But the reality is that many die in jail by their own hand or not as we have little ways of knowing the truth. The truth is that many who do die at the hands of police do not have to die at all. They are often mentally ills have no weapon nor pose any true danger but under the blanket immunity/mantra of Police, "I feared for my safety" which has enabled Police to avoid prosecution or any liability for the death as according to the Supreme Court which also ruled in California v Sheehan which enables Police to use deadly force in said situations.
And then we have suicide by cop. And that way the death is not accounted for as a fatal shooting. We even had a Police Officer shoot themselves and blame the "unknown assailant" for the injury. All cops should become fiction writers a way safer profession as clearly they are good at it.
So of course all the mass shootings are just that - acts of suicide of the mentally ill - which means when it comes to gun control that would make such an act superfluous if not unnecessary. As they will kill regardless. With those knives or axes that can really take out a crowd.
'Forced to fire'
Fatal shootings by police around the US are being ruled suicides. Are officers avoiding scrutiny, or just being used as weapons?
Jon Swaine and Jamiles Lartey
The Guardian UK
Tuesday 6 October 2015
None of the shots that struck Tommy Smith outside his mother’s house among the stubbled grain fields of Arcola, Illinois, came from his own gun. During his encounter with police on a chilly evening in early January, Smith, a 39-year-old hotel maintenance supervisor, never turned the AR-15 rifle against his own body.
Yet the record books of Douglas County will state that Smith killed himself.
Like in half a dozen other cases around the US so far this year identified by a Guardian investigation, authorities declared the case a “suicide by cop”, a contested and loosely defined classification of death that further complicates US law enforcement’s already fraught response to killings by police.
County prosecutor Kevin Nolan explained in an email that he reached the decision in “the clear objective light” after reflecting on all the details of the shooting. He alleged that Smith had “expressed suicidal ideation” in the days prior and then pointed his rifle at police following a standoff. “The officers present had to act in defence,” said Nolan.
But such suicide rulings – two more of which were made this year in South Carolina, along with one each in Indiana, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania – run contrary to guidelines from the National Association of Medical Examiners on how to classify a manner of death. They may also preempt criminal inquiries by effectively exonerating officers of wrongdoing and removing their actions from consideration, according to some criminologists.
Most of these deaths were classed as homicides and investigated as usual for potential wrongdoing by the officers involved. But a growing number of state and county authorities are effectively bypassing this process by placing official responsibility for the shootings on the shoulders of the dead, who are judged to have given officers no choice but to kill them.
Such suicide rulings may further undermine the US government’s much-criticised efforts to record the number of killings by police nationwide. This system centres on voluntary reporting by police departments of the number of “justifiable homicides” by their officers each year. Even departments that participate are under no obligation to include in their totals any deaths that were ruled suicides. Amid calls from lawmakers and activists for a more comprehensive database, the Guardian is recording extensive details of all deaths caused by US law enforcement in 2015.
Some experts and relatives of those killed expressed concern that suicide rulings may be misused by regional authorities eager to clear police of wrongdoing amid a changed climate across the US that has heightened scrutiny of officers’ use of deadly force.
At least seven fatal shootings by police officers in 2015 have been ruled suicides by county authorities
Tommy Smith IL
Bruce Steward OR
Gary Page IN
Kimber Key SC
Richard LaPort NY
Shamir Palmer SC
Robert Quinn PA
Six out of the seven cases that were officially declared suicides have already been ruled as justified shootings by authorities, compared with only one in five of the dozens of other cases so far this year in which someone said to have been suicidal was killed by police.
The suicide ruling in Smith’s case even angered Joe Victor, the county coroner, who had been preparing to hold a coroner’s inquest, where a jury of Smith’s peers would officially decide how he died. “How are you going to get 12 people who haven’t heard the news that it was called a suicide?” Victor, a former police officer, said in a phone conversation.
The district attorney “interfered”, Victor said. “All law enforcement got together and decided that was it.” Plans for a coroner’s inquest were abandoned. Nolan’s office and the Illinois state police rejected public records requests for any material from the inquiry. “I think it’s a cover-up,” said Smith’s mother.
