to know right from wrong, and killing another human is certainly one of things that is so, so very wrong.

Along with the guilt comes a sense of anger at being used as a source of suicide. Killing people is not part of the reasons men and women sign up to become police officers. Most want to help their fellow citizen, not harm them. I used the word “most” in the previous sentence because as we all know, there are certain individuals in this world who are broken somewhere in their internal wiring and will kill for the sake of killing. Those people, unfortunately, come to us from all walks of life. But I think it’s safe to say that 99.99999% of all police officers would prefer to not kill, for any reason.

So to place an officer in a position where it’s either kill or be killed, or to prevent another innocent person from being seriously harmed or killed, well, the act forces them to totally goes against the grain of why police officers do what they day. Those officers often feel an overwhelming sense of guilt.

In the minutes, hours, days, months, and years, and decades after these shootings, it’s not at all uncommon that officers second-guess their actions. “What if I had” begins to play on a never-ending loop through their minds.

In my own situation I often think that perhaps I could’ve/should’ve somehow, during intense gunfire, attempted to circle around the man’s car and then try to capture him alive. This scenario was not an option nor was is feasible, but I still wonder. After all, I’d disarmed several people during my career and I’d done so without having to fire a single shot.

It’s a ridiculous notion that I could’ve left my position to try and take the man down. If I had there’s no doubt I’d have been killed in a matter of seconds after I took the first steps toward his car. But those “what-ifs” still bounce around inside my skull. I’m sure the same is true for the many, many officers out there who’ve been in similar situations.

Once these emotions and feelings set in, and they do, they firmly take root. The officer often starts reliving the incident, replaying it over and over and over again in their thoughts. They become overly irritable, anxious, they can’t sleep and when they do nightmares take over, and then come the flashbacks, in living, bleeding color.

Of course, in the meantime, the officer must deal with internal investigations by outside agencies and investigators who quite often drill them with questions that insinuate the officer meant to kill the suspect out of some sort of vendetta. They make the officer feel dirty and less than human.

Let’s not forget the administration who’s already hard at work seeking ways to prevent lawsuits against the agency and the county, city, state, etc. So the officers review the use of force policies over and over again, hoping to find that they’d done everything by the book, and even though they know their actions were wholly proper, they still worry. But the city/county/state/department lawyers are only after one thing, to protect their client whether that means helping the officer, or not.

Then comes the media with their agendas and clickbait headlines. The TV news media plastering their images and the images of their homes and families across every TV screen this side of Jupiter. The stories they offer add even more salt into open wounds …

“The victim was  only 22, in the prime of his life, when he was brutally gunned down in the street by Officer So-and-So.”

“With only 6-months to go before earning his degree from ABC Community College, Officer So-and-So, ended what could have been.”

“Teenager’s Life Taken By Veteran Cop”

“He Only Had a Knife!”

Those reporters don’t bother to mention the 63 rounds the 22-year-old fired first, all while the officer was begging him to stop shooting and to put down the gun. Nor do they mention the teenager was shooting at cops after they’d caught him robbing a convenience store.

Suspension from duty after an officer-involved shooting is inevitable, and it’s demeaning, to say the least. No matter the reason, it seems to the officer that they’d done something wrong, maybe even criminal. To add insult to injury, their weapon is taken away. Even though it’s for forensic testing, this is a huge deal to the officer. A weapon is a police officer’s safety line. It’s there for them each and every day. It provides comfort for them during extremely dangerous situations. It’s a part of them. And to have that taken away, especially during a situation that’s already an 11 on a scale of 1- 5, is traumatic within itself. It makes them feel even more vulnerable. It seems like a punishment.

So yes, having to hear and experience those things while undergoing a investigation into every single move the officer has made since the day they first set foot onto the floor of the basic academy, and while dealing with all the zigging and zagging of emotions, takes a huge toll on the officers.

Suicide by cop brings to mind the title of a blog article I once wrote—I Only Killed Him Once, But I’ve Died Many Times Since That Day. I wrote the piece in my typical staccato form of poetry and I did so because this is sometimes how the experience feels to me … like individual daggers striking my nerves, one at a time, day after day after day after night after night.

It’s true, suicide by cop shatters the lives of the officers involved. Not to mention the lives of the officer’s family, and the family of the person killed by the unfortunate cop who was forced to pull the trigger.