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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.

Standing before a classroom of police officers, Lt. Mark Poisson of the Wethersfield, Connecticut Police Department cues up video of a young man talking about the night he tried to get Poisson to kill him. "Seth" (a pseudonym), who was 19 at the time and attending college in New Jersey, had already attempted suicide twice. He’d never been in trouble with the law but had spent years crippled by depression, and he was searching for the best way to die. Eventually, he decided the surest method was a gun. But he didn’t own one; neither did his parents.

That’s when it came to him: Police have guns.

The plan was simple: Get in the car and drive like crazy. Eventually, a cop would pull him over, and he’d do something threatening to get the cop to shoot him. On the night of March 22, 1997, Seth dropped his girlfriend off after a college formal, popped the bottle of cheap champagne knocking around in the back seat and started driving. Fast. He tore through New Jersey and into his home state of Connecticut. It was about 3 a.m., though, and he went miles without seeing a police car. So he drove to the parking lot of the Wallingford Police Department and leaned on his horn, trying to get their attention. It worked. A chase ensued with squad cars from several cities either following Seth or attempting to cut him off. Finally, Seth rammed into a police cruiser and veered off the road. Poisson, who’d been following him, screeched to a halt and prepared for a foot chase.

But instead of running, Seth got out and started coming toward Poisson, brandishing the champagne bottle as a weapon. “I’m gonna kill you!” he screamed. “You better shoot me, or I’ll kill you!”

Poisson, one of two officers on the scene, drew his gun and started to back away. He had been threatened before; two years earlier a man he’d caught stealing from vending machines came at him with a crowbar. But this was different. Poisson saw something in Seth’s face that said he wasn’t going to drop the bottle. Poisson kept backing up, kept telling Seth to drop it, but Seth kept coming at him, screaming “I’ll kill you if you don’t shoot me!” Finally, when Seth had backed Poisson into the middle of the highway, where any car coming up the hill might wipe him out, he pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Seth in the abdomen and lodged near his spine.

The officers cuffed Seth and turned him over. Poisson knelt down beside the bleeding boy, who looked at him and said, “Shoot me in the head.”

Poisson switches off the video and motions for a woman sitting in the back of the room to come address the officers. “My name is Louise Pyers,” says the woman. “And Seth is my son.” When Seth regained consciousness after surgery in the hospital, she says, he looked at her and said, “Tell that officer I’m sorry, Mom.”

In her quest to understand what happened to her son, Pyers dove into research and soon found out that there wasn’t much to grab onto. Determined to bring focus to the issue, Pyers formed the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, recruited some sympathetic officers and set about convincing police chiefs all over the state that they needed to pay more attention to the devastating phenomenon.

Nothing to lose

It hasn’t been an easy task. There are few circumstances more terrifying for a police officer than facing a person with nothing to lose. In the past few years, suicide by cop has become not so much a problem to be solved, but a catchy phrase that has taken on a life of its own, with the media and police spokespeople floating it as a possible explanation for a wide range of officer-involved shootings.

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