Reframing shootings as ‘suicide’
The concept of “suicide by cop” as a way of thinking about certain killings by police has become well established since its coinage more than 30 years ago by Karl Harris, a psychologist and former police officer in California who later worked as a counsellor on a helpline for suicidal people.
Harris explained that a new term was needed for those people he saw “forcing cops to shoot them because they wanted to die”.
The Guardian has recorded at least 103 killings by law enforcement officers so far in 2015 in which the person who died was said to have been suicidal. The figure represents nearly 12% of the total 884 people counted as having been killed by law enforcement. In about two-thirds of the 103 cases, police were informed beforehand that they were entering a confrontation with a suicidal person, and ended up killing them
“We have a tremendous problem,” said Dr Daniel Reidenberg, the managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. “In a society where firearms are as prevalent as they are, and where people know law enforcement are trained to respond to a certain situation in a certain way, we have a problem.”
Older white men are disproportionately represented among the total, as they are among cases of suicide at large, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In all, 100 men described as suicidal have been killed by police in 2015, compared with just three women. Sixty-nine percent of all those killed were white, 9% were black and 12% were Latino, in contrast to proportions seen in the general count of 47% white, 26% black and 14% Latino. The median age of those who died was 39, higher than the median of 35 across all police killings.
But only about one in six of those people said to be suicidal who were killed by police so far in 2015 displayed clear signs of intentionally orchestrating their encounter with officers for that purpose – such as informing family or friends beforehand that they were considering it, or leaving behind a note or social media posting explaining their actions.
Instead, most cases occurred when officers were called to respond to a person experiencing a mental health crisis, and said they ended up feeling threatened enough by that person to deploy deadly force. More than half of all the deadly incidents happened at a home.
The Guardian contacted the state and county authorities overseeing all 103 of the fatal shootings so far this year of people who were said to be suicidal. Seven said the deaths had been ruled suicides, 52 were ruled homicides and in 26 cases the authorities refused to disclose the manner of death that was declared, typically because inquiries were ongoing. In 18 cases, authorities had not returned records requests before publication.
The findings underscore the fact that across academia and practice, medical examiners and coroners – the clinical professionals and elected officials who classify violent or suspicious deaths – disagree over what strictly constitutes a suicide by cop. Is verbal or written communication of an intent to kill oneself necessary, for instance? Or could the mere reckless pointing of a weapon at officers who are explicitly threatening to kill qualify?
The Counted: people killed by police in the United States in 2015 – interactive
The Guardian is counting the people killed by US law enforcement agencies this year. Read their stories and contribute to our ongoing, crowdsourced project
A landmark 1998 study, led by Harvard’s Dr Range Hutson, concluded that from 1987-97 in Los Angeles County, suicide by cop cases accounted for 13% of all officer-involved justifiable homicides – roughly in line with the Guardian’s total for all suicidal people in 2015. It set four key criteria: evidence of suicidal intent, proof of a specific desire for officers to shoot, possession of a deadly weapon or a replica of one, and evidence of deliberate escalation.
A report produced that same year for the FBI by academics from Detroit Mercy University, however, applied looser criteria and claimed as many as 46% of police shootings qualified. It chose to include among indicators of a “probable suicide” people who may have made ”a futile or hopeless escape attempt”. Findings have varied in studies since then.
Disagreement also prevails over whether officially certifying any of these cases as suicides is appropriate. “It can be highly controversial,” Karen Gunson, Oregon’s chief medical examiner, said in an interview.
The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) advises against classifying a death caused by another person’s gunfire as a suicide. It defines suicide as “an intentional, self-inflicted act committed to do self harm or cause the death of one’s self”. A homicide is “a volitional act committed by another person”.
We’re talking about three levels of fear – the person in crisis, the officers, and bystanders and family members
Sam Cochran, founder, Crisis Intervention Team
“Classification as homicide seems to be the best approach” in cases “when a person commits suicide by forcing the police to shoot”, according to NAME’s handbook. Homicide rulings, it says, tend to avoid disputes about what really happened during deadly encounters with police – “public perceptions of a ‘cover up’ are also minimised using this approach”.
