Suicide by Cop: A New Perspective on an Old Phenomenon

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Suicide by Cop: A New
Perspective on an
Old Phenomenon
Alejandra Jordan
, Nancy R. Panza
and Charles Dempsey
Suicide by cop (SbC) occurs when an individual purposely engages in threatening
behavior toward police officers in an attempt to be killed. Previous studies have
found the prototypical SbC subject is male, mid-30s, with disrupted relationships,
and mental health concerns, although these studies have almost exclusively relied on
officer involved shootings or public information as sources of data. To address the
dearth of knowledge for SbC cases involving no force or less lethal force, 419 SbC
cases from the Los Angeles Police Department Mental Evaluation Unit were
analyzed. Results revealed similar frequencies with regard to subject characteristics
as in the previous literature; however, substantial differences were seen across inci-
dent and outcome characteristics, with a much lower rate of injury and death.
Thirteen variables were associated with differing levels of force. The results of the
present study paint a more positive picture of SbC outcomes for police and
subjects alike.
suicide by cop, officer involved shooting, lethal force outcomes
Psychology Department, California State University, Fullerton, CA, USA
Los Angeles Police Department, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Nancy R. Panza, Psychology Department, California State University, Fullerton, P.O. Box 6846, Fullerton,
CA 92831, USA.
Police Quarterly
2020, Vol. 23(1) 82–105
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611119873332
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (2015), suicide
accounts for more than 44,000 deaths per year, with an average of 121 suicides
per day. In addition, for every completed suicide, there are approximately
25 attempts (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2015). Suicidal
behavior encompasses not only the unambiguous act of completed suicide but
also a wide spectrum of attempts that range from highly lethal (i.e., the person
only survived due to good fortune or a f‌luke) to minimally lethal (i.e., behavior
unlikely to cause signif‌icant harm; Mann et al., 2005). Consequently, suicide, as
we know it, evolves into a different phenomenon when a third variable, such as
law enforcement, gets introduced.
Suicide by cop (SbC) is a method of suicide in which an individual purposely
engages in threatening behavior toward police off‌icers in an attempt to be killed
(Mohandie, Meloy, & Collins, 2009). In such an instance, the person will come
into contact with law enforcement, whether intentional or not, and behave or
communicate in manner that suggests he or she has a desire for police off‌icers to
end his or her life. This can be seen in accounts of subjects pretending to bran-
dish a weapon to police in order to provoke use of lethal force or disobeying
commands and rushing police off‌icers despite warnings that force will be used
(Hutson et al., 1998; Lord, 2000; Mohandie et al., 2009). In these circumstances,
suicidal intent is exhibited either through actions, verbal communications, or the
ability of a subject to enlist a police off‌icer to be instrumental in their death
(Lord, 2000).
Research on Suicide by Cop
Early research on SbC relied heavily on analyzing SbC cases that were drawn
from public resources, which included cases discussed in newspaper articles or
on television, and those drawn from publicly available databases that track
off‌icer involved shooting (OIS). Those works that relied on newspaper and
television resources were at the mercy of the reporting sources to accurately
present information about such cases, and, therefore, information drawn from
these studies is somewhat limited. An OIS can be def‌ined as any incident in
which an off‌icer discharges his or her weapon (Hutson et al., 1998; Mohandie
et al., 2009) and much of what is currently known about SbC incidents is based
on information from OIS cases. Many of these OIS-based studies emerged in the
late 1990s and primarily focused on the frequency with which SbC incidents
occur. Quite obviously, not all OIS incidents are SbC cases. In fact, the general
consensus of the research is that approximately 10% of OIS cases involve an
SbC component (Kennedy, Homant, & Hupp, 1998; Parent & Verdun-Jones,
1998; Wilson, Davis, Bloom, Batten, & Kamara, 1998). At present, there are few
studies that have looked at the frequency of SbC incidents that occur outside of
an OIS; therefore, knowledge about the rates of SbC incidents that are success-
fully managed without the use of lethal force is limited.
Jordan et al. 83

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