Based on the legal standards set forth in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985) and Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), police officers are authorized to use deadly force only when it is reasonable and necessary to (1) defend themselves or others from the use or imminent use of physical force or injury that could result in death or serious bodily harm, or (2) make an arrest or prevent the escape from custody of a person whom they reasonably believe has committed or attempted to commit a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) indicate that police officers justifiably killed 1,980 felons in the line of duty from 2007 to 2011. In 2011 alone there were 393 justifiable homicides. However, one question concerning the individual motivation for many of these deaths remains unclear. Did any of the individuals killed by police officers have the intention of using the officer only as a means of committing suicide? The problem with answering this question is that neither the FBI nor the majority of the other 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country keep these types of statistics.
Suicide by cop (SBC), also known as victim-precipitated homicide, is a method of suicide in which a person intentionally engages in behavior that poses an apparent risk of serious bodily harm or death, with the intent to provoke the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers. No one knows for certain where or when the term originated, and there is a dearth of empirical research on the subject. However, the concept of suicide by cop hinges on two issues: (1) the suicidal person’s state of mind and their desire to end their own life, which can be difficult to determine postmortem; and (2) the police officer’s state of mind and their capacity to deal with the mentally ill, which can be difficult to determine given the “reasonableness standards” for the use of deadly force set forth by Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor.
Relationship Between the Police and the Mentally Ill
Mental disorders are common in the United States, with an estimated 57.7 million people suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides, the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, more than 90 percent of all people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. Although there are no official national statistics on attempted suicide, it has been estimated that there are 25 attempts for each death by suicide.
The FBI doesn’t specifically collect data on police incidents involving people with a mental illness. Although it is estimated that the over 1 million sworn police officers nationally will encounter a person diagnosed with a mental illness in at least 50 percent of all their citizen contacts, there is limited funding made available by local, state, or federal entities for training to improve police officers’ responses and interactions with people in mental crisis. Since 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has earmarked between $5 and $12 million annually to local, state, and federal governments under the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act to train police officers and mental health workers and to conduct mental health policy research. Comparatively, more than $18 billion was spent on the War on Drugs in 2011 alone.
Although there is not a national database on police-related deadly force interactions with the mentally ill, a handful of jurisdictions (Maine; New Hampshire; Syracuse, New York; Santa Clara County, California; and Albuquerque, New Mexico) recognizing the problem have begun to individually track their own statistics. Overall,
these locations reported that over 60 percent of police shootings involved a person with a preexisting mental health crisis.
In 2010, based upon excessive and unreasonable force complaints levied against people in mental health crisis, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a series of nationwide criminal investigations. Findings from investigation within the New Orleans, Seattle, and Portland Police Departments have resulted in multimillion dollar civil settlements, as well as federal criminal indictments of over two dozen police officers, all directly related to issues of excessive force on the mentally ill. In 2012, the Police Executive Research Forum received a $428,000 grant from the DOJ to conduct a study with the goal of improving methods for collecting data on police calls involving persons in mental- and behavioral-health crises. The study was limited to a handful of locations nationwide: Cambridge, Massachusetts; Delaware; Ohio; and Denver, Colorado.
- American Association of Suicidology. “Facts, Statistics and Current Research.” http://www.suicidology.org/stats-and-tools/suicide-fact-sheets (Accessed June 2013).
- Azizi, Rahi. “When Individuals Seek Death at the Hands of the Police: The Legal and Policy Implications of Suicide by Cop and Why Police Officers Should Use Nonlethal Force in Dealing With Suicidal Suspects.” Golden Gate University Law Review, v.41/2 (2011).
- Cross, C. L. and L. Ashley. “Police Trauma and Addiction: Coping With the Dangers of the Job.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, v.73/10 (2004).
- Everly, G. and J. Mitchell. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM): A New Era and Standard of Care in Crisis Intervention. 2d ed. Ellicott City, MD: Chevron Publishing, 1999.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports. “Justifiable Homicides.” http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/tables/expanded-homicide-data-table-14 (Accessed June 2013).
- Lindsay, M. and D. Lester. Suicide by Cop: Committing Suicide by Provoking Police to Shoot You. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 2004.
- Mohandie, K, J. R. Meloy, and P. I. Collins. “Suicide by Cop Among Officer-Involved Shooting Cases.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, v.54/2 (2009).
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Illness: Facts and Numbers.” http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=About_Mental_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=53155 (Accessed June 2013).
- National Institute of Mental Health. “The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America.” http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml (Accessed June 2013).
- Pinizzotto, Anthony J., Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller. Violent Encounters: Felonious Assaults on America’s Law Enforcement Officers. FBI Publication # 0383. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2006.
- Stincelli, Rebecca A. Suicide by Cop: Victims From Both Sides of the Badge. Folsom, CA: Interviews and Interrogations Institute, 2004.
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