Suicide by cop or suicide by police is a suicide method in which a suicidal individual deliberately behaves in a threatening manner, with intent to provoke a lethal response from a public safety or law enforcement officer.
There are two broad categories of "suicide by cop". The first is when someone has committed a crime and is being pursued by the police and decides that they would rather die than be arrested. These people may not otherwise be suicidal but may simply decide that life is not worth living if they are incarcerated and thus will provoke police to kill them. The second version involves people who are already contemplating suicide and who decide that provoking law enforcement into killing them is the best way to act on their desires. These individuals may commit a crime with the specific intention of provoking a law enforcement response.
The idea of committing suicide in this manner is based on trained procedures of law enforcement officers, specifically the policy on the use of deadly force. In jurisdictions where officials are readily capable of deadly force (often by being equipped with firearms), there are usually set circumstances where they will predictably use deadly force against a threat to themselves or others. This form of suicide functions by exploiting this trained reaction. The most common scenario is pointing a firearm at a police officer or an innocent person, which would reasonably provoke an officer to fire on them in defense. However, many variants exist; for example, attacking with a knife or other hand weapon, trying to run an officer or other person over with a car, or trying to trigger a (real or presumed) explosive device.
This entire concept hinges on the person's state of mind, and their desire to end their own life, which can be difficult to determine post mortem. Some cases are obvious, such as pointing an unloaded or non-functioning gun (such as a toy gun, air gun, airsoft gun or starter's pistol) at officers, or the presence of a suicide note. Some suspects brazenly announce their intention to die before they act (e.g., the iconic declaration "You'll never take me alive!"). However, many cases can be more difficult to determine, as some suspects with the desire to die will actually fire live ammunition and even kill people before being killed themselves. Many law enforcement training programs have added sections to specifically address handling these situations if officers suspect that the subject is attempting to goad them into using lethal force.
Many modern cases that pre-date the formal recognition of the phenomenon have been identified or speculated by historians as matching the pattern now known as suicide by cop. According to authors Mark Lindsay and David Lester, Houston McCoy, one of the two Austin Police Department officers who shot and killed Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper, believed that Whitman could have shot him and fellow officer Ramiro Martinez, but "he was waiting for them, and wanted to be shot." The 1976 death of Mal Evans, road manager, assistant, and a friend of The Beatles, who aimed an air gun at police and refused to put it down, was theorized as a possible example of this phenomenon. Some historians believe that Giuseppe Zangara, the man who killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak in a possible attempt to assassinate then President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, might have been attempting suicide by police.
The phenomenon has been described in news accounts from 1981, and scientific journals since 1985. The phrase has appeared in news headlines since at least 1987. It did not become common until the early 2000s. The phrase seems to have originated in the United States, but has also appeared in the UK, where a jury first determined someone committed suicide by cop in 2003.
Some of the first research into suicide by cop was completed by Sgt. Rick Parent of the Delta Police Department. Parent's research of 843 police shootings determined that about 50% were victim precipitated homicide. Police defined victim precipitated homicide as "an incident in which an individual bent on self-destruction, engages in life threatening and criminal behavior to force law enforcement officers to kill them."
The first formally labeled "Suicide by Cop" case in English legal history was a judgment made by the Reverend Dr. William Dolman while serving as a London coroner between 1993 and 2007. It set a legal precedent and the judgment, as a cause of death, has been a part of English law since.
Profile of Suicide by Cop Subjects: American Association of Suicidology (2014)