Suicide by cop is a thing. The police have come to recognize it and, in a bizarre twist of logic, felt the freedom of being able to shrug off the pull of the trigger because he wanted to die anyway. But then, sometimes a guy doesn’t really want to die, doesn’t really mean to kill himself.
Many people who threaten suicide do so as a cry for help, not to achieve the end result of their own death. But that’s a nuance, like many others, that can elude a police officer. So when the trigger gets pulled, it no longer matters whether it was a person bent on committing suicide or just crying for help. He’s dead. Accomplishment unlocked.
Who knows what Justin Way had in mind as he lay in bed with a knife. He was drunk. He got the crap beaten out of him when he lost his job. He was feeling bad. Real bad.
On May 11, Justin Way was drinking and threatening to hurt himself.
Way’s live-in girlfriend, Kaitlyn Christine Lyons, said she’d caught Justin drinking a bottle of vodka, which she took away from him to pour out. She said he was drunk, lying in their bed with a large knife, saying he would hurt himself with it. She called a non-emergency number in an attempt to get her boyfriend to a local St. Augustine, Florida, hospital for help—and told them she did not feel threatened.
And, of course, things didn’t work out quite the way she hoped.
Minutes later, two St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputies, 26-year-old Jonas Carballosa and 32-year-old Kyle Braig, arrived at the home, armed with assault rifles, and told Kaitlyn to wait outside.
“I thought they were going into war,” she remembered thinking when she first saw the large guns. Within moments, Justin was shot dead.
The mechanics between Lyons’ non-emergency call for help and Way’s death aren’t entirely clear. But the excuse was crystal clear.
Denise said [Detective Mike] Smith then told her about “this new trend in law enforcement now—it’s called suicide by cop.” She said Smith explained “suicide by cop” is when suicidal people provoke the police in an effort to end their own lives.
She said Smith wouldn’t tell her family where or how many times their son was shot.
It would appear that Way was killed lying in his bed. That’s where the bullet holes were. That’s where the blood was. There is always the Tueller Rule, that cops are entitled to kill anyone with a knife within 21 feet of them, which has been bastardized from its origination of a cautionary approach into an absolute justification to kill, but Way was lying in bed. Nothing in the Tueller Rule involves a guy lying in bed.
More to the point, Way’s threat, to the extent it was to be taken seriously at all, involved doing harm to himself, not to anyone else. Certainly not to cops. But then, suicide by cop is a thing. Once it’s a thing, who is to say it didn’t happen here? Not Way, because he’s dead.
Still, the scenario raises questions about why a non-emergency call drew cops with assault rifles to Way’s bedroom.
In a phone interview with Commander Chuck Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, The Daily Beast asked if it was standard procedure to bring assault rifles, but not mental health professionals, to a scene where someone is suicidal.
“If the deputies feel that that is the appropriate weapon system to use, then yes,” said Mulligan.
Had Mulligan offered this response on the witness stand, a cross-examiner would have to make the decision to move to strike as non-responsive or use it to show that Mulligan was intellectually challenged. After all, how can a deputy “feel” anything about what weapon, if any, to use before knowing anything about the situation he was about to face?
The real answer, obviously, is the First Rule of Policing, not that Mulligan is honest enough to admit it. The police coming in will be prepared for their worst case scenario, which is the one where they, the cops, might face a potential threat. That their worst case scenario comes at the expense of Justin Way isn’t their concern. They survive. He dies. They go home for dinner. A successful day on the job.
So is the solution to never call the cops unless your intention is to see the person about whom you’re calling in a coffin? It’s a tough call. Not every cop will see the “suicide by cop” opportunity and avail himself of it. But then, you have no clue which cop will show up at your door, the helper or the killer.
The question can only be answered by considering whether the threat of doing nothing is greater than the threat that two cops with assault rifles will be the ones to arrive. Justin Way may never have intended to kill himself or anyone else, may never have posed a threat to any human being whatsoever. But the call for help brought a response that saw the suicide by cop opportunity and seized it. They got a free kill, and there is no one alive to dispute it.