But a growing number of the organisation’s members insist that people who set out to have police kill them are essentially using officers and their service weapons as an unthinking mechanism.
“A person who intentionally walks in front of a speeding train is self-inflicting the injury even though they are not operating the train,” Dr James Gill, the chief medical examiner for Connecticut and one of the leading proponents for such rulings, said by way of comparison in a co-authored paper.
In an interview, Gill said some people were using police officers as a “surrogate weapon” and thus satisfied the necessary criteria of “self-infliction”. He said: “I think suicide as a manner of death is a much better reflection of the circumstances.
Advocates for police officers also argue that the psychological impact on an officer who was effectively tricked into shooting someone may be mitigated, and their chances of dropping out of a career in law enforcement reduced, by a suicide ruling.
And yet in several cases recorded so far this year where people clearly did orchestrate encounters, or left behind a note before being shot dead by law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners ruled that the killings were homicides, which do not necessarily bring with them implications of wrongdoing or criminality.
“Please, don’t blame yourself,” 32-year-old Matthew Hoffman said to police in San Francisco in a message left on his cellphone before they fatally shot him in January, when he brandished what turned out to be a BB gun outside a police station in the Mission District. “I used you. I took advantage of you,” Hoffman said. The county medical examiner’s ruling was clear, however. “Homicide. Case closed,” a spokesman said in a brief interview.
A written note was also found at the home of 17-year-old Raul Herrera III after he was killed by police in Ontario, California, in August, according to authorities. The note said Herrera planned to commit suicide by cop. After allegedly robbing a restaurant, Raul skateboarded along a street pointing a gun at pedestrians and apparently refused police orders to lower his weapon. But the San Bernardino County coroner also ruled his death a homicide. Investigations into whether the officers were justified in shooting are ongoing in both cases.
No similarly clear expression of intent by Tommy Smith in Illinois has been produced by the authorities that ruled his death was, in fact, a suicide. After Smith got drunk and entered into a heated argument with his mother and stepfather on that cold January day in Arcola, his brother David Wilson called the police. “I thought he’d go to jail for a night and maybe learn a lesson,” Wilson said in an interview.
The call was responded to by part-time Arcola officer Sean Junge, who is also a fireman in a nearby town, and Tuscola officer Mark Payne.
They knew Smith was armed with a pistol and the AR-15 rifle, and they started out cautiously. A standoff ensued and lasted for about an hour. Eventually, Smith calmed enough that the officers entered the house and talked to him. Witnesses, including Wilson, said Smith even asked Junge to watch the Broncos play the Indianapolis Colts.
Junge and Payne talked with Smith for 10 to 15 minutes. Smith’s family said they don’t know exactly what the officers said, but they all believe the officers left him with the impression that everything was alright, and that they were satisfied to leave.
Instead, the officers walked out and took command of their weapons again. Smith came to the door and became incensed that the officers had not departed.
Wilson, who lives across the street and witnessed the entire incident unfold, said he heard Smith yell: “You fucking liars! You told me you were leaving!” before turning back inside. He retrieved his AR-15 rifle and returned to the door. “If this is the way you want it, bring it on,” he yelled, according to Wilson.
Here the accounts of police and Wilson differ. Police insist Smith pointed his gun at officers. Wilson disagreed. “He never raised it, he never gestured with it, he never did any of that”, he said. According to Wilson, as soon as Smith said “bring it on”, police opened fire.
Nolan, the state’s attorney, cleared the officers of wrongdoing in March. “There is a colloquialism known as suicide by cop,” he said. “This was not meant to paint by broad brush or make a sweeping judgment regarding all fatal encounters between police and civilians,” he added in his email to the Guardian.
Jean Tomlin, Smith’s mother, sees a more cynical reasoning behind the decision. “I think they made a mistake, and they thought we would sue,” she said, “and this was the thing they could come up with.”
Acknowledging the “potential for a slippery slope” that is feared by opponents of suicide rulings in such cases, Gill, the chief medical examiner in Connecticut, said rigorous criteria needed to be met. “It’s really the ones where, from the start, the initiation of the whole chain of events, the whole plan was to go out and commit suicide and have the police do it for you,” he said.
