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How To Stop Suicide by Cop

A growing movement is training police officers not to kill citizens -- even when they seem to be asking for it.

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According to Parent, who researched suicide by cop in British Columbia, this lack of data has made it easier for police departments to excuse questionable shootings by saying the subject was suicidal.

Anthony Pinizzotto has been trying to change this situation. After Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh asked Pinizzotto, who was working with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report division, to create a way to investigate and record whether a crime was hate- or bias-related. A forensic psychologist, Pinizzotto began looking at the research on hate crimes and quickly realized that, as with suicide by cop, there was no agreed upon definition for hate crimes. So his team began meeting with departments around the country, asking about their investigative strategies and eventually developed a training guide for hate crime data collection. The next step was spreading the word to the more than 15,000 police agencies across the country. The agencies weren’t terribly welcoming at first.

“Their attitude was, ‘We have criteria for a crime, and if someone offends those rules we arrest them and let the judge and jury worry about motivation,’” Pinizzotto says. “I remember cops asking me, ‘You want us to do that now?’ The answer was yes — but we were prepared to provide them with the best information we could on how to judge that motivation.”

When Pinizzotto turned his attention to suicide by cop in the late 1990s, he used his work with hate crimes as a model. In 2005, he and his research partner, former FBI behavioral scientist Edward Davis, published a definition: Suicide by cop is “an act motivated in whole or in part by the offender’s desire to commit suicide that results in a justifiable homicide by a law enforcement officer.” They also published a simple protocol for who should investigate whether a shooting was a suicide by cop.

But Congress had given no mandate to create a definition or collect data on such incidents. To get people moving, Pinizzotto and Davis helped organize a small conference on the phenomenon in December 2008; among those in attendance was former attorney general Edwin Meese III, who became interested in suicide by cop through his work with the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. In June 2009, Meese asked the FBI’s Advisory Policy Board to adopt Pinizzotto’s definition and require the bureau to begin collecting data as part of its uniform crime report. The board declined.

Audrey Honig, the chief psychologist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, sees the problem as one of inertia. “Law enforcement are so busy fighting fires that they don’t get out in front to prevent the fire,” she says. “When you show them something new, sometimes their initial reaction is just to jerk back and say no. It’s a political thing that needs to be changed.” In 2006, Honig published a paper on suicide by cop arguing that law enforcement agencies should pay attention to the phenomenon to help mitigate their liability in police shootings.

Pinizzotto and Davis say they plan to take another run at the FBI and will continue their own research on suicide by cop. They also hope the International Association of Chiefs of Police might get on board. But when I spoke with IACP President Mark Marshall, he told me that, while he’s not opposed to collecting data on suicide by cop, it’s not high on the association’s radar. Someone, he told me, “would have to take the lead” —  indicating that it wouldn’t be he.

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