Suicide By Cop

Not that there is a lack of ironies when it comes to police interactions with the public, but few are more inane than the handling of a call for a potentially suicidal person. By definition, this is a person who courts death, and the reason for the call to police is to stop him from doing so.

Does this elude the officers, or does the First Rule of Policing trump reason? From the IndyStar:

Noblesville police shot and injured a 27-year old man in a parking lot at Riverview Hospital on Saturday night, but details of what led to the shooting are still unclear. [T][he incident began when police were called to the hospital to assist with a person who they believe was suicidal. Officers encountered the man in a parking lot on the east side of the hospital.

There would seem to be a few things cops would realize from the start. First, that a suicidal guy isn’t going to be compliant. Second, that a suicidal guy isn’t going to be rational. Third, that a suicidal guy wants to die. These are the hallmarks of people who are suicidal. So what do the Noblesville police do?

According to a statement, the officers attempted to use “less than lethal munitions” on the man, but the maneuver was ineffective and the man disobeyed the officers’ verbal commands..

There is no explanation of what “less than lethal” force was used or why it was “ineffective.” Indeed, there is no explanation of why any force was used, as the closest the story comes to providing any “wrong” is that the man “disobeyed” commands.

So? He’s suicidal, not vying for the local PBA citizenship award. What did you expect?

The officers, then “perceived a threat” from the man, according to the police statement, and shot him twice.

Whenever crafty yet meaningless language like this is used, “perceived a threat,” it’s invariably to mask the absence of anything remotely factual. Perhaps it morphs into a “fighting stance” claim, or “threatening stare,” the sorts of unprovable contentions used to justify post hoc conduct.

Spokesmen for the police department and sheriff’s office could not confirm whether the man had a weapon, whether the non-lethal munitions mentioned by police was a Taser or what actions by the man may have caused the officers to perceive a threat.

But this is the kicker, when spokesmen “could not confirm” whether the person just shot by cops was armed. If he has so much as a bottle cap that could have taken out an officer’s eye, they would not only have known that, but made absolutely sure that everyone realized that this guy was about to take down a hero.

Never, but never, does a spokesmen not know whether a person just shot by cops was armed. And if he had every gotten a ticket for violent jaywalking, you can bet he would know that as well.

So assuming, arguendo, that the officers confronted an unarmed, suicidal, non-compliant man in a hospital parking lot, one might expect them to be trained in the handling of such a situation. So they shoot?

Despite two shots, the man apparently survived, to be taken to another hospital about a half hour away, though the hospital to which he was taken had the appropriate trauma center. Was this a matter of the shooting cop being a good marksman or bad?

Police officers are trained that if they have the authority to use lethal force, they use it to kill. Despite aficionados of Roy Rogers’ movies, police do not shoot to cripple. They shoot to kill, suggesting that on top of everything else, the Noblesville officer who fired was in need of some quality time at the range as well.

Did it occur to the officers that the entire point of being called to assist a suicidal man isn’t to perform the act for him, but to prevent the act from occurring? If somebody wants to die, does this mean the easiest way is to call the cops and, upon their arrival, take a “fighting stance?”

One of the growing concerns is that seeking the assistance of police for someone in distress, whether victim, complainant or, as in this case, potential suicide, is the surest route to things ending badly.  As much as I try, on occasion, to distinguish the harm they do from the necessity of having police as a means of protecting and serving, it’s stories like this that leave me with the sense that not only are we left without anyone to protect us from potential harm, but that calling the police is akin to rolling the dice as to whether someone will be saved or end up dead.

This wasn’t a confused situation, with life-threatening possibilities and police called upon to make snap-judgments in the face of impending doom. That the guy survived is pure luck that the officers who arrives couldn’t shoot straight. The situation doesn’t get much clearer, simpler. And yet they shot the suicidal guy anyway.  There is no rational explanation for it, and it serves to remind us that calling the police for help is a crap shoot.

29 comments on “Suicide By Cop

  1. Paul B.

    The police are there to arrest people and gather evidence of a crime. Expecting them to help and support people in distress is ridiculous. I tell people that there is no reason to call police unless the situation is so extreme that their presence could not possibly make the situation worse.