Bruce Steward seemed to have a plan to provoke police use of force against him.
But while his death by police shooting in Colton, Oregon, was ruled a suicide, it was not clear officers did everything to avoid him fulfilling it, according to his family.
Steward, a 34-year-old World of Warcraft enthusiast, had suffered from severe depression for years, according to Melody Eichel, his aunt, with whom he had been living for some of the final months of his life.
The condition was linked to sexual abuse as a child and seemed to peak when his ex-partner accused him of abusing his own teenage stepdaughter. “It was too much for him,” said Eichel, a quiet-spoken woman still troubled by what happened next.
One bright, crisp Sunday morning in February, Steward called 911 from his cellphone. Someone had been stabbed, he told the dispatcher. He gave his mother’s address and said the assailant was wearing a black hoodie and green trousers, according to police records.
That description matched his own clothes.
Seven Clackamas County deputies arrived at the property. On seeing Steward with an old hatchet and a bread knife in his hands, they sounded a klaxon and ordered him to stop. But Steward walked up the driveway towards them. When he got about 20ft away, three of them fired eight times with handguns and an AR-15 rifle. Steward was hit three times.
“It was very symphonic, if that’s a word,” deputy Scott McBride recalled to investigators about the moment they opened fire. “You know, when a symphony reaches that crescendo all at the same time.” He described the prior confrontation as a “Mexican standoff”.
To some the barrage appeared unnecessary. “It seemed excessive,” Eichel said. “Couldn’t they have used something less than guns at first, or even shot him in the legs?”
Deputy Joshua Eagle told investigators he had been equipped with a Taser, and had even withdrawn the weapon from his holster. But he chose to drop the Taser and reach for his gun instead, he said, because Steward had “a thick looking sweatshirt on” and he feared the Taser’s electrified barbs would not penetrate it.
Officers acknowledged a so-called “less-lethal” weapon, such as a shotgun firing beanbag rounds, could have halted Steward and averted the death. “That would have given us options to stop that guy from getting so close,” said Eagle. But none of them had thought to bring one.
In Pittston, Pennsylvania, Robert Quinn was shot dead in his wheelchair by police in August after persuading a friend to call 911 and make a report about a dangerous man with a gun. Quinn, 77, was in pain due to medical conditions and had talked of suicide, possibly involving police, people close to him told investigators. The “man with a gun” was him.
When two officers arrived at his apartment complex, they found Quinn outside, smoking a cigarette and waving around what looked like a pistol. Quinn ignored commands to drop it. He finished his cigarette and pointed the weapon at one of the officers, forcing them to open fire, they told investigators. The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun.
The suicide rulings effectively shut down further scrutiny of the officers’ actions – and whether anything more could have been done to avert the fatal shootings.
Once Quinn’s death was declared self-inflicted by Bill Lisman, Luzerne County’s coroner, the Luzerne County district attorney unilaterally cleared the two officers of any fault. Lisman, who has classed two other fatal police shootings as suicides in recent years, told local reporters suicide by cop was becoming “the preferred ruling around the country” in such cases.
The coroner’s office declined to release Quinn’s autopsy report or any other information on how the suicide ruling was reached. The district attorney’s office rejected a public records request for any information relating to the case.
Steward’s death in Clackamas County was ruled a suicide by Larry Lewman, a veteran deputy chief medical examiner for Oregon, who works out of Clackamas. The Clackamas County district attorney’s office, which boasts of “a law enforcement partnership” with the sheriff’s office whose deputies killed Steward, immediately announced the ruling meant the shooting would not be considered by a grand jury. The officers had been cleared.
Gunson, Oregon’s chief medical examiner, said her office frequently came under pressure from police to deliver suicide rulings for their fatal shootings. “We have lots of police officers who will say ‘Oh, we think this is a suicide’,” said Gunson, adding for emphasis: “I can’t tell you how many times they bring that up.” But, she said: “I pay no attention to what outside agencies say.”
Mental health advocates plead with law enforcement agencies to overhaul their approach to potentially deadly encounters with vulnerable people.
