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Suicide-by-Cop Common Problem for Police

Violence: Studies in L.A. County and British Columbia show about 10% of shootings by officers involve people who wanted to die. Shooters often feel severe guilt.

April 26, 1998|TODD LEWAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SYOSSET, N.Y. — Only after pumping three bullets into Moshe Pergament did officer Anthony Sica learn the brutal truth: He had killed a college student who had threatened him with nothing more than a toy gun.

Sica stood over the bleeding body wondering what had happened here.

A 19-year-old had raced his brand-new Honda Accord up and down the Long Island Expressway in a rainstorm for 40 minutes, sideswiping cars and trucks. He had pulled over as soon as the police cruiser's lights flashed, then jumped out with a plastic replica of a .38 revolver in his hand.

Sica had screamed, practically begged, for him to drop the gun. Why didn't he drop it? Why did he keep coming closer? Twelve feet. Ten feet. Seven feet.

Until the semiautomatic SIG-Saur barked in Sica's hand.

It was only after an ambulance took the body away that detectives found the Hallmark card on the front seat of the Honda.

"Officer," the note said. "It was a plan. I'm sorry to get you involved. I just needed to die. Please remember that this was all my doing. You had no way of knowing."

The coroner's report certified Pergament's death as a homicide caused by "gunshot wounds of torso with perforations of lung, heart, liver, stomach and intestine." The police report classified it a justifiable homicide.

But what happened that stormy November night has another name: Police-assisted suicide.

"It's another form of euthanasia, like when people reach out for Dr. Kevorkian," said Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, retired director of psychological services for the New York City police. "Only here, people are in mental pain and the doctor is the cop."

No one knows how many people manipulate police into killing them; no national studies have been done. But two recent regional studies suggest it is surprisingly common.

Researchers who examined hundreds of police shootings in British Columbia and Los Angeles County found that in at least 10 percent of the cases, the dead and wounded had wanted to be killed.

Every time it happens, there are victims on both sides of the gun.

"It's an officer's worst nightmare," said Clinton Van Zandt, an FBI supervisory special agent who teaches hostage negotiation at the agency's Quantico, Va., headquarters. Van Zandt is an expert on the phenomenon.

It's not just a big-city occurrence: Police-assisted suicide has stung communities across the United States.

* Shortly after 1 p.m. last Feb. 6, Joseph Hoffman, 35, held up a First Union Bank in Burlington, N.C., with a pellet gun that resembled a semiautomatic pistol. Then he strolled out the front door and through a mall next door, carrying a red sack full of cash on his shoulder. When two officers ordered him to drop his gun, Hoffman aimed it at them and was shot 10 times. A note found in his apartment read: "My only worry is that the caliber of shot will not put me fully away."

* At 5:20 p.m. last Jan. 13, Robert Clermont, 36, entered a convenience store in Tucson, Ariz., and slammed a .22 revolver on the counter. He told the clerk he wanted a shootout with police and to call 911. Then he strode outside and into the middle of a five-lane boulevard, pointing his pistol at pedestrians. Ten officers tried to talk Clermont into surrendering, but he staggered toward an apartment complex, raising the gun to his head. As he neared the condo, a SWAT officer shot him in the chest. Almost simultaneously, Clermont shot himself in the head. Notes found in Clermont's home indicated he planned to kill his former girlfriend in front of police and then force the officers to kill him.

* In rural Melvina, Wis., Mario Cenin, 43, a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress syndrome, got drunk after midnight on Dec. 4, 1995, and shot out the windows of his house with a semiautomatic rifle. Then he drove a mile outside town and waved down a squad car responding to the 911 call. He slid the rifle through the window, pressed the barrel into the officer's ribs and said: "The difference between you and me is that you want to live and I want to die." After a six-minute standoff, the officer deflected the rifle barrel and rolled out of the car. A backup officer then killed Cenin with a rifle shot to the chest.

Experts suspect suicide by cop has gone on for decades, but no one had studied it until 1996, when Richard Parent, a Canadian constable, found that 10 percent of fatal police shootings in British Columbia from 1980 to 1994 were suicides by cop.

The figure seemed hard to believe until a recent study by Dr. H. Range Hutson, research director at Harvard Medical School, found even higher numbers in California. Hutson examined more than 425 fatal and nonfatal officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County from 1987 to 1997 and found that nearly one in six were suicides by cop.

These cases were unambiguous: Those who had been killed or wounded had left suicide notes, had told friends or relatives about their plans or had pleaded with police to kill them. Some had attempted suicide before.

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