    Unfortunately for suicide calls, accidents etc. it’s become common for police to accompany ambulances and fire trucks even when no police assistance is requested by the 911 caller. This results in a lot of arrests for “disorderly conduct” (of people who are understandably upset and agitated), lots of arrests for that joint or bong that was in “plain view,” as well as serious injury or death to emotionally disturbed persons.

    1. SHG Post author

      While your post somewhat mirrors the point of the post, you go too far. By simplistically going straight for polar extremes, you do yourself and anyone reading this a disservice. You are wrong. Every cop isn’t evil and dangerous. Cops help and support people every day. Cops also fail to do so. Comments like this just make people stupider. Don’t do it.

      1. Ken Bellone

        SHG, I suspect the poster wasn’t entirely knocking the police, but I have often been perplexed by the need for the police to accompany every fire engine, ambulance etc. These are usually situations fraught with tension/emotion and a “disorderly conduct” charge is far from uncommon. Cops aren’t bad, they’re people. We all have our days, present company included, but perhaps some unnecessary arrests could be avoided by not escalating tension, but then I’d be arguing that police cause tension, which would be a circular argument….so maybe I’m stupid.

        1. SHG Post author

          While I tend to post mostly about things that cops do wrong, it’s critical that some nuanced understanding exists that cops are people. Cops do good as well as bad. I fail to see anything remotely illuminating by knee-jerk or blind cop hatred. And it may well prove disastrous to someone who decides not to call a cop when one is needed because of all the scary stories and comments that suggest that cops only do harm.

          If people want to hate cops, they can do it elsewhere. Here, my goal is to improve the situation rather than make it stupider.

    2. C. N. Nevets

      As a volunteer EMT, there are few situations that are scarier than responding to a suicidal scene with no police presence. It is impossible to predict the actions of most people in a suicidal state. Many of them are experiencing suicidal ideations but haven’t locked in on the intention yet. When that’s the case, there’s just a s good a chance as they will turn violent toward others. As EMT’s, we need to be focused on patient care, and we can’t do that if we’re too focused on protecting ourselves from the patient.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    What I find most disturbing about the story is where it took place.
    Hospitals encounter a full range of humanity, including those who have mental issues (as well as physical ones). Thye have procedures and training in dealing (at least short term) with such people in a manner that leaves them at least no worse off than they were. And yet, with a problem on their own property, clearly visibile…they simply let the police attempt to handle it. Why?
    And why was a shooting victim transported for an hour and half away FROM a hospital?
    None of this excuses the officer’s actions in this matter, but I’d like to know more about the other involved parties.

    1. SHG Post author

      I found these gaps problematic as well, but the story was remarkably short on details it should have included.

  3. John Neff

    When there is a shooting with an injury or fatality there is supposed to be an “independent” investigation and nobody is free to talk until the investigation is completed. I don’t think the investigations are that “independent” and others share my view so any such incident turns into a big damage control problem.

    It would help if the investigations were in fact “independent” and the investigators were the sole source of information.

    1. SHG Post author

      Normally, I would delete the link, but as it contradicts my argument in the post that if there was a gun, they would have damn well known it and said so immediately, I’ve decided to leave it in.

      A Noblesville negotiator spoke with Bell who then took a pistol – later identified as a Beretta air soft gun – from his waist and waved it at the ground.

      In an effort to control Bell, officers shot non-lethal bean bag rounds. About 30 minutes later, Bell was hit with a stun gun as he tried to flee from the area, a release said.

      Bell then raised his weapon and pointed it at three Noblesville officers. They each fired one round, which hit Bell twice.

      Yet, I find it hard to believe, just as I find it hard, no impossible, to believe that he’s waiving the gun at the cops and they then try to tase him. While the report says he had the gun doesn’t smell right. Not at all.

  4. Bruce Coulson

    “Officials: Suicidal Noblesville man wanted police to shoot him.”

    See? The police were engaged in community service!

    No? Interesting that the article states that the (unarmed) suicide victim wasn’t giving the police ‘any other choice’ but to shoot him. I guess Noblesville skips all those difficult unarmed training measures for their police. And can’t afford tasers. ‘Welp, he won’t come quietly; guess we’l have to shoot him.’

  5. ExCop-LawStudent

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with a good part of your post.

