Cases That Test Your Skills

Suicide by cop: What motivates those who choose this method?

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Mr. Z, age 25, has a history of suicidality. Recently he attempted to provoke a police officer to shoot him, hoping to be killed in the process. How would you approach this ‘suicide by cop’?


 

References

CASE Unresponsive and suicidal

Mr. Z, age 25, an unemployed immigrant from Eastern Europe, is found unresponsive at a subway station. Workup in the emergency room reveals a positive urine toxicology for benzodiazepines and a blood alcohol level of 101.6 mg/dL. When Mr. Z regains consciousness the next day, he says that he is suicidal. He recently broke up with his girlfriend and feels worthless, hopeless, and depressed. As a suicide attempt, he took quetiapine and diazepam chased with vodka.

Mr. Z reports a history of suicide attempts. He says he has been suffering from depression most of his life and has been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder and borderline personality disorder. His medication regimen consists of quetiapine, 200 mg/d, and duloxetine, 20 mg/d.

Before immigrating to the United States 5 years ago, he attempted to overdose on his mother’s prescribed diazepam and was in a coma for 2 days. Recently, he stole a bicycle with the intent of provoking the police to kill him. When caught, he deliberately disobeyed the officer’s order and advanced toward the officer in an aggressive manner. However, the officer stopped Mr. Z using a stun gun. Mr. Z reports that he still feels angry that his suicide attempt failed. He is an Orthodox Christian and says he is “very religious.”

The authors’ observations

The means of suicide differ among individuals. Some attempt suicide by themselves; others through the involuntary participation of others, such as the police. This is known as SBC. Other terms include “suicide by means of victim-precipitated homicide,”1 “hetero-suicide,”2 “suicide by proxy,”3 “copicide,”4 and “law enforcement-forced-assisted suicide.”5,6 SBC accounts for 10%7 to 36%6 of police shootings and can cause serious stress for the officers involved and creates a strain between the police and the community.8

SBC was first mentioned as “suicide by means of victim-precipitated homicide.” Wolfgang5 reported 588 cases of police officer-involved shooting in Philadelphia between January 1948 and December 31, 1952, and, concluded that 150 of these cases (26%) fit criteria for what the author termed “victim-precipitated homicide” because the victims involved were the direct precipitants of the situation leading to their death. Wolfgang stated:

Instead of a murderer performing the act of suicide by killing another person who represents the murder’s unconscious, and instead of a suicide representing the desire to kill turned on [the] self, the victim in these victim-precipitated homicide cases is considered to be a suicide prone [individual] who manifests his desire to destroy [him]self by engaging another person to perform the act.

The term “SBC” was coined in 1983 by Karl Harris, a Los Angeles County medical examiner.8 The social repercussions of this modality attracts media attention because of its negative social consequences.

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