New police recruits spend an average of 80 hours being trained to use firearms and other weapons, according to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum published earlier this year, compared with just eight hours on crisis intervention and eight hours for de-escalation techniques.
Major Sam Cochran, a retired Memphis police commander and founding coordinator of the acclaimed Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training network, said police in “3,000 communities” around the US have access to their CIT training programs, which teach de-escalation among dozens of other skills and practices.
But with some of these programs serving officers from more than one law enforcement agency, he said, it is difficult to estimate what proportion of the roughly 18,000 agencies in the country remains untrained.
Officers are forced to confront a wide range of scenarios. Some 59 of the 103 people said to have been suicidal who were killed this year died at or inside a home. Officers were frequently called by relatives or the person themselves warning that he or she was suicidal and threatening self-harm.
But in 64 cases, police were told specifically the person they were about to deal with was suicidal, raising the possibility that alternative action might have been taken. In 19 cases, authorities said this fact was ascertained during the encounter. In a further 20 cases, it was said to have been established only after the fatal shooting that the person was suicidal.
Reidenberg, of the National Council for Suicide Prevention, said that in addition to more and better training for officers, vastly more mental health professionals available to accompany the police to crisis situations are required.
“Most often when police officers get to a scene where there’s a weapon or a potential for danger, they go in loud, and fast, which is not necessarily what you want to do when you have someone who is psychotic or significantly depressed,” he said.
When police get to a scene where there’s potential for danger they go in loud and fast, which is not what you want to do
Dr Daniel Reidenberg
That appeared to be the problem when officers encountered Andrew Shipley at his home in Medford, Oregon, in March, according to his sister, Elizabeth. She said in an interview that she repeatedly warned authorities that her brother was convinced a government conspiracy to kill him was to be put into action imminently.
“It would be an invasion of government forces,” Elizabeth, who placed the 911 call prompting the incident, said in an interview. “He was preparing to defend himself from this invasion, barricading his house and getting weapons ready.”
Medford police department responded by sending heavily armed Swat officers in military-style uniforms and a Bearcat military vehicle to the front of Shipley’s suburban house. Everyone else on his quiet, leafy street was evacuated. “It played into the worst aspects of the fantasy and fears he was having,” said Elizabeth.
Shipley refused to leave. Psychiatrists from a county mental healthcare unit who arrived after being contacted by Elizabeth were sidelined by police, she said, some of whom were trained in crisis intervention. But Shipley was not responding aggressively. “He wasn’t a threat to anyone else,” she said. “Just himself.”
At the end of a nine-hour standoff, Shipley’s garage door rose slightly. The muzzle of an antique French military rifle appeared. Police said a shot was fired from the garage. Seven officers fired on Shipley 62 times from several angles in a few seconds, killing him instantly.
A grand jury cleared the officers of wrongdoing. But, according to Elizabeth, they made a point of writing to Medford’s police chief “outlining concerns about how police dealt with the situation”. Some jurors were “very troubled”, she said, and urged the police department to develop new protocols in dealing with mental health crises.
Yet up-to-date training is “not a panacea”, said Cochran. “It’s not a cure-all, fix-all,” he said. “We’re talking about dynamics that are very complex, plus three levels of fear – the person in crisis, the officers at the scene, and bystanders and family members. Put all those together and you have a very challenging set of circumstances to address often in seconds.”
Those contemplating suicide are somewhat more likely to be armed: 65% of potentially suicidal people killed in 2015 had a firearm during the encounter, compared with just 48% of the total number of people killed by police. Three officers – Cincinnati police pfficer Sonny Kim, deputy US marshal Josie Wells and San Jose police officer Michael Johnson – have been killed by gunfire in 2015 during an incident where a suspect believed to be suicidal was also killed.
Reidenberg, perhaps surprisingly, welcomes suicide rulings for the killings of suicidal people by police, arguing that they may actually draw welcome attention to what he sees as a national crisis. “If medical examiners determine that, then it should be determined that way,” he said in an interview.