    According to the linked story, Bell called and said he was going to commit suicide by cop. That is the reason that the police tried less-lethal weapons to begin with. What officers believed to be a real pistol was pointed at the ground at the time, not at officers. While one (or several) officers were firing beanbag rounds at Bell to try and incapacitate him, other officers were aiming real firearms at him. You never deploy less-lethal weapons without having cover officers with real, lethal weapons to protect those officers. I am making an assumption that it was 12ga. beanbag rounds, but as that is the standard now in police work, I believe that I’m on reasonably firm ground.

    The beanbags failed. It happens. All a beanbag round does is punch you in the chest (or stomach or where-ever). Some people, especially those who are emotionally disturbed or intoxicated, don’t react to being hit. The same thing goes with the taser – they don’t always work.

    Then Bell pointed the airsoft at an officer, and he got shot. It’s tragic, but neither the officers or any bystanders in the area wanted to die, and if it were a real gun that could have happened. Officers and others have been shot by suicidal subjects who wanted to insure that they would be killed.

    Officers are not trained to shoot to kill, at least not by any decent instructor, they are trained to shoot to stop the threat. It may be semantics, but it is a critical distinction. As an instructor, I taught officers to aim for the center of mass and to fire, assess, and re-engage if necessary until there was no longer a threat. In high stress situations, the accuracy of most officers deteriorate, so you train them to aim at the largest target available to maximize the chance of a hit.

    That’s not designed to kill the subject, it is designed to stop them. The subject may die, true, but that is not the intent of the training. The officers that had to shoot don’t want to shoot, and they have to deal with the repercussions of it for the rest of their life. It affects them and no officer who has talked to such an officer wants to be in that position. I can think of two officers right off of the top of my head, both suffered from their experience.

    I also disagree with you on calling the police on a suicidal subject. In most instances (about 20 to 1 in my experience), you can get a suicidal subject to surrender (or take them into custody without deadly force).

    I sorry that I don’t know how to explain it better, I know that my words alone can not convey all of what I’m trying to get across here.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re allowed to disagree, though you may find that much of our disagreement to less disagreement than experience doing this. My “shoot to kill,” for example, is less precise but much shorter than another lengthy explanation of shooting at center mass and meant to distinguish those who argue cops should shoot ’em in the leg. Every post can’t be a post-doc dissertation in trivial distinctions. See how long it took you to try to do it, and it was just a tiny piece of the post.

      I have no problem, per se, with police coming to either deal with, or assist, a suicide. I have a problem, however, when they substitute force for patience. Now as for the gun, I’m having a real hard time with the guy waving a gun around, even if not pointing it at the officers, while they’re shooting bean bags. That’s remarkably risky, if not completely foolhearty. After all, it takes only a fraction of a second for a gun in hand to be pointed and fired, and I can’t believe that they would let that happen.

      But bear in mind, my thoughts were based on the original story, where there was no information about a gun. How likely is it that cops shoot a guy and the spokesman doesn’t know whether he’s armed? Exactly.

      1. John Neff

        You point about substituting force for patience is on target. I have been informally following use of force incidents for about a dozen years and that is the most significant difference between sucess and failure.

        1. SHG Post author

          Back in the old days, before there were “less than lethal weapons” and when the locals knew who the cops were, knew their wives and kids, and the only option was to talk, be patient, calm the situation down, or shoot at center mass (see? I’m being more precise for you?) and “possibly” kill the person, fewer tragedies happened. That was a good thing.

          1. John Neff

            Today an armed standoff involves disruption of a neighborhood, many officers and huge expenses so there is a lot of pressue to settle the matter quickly. It is not easy to resist that kind of pressure. Most people don’t think about what it costs if someone is injured or killed because they forced the issue.

      2. ExCop-LawStudent

        Later reports (use “Taylor Bell Noblesville” in Google for the articles) show that the investigation is being conducted by the Sheriff’s Office rather than the Noblesville Police, at the PD’s request.

        It reports that both beanbags and taser were ineffective, and that a negotiator was on the scene for about 30 minutes before the shooting, which was outside in a parking lot.

        The report also stated that he waved the gun around pointed down at the ground until just before he was shot, when he raised it and pointed it at the officers.

        I don’t buy that this was a lack of patience on the part of the PD, the presence of a negotiator indicates that they were prepared to wait him out. Unfortunately, a suicidal subject doesn’t always cooperate with you.

