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LAPD Audit Finds Suicide-by-Cop Common, Urges Review of Protocol

LAPD cadet graduation.
LAPD cadet graduation. | Photo: Courtesy of City of L.A./Flickr/Creative Commons

It's a dark reality for police officers: some suspects want to provoke police into killing them -- a phenomenon known as suicide-by-cop. A recent report of Los Angeles Police Department shootings found 35 incidents of suicide-by-cop during a 30 month period from January 2011 to June 2013.

The report, made by the inspector general, sheds light on how frequently these incidents happen and could be used to inform police policy in handling mentally ill suspects, who are often involved. According to the report, the officers who shot suspects were following police protocol.

The information comes as state lawmakers are considering a bill to increase police, sheriff, and highway patrol training to handle mentally ill suspects, and police nationwide are under scrutiny for shooting suspects like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Ezell Ford in South L.A., who was mentally ill.

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The 35 incidents of suicide by cop were among 122 total shootings during the period, not including animal shootings or unintentional firings. Nationwide, 36 percent of officer shootings were suicide-by-cop scenarios between 1998 and 2006, according to the American Association of Suicidology. The vast majority of suspects in that review were men, 95 percent, and more than 60 percent of those men had "confirmed or probable" mental illness. More than half of the men were unemployed and many of them were homeless.

The LAPD report explains that as resources to help the mentally ill decline, police increasingly handle service calls of people in mental health crises. It cites a more than 20-fold jump of these service calls by New York City police officers from 1976 to 1998. LAPD officers have seen an increase from 9,000 to 13,000 of these calls between 2006 and 2013, the report said.

In Los Angeles, many of the suicide-by-cop shootings "followed a similar sequence of events which, if recognized, provide a means of anticipating the steps a subject may take in their attempt to precipitate the use of lethal force by police officer," the report said.

There are many recurring themes officers can look for to recognize when suspects want to provoke a shooting and prevent it. Many times suspects are intoxicated, holding a BB gun or other nonlethal weapon that looks like a real gun, pretend to possess a gun, or threaten police with a knife. Often, the suspects have called 911 themselves and remain on the scene until police arrive and then threaten officers.

"The recognition of these features, alone or in combination, when they are discernible to responding officers, has the potential to alert officers to the suicidal intent of a subject they encounter and to enable them to factor the subject's suicidal objective into their decision-making process," the report said.

The report urges the police department to review its suicide-by-cop training to make sure officers are "prepared to effectively deal with such incidents."

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