In his defence of suicide rulings, Gill, the Connecticut chief medical examiner, dismissed suggestions that they tied the hands of district attorneys who might look into the shootings for potential wrongdoing. “Manner of death is not legally binding on any prosecutor in this country,” he said. “They can charge whoever they want with anything.”
But even more than in the cases of Robert Quinn in Pennsylvania and Bruce Steward in Oregon, both of whom tricked police into a confrontation, the two suicide by cop rulings so far this year in South Carolina illustrate the potential for deadly shootings to disappear from public scrutiny following an official transformation into a suicide.
Shamir Palmer was shot eight times by police this August among the lush pines of Summerville, a picturesque suburb of North Charleston. Authorities said he had done it to himself. “The definition of suicide is the taking of one’s own life or creating conditions leading to it,” Dorchester County coroner Chris Nisbet said in a statement.
Police claimed that after fleeing an alleged shooting and crashing his car off a tree-lined side road following a high-speed chase, Palmer tried to leave his car while armed and threatened Lexington County deputies that had surrounded his vehicle.
Yet video footage recorded by a police car dashboard camera shows Palmer stepping out of his driver’s door and then trying to step back inside while four officers spray him with bullets.
Nisbet, the coroner, claimed the 24-year-old had indicated suicidal intent by vowing to an unidentified associate that he would not return to jail at any cost. But his family said that while Palmer had done wrong in the past and served time behind bars, he was determined to open a new chapter of his young life.
Rev Randy Simmons, Palmer’s uncle, said his nephew had displayed no signs of suicidal thoughts or mental health problems beforehand. “He had two young children to live for, he was trying to get a job, he was supposed to be moving into a new apartment,” said Simmons. “He told me he was going to get his life together.”
Relatives once again alleged collusion between authorities. Palmer was shot dead by Dorchester County sheriff’s deputies. His death was declared a suicide by Nisbet, the Dorchester County coroner. Then Dorchester County’s state prosecutor, David Pascoe, announced earlier this month that he was clearing the deputies of any wrongdoing. Pascoe said the officers’ opening fire had been “necessary to protect themselves, their fellow officers and other citizens in the area”.
(Two weeks after delivering the decision, Nisbet forced one of his own neighbours, who is black, from a truck during a dispute in which Nisbet wielded a pistol. He used his county-issued vehicle to block the neighbour’s truck, according to prosecutors. During an expletive-laden 911 call, the coroner had described the neighbour as the “damn nigger who lives across the street”. The coroner, who declined an interview request, has been charged with misconduct in office and faces up to 10 years in prison.)
About 100 miles to the north, the criminal inquiry into the fatal shooting of a man named Kimber Key about two months earlier in Columbia was quietly closed by authorities in the middle of June.
Key, a 59-year-old triple-divorcee, was shot in the chest by Lexington County deputy Chris Ricciardi at a house belonging to his brother, Dale. But according to documents obtained from the Lexington County coroner, his death was quietly ruled a suicide.
Itinerant and frequently the victim of his own bad decisions, according to people who knew him, Key suffered some kind of breakdown in the early hours of 21 April. He was staying with his brother after quitting a job as an accountant to an aircraft supply company in Texas.
Key had “been depressed because he had been unable to find work”, his brother Dale said in a statement. “He also had a tough time acclimating to the winter months of South Carolina, with him being from Florida.” On the day he died, he had severe pain from kidney stones and spoke of “ending it all”.
Dale called 911, reporting that his brother had a knife and was threatening to harm himself. All that has been disclosed publicly by authorities is that Key was armed with the knife “when the two deputies encountered Key in the kitchen”, and that he was shot dead.
After the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (Sled) looked into the shooting, the office of Lexington County’s veteran prosecutor, Donnie Myers, decided Ricciardi was justified in shooting Key. “The inquiry was closed with no charges,” said agent Thom Berry, a Sled spokesman.
But no public announcement was made. No headlines announcing the exoneration of the deputies appeared in the local media. No mention of the inquiry’s conclusion exists on the websites of the prosecutor or Sled. Key’s death, having been ruled self-inflicted, was effectively forgotten. Myers did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the case.