        I’ve been on a suicidal person call several times – many times they will wave weapons around but not in the direction of officers. No officer wants to help a suicidal person end their life, and I can easily see them not shooting until they absolutely had to do so. Of course I also have an inherent bias on the matter.

        Officers don’t always pull the trigger, even when they are justified in doing so. I can think of six different occasions where I could have shot a suspect and being totally justified – but did not. In each of those cases I did not do so and the guy surrendered. In each case I was thankful I did not have to fire.

        I would have to have more information before I fault the officers for lack of patience in this case. JMO though.

        1. SHG Post author

          Now there was a negotiator on the scene? The later stories have an awful lot of very different info from the story this post was based on. It disturbs me that none of this was “known” at the original story. Some details missing, maybe, but the police spokesman was unaware that he had an gun?

          I wonder what new “facts” there will be tomorrow.

          Edit: C.N.Nevets provides some explanation for the absurdity of the police spokesman not having minimal information, such as the guy having a gun, in the initial reports, so perhaps my skepticism about the “developing” facts in the subsequent reports isn’t due to any post-hoc fabrication, but just basic bad reporting.

          1. ExCop-LawStudent

            You also have to remember that most police chiefs want to approve what is released, and the PIO is usually a talking head, repeating only what the chief feeds him.

            1. SHG Post author

              Meh. He’s talking to the press already, cops shot a guy, and he holds back the fact that the guy had a gun? Nah.

              If he’s talking, this is the first thing out of his mouth.

  6. Bruce Coulson

    Re ‘force for patience’; my source/good friend who is now retired got reprimanded for disarming a knife-wielding subject, because he risked injury to himself in doing so. (This later backfired, when the department wished to discipline/terminate an officer for shooting someone with a knife to avoid public furore. The letter reprimanding an officer for failing to shoot proved to be a liability…)

  7. George B

    > force for patience

    Yep. But patience is OT! And we’re all geared up and ready to go NOW…..

    Everyone recall not the Waco debacle, but rather the Montana Freemen [I think that’s the name] standoff after it? With the Waco holocaust still in the public eye, the FBI just waited out the Freeman…. and yep, they surrendered eventually. I think it was 2 months in.

    I only wish such patience was still practiced.

  8. David Park

    I think the distinction between shoot to kill and shoot, reassess, or whatever is important. Soldiers shoot to kill. A Soldier absolutely does not shoot at something (on duty) unless he means to kill it, and it is absolutely acceptable (and expected) to continue firing until “cease fire” is called. It’s a completely different mindset, with different weaponry, clothing, and Rules of Engagement. I think that is part of Randy Balko’s continually reiterated point about letting (and encouraging) police officers to dress up like Soldiers. I could go on and on, but I just wanted to chip in my anecdote to offer some insight from another point of view on ExCop’s point.

    I do see what you mean about the propriety of calling police to deal with suicidal people. It seems that suicidal and criminal behavior occasionally intersect, though.

  9. C. N. Nevets

    I live within an hour of Noblesville, and as strange as the late-coming details seem, I can tell you that they’re also pretty par for the course in criminal news reporting in East Central Indiana. There’s a rush to get a few reports out right away, generally with few details and a leapt-to conclusion, and then slowly, over the period of two or three weeks, more facts emerge. I would be more suspicious of it if I hadn’t seen it happen as many times as I have with as wide a variety of criminal subjects. That’s not to say that I’m taking everything that’s coming out late for granted as fact, just that I’m not automatically suspicious of it.

    The thing that probably bothers me the most is how little buzz this story’s getting in the region. It’s still out there. The press is reporting on it. But people aren’t talking about. They just don’t care all that much. The first report we heard on the radio started out with, “Man shot in Noblesville by police was attempting suicide-by-cop.” My wife said, “So he got what he wanted?” We were confused and concerned. When we saw each other again later that day, we both reported that no one else in our offices had even really noticed the story.

    1. SHG Post author

      If that’s the case, then it provides some explanation for the absurd lack of information by the police spokesman about the guy having a gun in the initial reports. Perhaps my skepticism about it was off target, though I still find it unimaginable that the initial reports didn’t include the most basic information to justify the shooting.

      1. C. N. Nevets

        If I didn’t live here I couldn’t imagine it either. We have some decent media outlets and a few really good reporters, but crime reporting here has been abysmal as long as I remember. The initial reports are basically just slightly more elaborate variations on the police blotter.

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