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'Suicide-by-Cop' Shootings Rise, Study Says

Research: Such situations occurred twice as often last year as they had in the previous 10 years. In 1997, 27% of the incidents were fatal.

November 25, 1998|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shootings by peace officers in Los Angeles County in which individuals wanted to be killed--a phenomenon known as "suicide by cop"--jumped sharply last year, according to a study published Tuesday.

The research examined shootings between 1987 and 1997 by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, as well as by officers in some cities where shootings by local police are investigated by the Sheriff's Department.

Suicide-by-cop cases constituted 25% of all officer-involved shootings--both lethal and nonlethal--in these areas in 1997, the study found. The rate was more than double that of the previous 10 years, when such incidents constituted 11% of the total.

The overall percentages closely mirrored those from cases in which individuals died in suicide-by-cop shootings. The 1997 figure was 27%, compared with an average the preceding 10 years of 13%.

The authors said they could not determine whether the dramatic increase reflected an actual jump in such incidents, improved reporting methods or a combination of the two.

The study was conducted over a six-month period by a team of researchers led by Dr. H. Range Hutson, clinical research director of Emergency Medicine at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital; Dr. Deirdre Anglin of Los Angeles County USC Medical Center; and Sheriff's Homicide Investigator Sgt. John Yarbrough.

It was published Tuesday in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine.

"Suicide by cop has been discussed within the police law enforcement community, but it has not been reported in the scientific literature," said Joseph F. Waeckerle, a Kansas City, Mo., physician and editor of the emergency medicine journal, during an interview.

"This study will raise the level of awareness and cause other researchers and interested persons to take a more scientific and in-depth view of the phenomenon," he added.

The new data could help police address personnel issues surrounding use force cases and devise strategies to approach such incidents, Hutson said.

In particular, he pointed to findings that 70% of suicide-by-cop cases involved shootings by police that took place within the first 30 minutes after officers arrived on scene, before crisis negotiators were able to intervene.

The research also revealed that about half of the suicidal suspects were armed with firearms and that an overwhelming majority of those guns were operative and loaded.

Anglin said that contrary to many publicized reports, a relatively small number of people, about 17%, confronted authorities with replica guns or other objects used to simulate a weapon.

"The data concerning the firearms is significant for police," Anglin said. "Even if they become aware that a person is suicidal, they still must approach these situations as if they are potentially lethal."

In an apparent suicide-by-cop case Monday in Orange County, a Costa Mesa police sniper shot a man after a three-hour standoff with authorities at the Orange County Board of Education offices, where he held two hostages at gunpoint.

According to a Costa Mesa police spokesman, Michael P. Generakos told his hostages that he didn't have the courage to take his own life and hoped that police would shoot him.

*

In the latest study, individuals who goaded police into shooting them were overwhelmingly male, and most had had previous brushes with the law and a history of depression.

In addition, nearly 40% of the suspects had engaged in domestic violence, many had drug or alcohol problems or had made previous attempts to end their lives. Other cases involved people who were despondent over the breakup of a relationship, faced a third strike conviction or the loss of employment.

But in the end, researchers said, it was spontaneity and convenience that prompted people to use police to assist them in suicide.

Police "carry firearms, are trained to use deadly force in a life-threatening situation and they are only a telephone call away," Hutson said.

The results expand on preliminary data from the same study made public by sheriff's officials in August, as well as a case study of incidents in Florida and Oregon, published in another medical journal earlier this year.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"Suicide by Cop"

Officer-involved shootings investigated by Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and shootings that met the case definition of "suicide by cop" from January 1987 through December 1997.

Suicide by cop

46 cases (10.5%)

25-fatal

21-nonfatal

Total: 437 cases

Source: Annals of Emergency Medicine

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