Suicide By Cop and The Free Kill

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.


18 thoughts on “Suicide By Cop and The Free Kill

  1. Martin Goodson

    Well, you can understand why a cop might have been nervous about a guy lying in bed with a knife.

    You might think ‘Well, he couldn’t have been much of a threat if he was lying down in bed’ but surely it’s perfectly reasonable for an approaching posse of automatic-rifle armed police officers, probably in body armor, to think ‘My goodness, what if he’s a trained circus knife thrower with a magical knife that returns to his hand when thrown? He could kill us all!’

      1. SHG Post author

        Whether they were automatic or not is irrelevant. There is nothing to suggest they were, but it isn’t salient either way.

      2. Jason Peterson

        According to the story they were carrying “assault rifles”, which by definition are capable of automatic fire. Google it.

  2. Leonard

    It is sad that this phenomenon exists, that people know exactly how police will react in term of their application of deadly execution force. This indicates the obvious problem of policing and the application of the “First Rule”. Why our elected officials fail to recognize this problem and their continued resistance to correct this problem when it is recognized is maddening. I recommend to all my aquaintences, never call the police.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      > Never call the police.

      And never go to the doctor unless you’re well enough to defend yourself, either. I learned that one the hard way.

      But SHG’s right — that way lies madness.

  3. Ross

    The Second Rule appears to be that any threat, no matter how small or remote, must be neutralized in order to enhance the possibility of enforcing the First Rule.

      1. ExCop-Lawyer

        There is no Second Rule. Only the First Rule, as Scott said. The rule, with its corresponding ‘officer safety’ mantra is all one needs.

        You also don’t need rifles in this type of call. The only time I’ve seen it is when the SBC subject had a handgun, not a knife, and the rifle was appropriate to increase the stand-off range (plus, it was outside).

  4. John Barleycorn

    The square corners of assumption and the Florida Baker Act?

    I should look into forming a Cuban cab drivers union that works with members of the Urban Bartenders League over forty to do speciality house calls for these sort of dark side events that police are too chicken shit to deal with in a civil fashion.

    If I can figure out a way to get medicaid to cover the basic transport I am pretty sure I can flip a few insurers to cover the general liability.

    The tough part will be finding a law firm to agree to a fixed contract for all the BS from both sides that the insurers won’t cover.

    Fuck it who needs insurance or lawyers if everyone wakes up and just stops calling the cops to do a grownups job.

  5. Curtis

    Several years ago, I called the police on a schizophrenia woman with a knife with about a 2 inch blade. She was sitting in her car threatening people as they walked by, talking to her-self, and making wild gestures. Three deputies arrived. One deputy did pull his gun, and I did tell him that if he shot her, him and I were going to have very serious problem. He said, no one is going to die today, this is for the dog in the back seat (it was a very large dog). Anyhow, I watch the other two deputies work together. Like performing a ballet. One deputy distracted her on the passenger side, while the deputy on the drivers side grabbed her and disarmed her. They actually treated her like a human being. They didn’t slam her. They didn’t punch her or beat her.

    I thought about this when those cops shot that distressed pregnant woman with a knife as she sat in her car awhile back. They just went into immediate lizard brain kill mode. And that is what happened here.

    In today’s atmosphere of copdom, I wouldn’t have called the police.

    1. SHG Post author

      Your story (which, by the way, I normally would have trashed) disproves your conclusion. And had you not called the cops, and the women killed herself, what would you have accomplished? Instead, you called and she was saved. So it’s different because today’s unknown cops may not do the same thing as “those cops”?

      “The police” aren’t all good or all bad. Did you read the story about the cops who saved a potential suicide and no one was harmed? Of course not, because that’s not a story. It’s how it should be, and it happens more often than this. But when something like this happens, calling it out is important to remind all of us, especially cops, that when they do wrong, it will not go unnoticed or uncriticized.

      1. j a higginbotham

        Is it remarkable or not (happens more than this) when police don’t shoot?

        Officer Benjamin Blair: No Reason To Shoot
        In contrast to the facile, often nonsensical, excuses offered to justify the needless shooting, killing, someone who fails to comply with an officer’s lawful command, Wagoner, Oklahoma Officer Benjamin Blair did something remarkable. He didn’t shoot. He didn’t kill.

        1. SHG Post author

          There are, say, 100,000 police/citizen interactions a day. There is rarely a reason to put a story on the first page when it goes well, no one is hurt, and everyone goes home for dinner. This is a critical point, missed by too many who are, as the rightly should be, concerned when force goes horribly wrong.

          It shouldn’t happen at all. When it does, it should be addressed swiftly and harshly. But it does not happen all the time, or even most of the time. Is it remarkable? No, and it shouldn’t be. Every encounter should be unremarkable.

  6. Marc R

    Obviously police do many family disturbance calls based on mental illness or even high emotions and close their reports with no violence needed to calm the disturbance or transfer the sick person to a treatment facility. But we don’t hear about those so we don’t know often it happens.

    When we hear of officers engaging in unnecessary violence whether simple battery or murder, there’s a different level of treatment. Police don’t comment. When a citizen gets charged he’s denounced by the police and govt spokespeople nearly immediately.

    I have no problem with cops making mistakes. It happens. That’s why they have insurance policies. The problem is when they are defended by their agency nearly immediately and then suffer no consequences.

    Nobody wants to hear about the good cops do when if they do bad then they don’t face repercussions. That’s the problem. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. Commit bad act, no punishment. Others do the same. And then it expands. The public finds out and nothing changes. If the police faced real or heightened consequences for breaking the law then they would act differently. The 1st Rule of Policing only exists because it can. Change the immunity statutes or at least require CRBs or outside agency IAs to investigate and prosecute and maybe things will change.

    As for the decision faced by the cross examiner, definitely don’t move to strike a statement that shows no logical justification for assault weapons over a single officer with a mental health professional going to the scene.

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