Following several requests, a summary of the inquiry was released to the Guardian by Sled. The report, which at one point misnamed Key as “Kimbel Keith”, said he was shot because he “approached the deputies in an aggressive manner”. It also disclosed that sergeant Jeff Weed, who was with Ricciardi, was armed with a Taser. But the officers claimed Weed only deployed the Taser in an effort to halt Key “in the same moment” as Ricciardi fired his pistol.
The officers told investigators that Key had responded to an order from Ricciardi to drop his knife by saying: “You’re going to have to fucking shoot me.”
Aside from a one-page summary, the county coroner’s office declined to release any information about why Key’s death was ruled a suicide. “I take every case individually,” a deputy coroner, who declined to give his name, said in a brief interview when asked about the case and the concept of suicide by cop. “I will not talk about this case or so-called concepts,” he said.
The rash of suicide rulings is troubling to Vivian Lord, editor of Suicide By Cop, a collection of essays by academics and criminal justice professionals on the subject that was updated and republished last year, a decade after its release.
“I don’t think this is doing the police any favours,” said Lord, who teaches in the criminology department of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “Cases need to be properly investigated. They’re really hurting their own credibility if they’re slapping on suicide rulings without any further investigation.”
The rulings also present problems for the federal government statisticians trying simply to count fatal incidents involving police.
The FBI publishes an annual record of “justifiable homicides” by law enforcement officers, which depends on police departments voluntarily submitting their totals. Stephen Fischer, a spokesman, said shootings that had been ruled suicide by cop could be included in the FBI’s count if they were submitted.
“The willful killing of one individual by another is being reported, not the criminal liability of the person or persons involved,” he said. But Fischer could not point to any guidance to local departments from the FBI that such cases should be submitted, nor say whether a single one had been included in the annual counts in recent years.
By sifting through death certificates, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) publishes a separate annual count for deaths caused nationwide by “legal intervention”, meaning that a person is killed by a law enforcement officer.
The NCHS legal intervention count for 2013 stood at 516 – more than the FBI’s count, but still about half the number of killings by law enforcement recorded by media and amateur statisticians. Much of the shortfall is likely explained by the omission of key details by some medical examiners about who fired fatal shots in dozens of shooting death cases.
Homicide, suicide – that stuff is a medical opinion, it's not written in stone. It's a complicated mix of things
Karen Gunson, Oregon chief medical examiner
Bob Anderson, the NCHS’s chief of mortality statistics, said that rulings of suicide in such cases only complicated things further. “I would prefer the homicide and legal intervention label on those, since it was death at the hands of another,” he said in an interview.
Grouping so-called suicides by cop among homicides makes sense, said Anderson, because “it’s hard after the fact to determine the motivation of someone”. Dr Andrew Baker, the chief medical examiner for Hennepin County in Minnesota, said this goes to the crux of the problem with suicide rulings for fatal police shootings.
“That’s not the medical examiner’s call, and that’s why we have juries, judges and attorneys,” said Baker. “I guess you could call that the purist position.” As a compromise, professor Lord and others propose the use of terms such as “victim-precipitated homicide”.
Even Gill, the Connecticut chief medical examiner who defends suicide rulings, concedes that his speeding train analogy only goes so far.
“One may argue that there is a difference because the train conductor had no choice and was not intending to kill the person while the law enforcement agent intentionally chose to do harm,” he said in his co-authored article.
Acknowledging the controversial nature of the rulings, Gunson, the Oregon chief medical examiner, defended the right to make that call. “Homicide, suicide – that stuff is a medical opinion, it’s not written in stone,” she said. “It’s a complicated mix of things,” she said. “It’s how you were trained, how you operate, your own philosophy – a million things.”
The National Association of Medical Examiners sees it differently. The manner of death should be “objective and based on simple, established criteria”, according to its handbook – not formulated on the basis of a “personal philosophy or agenda”.
But this advice frequently goes unheeded.
Elaborating in a Facebook post on the thinking behind declaring Shamir Palmer’s death in South Carolina a suicide, Dorchester County coroner Chris Nisbet minimised Palmer’s apparent self-destructive intent, painting him instead as a typical violent offender. “These kind of actions by known thugs have to be controlled to protect society,” he wrote.