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‘Suicide by cop’ a growing concern

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Gun crime

There have been at least 11 officer-involved shootings in Iowa so far this year, with five of the incidents looking like they might have the elements of what is called “suicide by cop.”

Those numbers mirror what’s happening across the country.

“Nationally, a third of all police shootings have indications of suicide by cop,” said Rick Wall, a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain and a law enforcement consultant. “If we were to say one-third of police shootings involved people with green hats, I guarantee you we’d look at that. But with suicide by cop, because it’s misunderstood, we don’t focus on that.”

Suicide by cop is a circumstance in which a person in crisis wants to die — but at the hands of police. In such an event, the person may goad officers to open fire, or may train a weapon on officers knowing they will shoot in return.

Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, some Iowa cities have hired crisis counselors to respond to mental health crises alongside police or instead of police. Research shows Black and American Indian/Alaska Native people are significantly more likely than white people to be killed by police.

But when a person in crisis has a weapon, dispatchers must send an armed officer — if they choose to respond. Some law enforcement agencies in other states have stopped responding to some calls about suicidal people.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has been asked to investigate 11 officer-involved shootings so far this year, including one Tuesday in Waterloo in which a 42-year-old man was fatally shot after police said he rammed an occupied squad car.

The number of police shootings has plateaued after increasing in recent years, DCI Assistant Director Mitch Mortvedt said.

Suicide by cop situations also have risen. Mortvedt said he doesn’t know whether it has to do with the pandemic, which has caused increased rates of depression and suicide attempts by young people, but it’s a challenge for law enforcement.

“The person shot and killed takes all the answers with them in terms of what got them to that point,” he said.

Five fatal officer-involved shootings this year have hallmarks of being suicides by cop:

  • On Feb. 20, Arnell States, 39, was fatally shot by Cedar Rapids police Officer Kyzer Moore after States, suspected of stabbing his wife, charged Moore with a knife outside the Rodeway Inn in southwest Cedar Rapids. Moore directed States several times to get on the ground, but States refused, insisting Moore shoot him, police say and surveillance video shows. States moved toward the officer with the knife.
  • On April 9, Michael Thomas Lang, 42, barricaded himself in his Grundy Center house with several firearms after an earlier confrontation in which he was accused of assaulting an officer and saying “shoot me” several times, the Associated Press reported. Lang is accused of
fatally shooting Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Jim Smith
  • , a 27-year veteran. Another officer shot Lang, who was not killed in the fatal incident and is awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge.
  • On Aug. 31, Jeremy Berg, a 45-year-old Martelle man, was fatally shot by several law enforcement officers who responded to a call at Berg’s grandparents’ farm, where Berg had been injured in a fire in an outbuilding. Berg, who struggled with depression and meth addiction, had tried to stay in the burning building before officers arrived. He later rushed at officers with a knife, video shows.
  • On Sept. 11, James Anderson, 48, of Thompson, called 911 to report an assault. But when Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Douglas arrived, Anderson was armed with a 9 mm handgun, investigators said. Anderson told Douglas he had a terminal disease and he wanted Douglas to shoot him. After about 10 minutes of Douglas trying to talk Anderson down, Anderson advanced on Douglas and raised the gun. Douglas fatally shot Anderson in the chest.
  • On Oct. 13, Davenport police fatally shot Bobby Klum, 37, who was walking around a public street with a gun to his head, the Quad-City Times reported. Officers tried to get Klum to drop the gun and yelled at neighbors to get inside and out of harm’s way. When rubber bullets didn’t work, an officer shot and killed Klum.

In each of these cases, a legal review determined the officers’ actions were justified. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy afterward for the police officers involved.

“Some of them leave law enforcement agencies. Some find administrative roles. It is a very heavy toll,” said Bill Moulder, who was the Des Moines police chief for 18 years before retiring in 2003.

Families may also wonder why their loved one was gunned down by police.

Margie Fensterman, of Colesburg, struggled to understand why officers in Jones County didn’t just let Berg, her son, run away or talk with family members when he was upset after the Aug. 31 fire. The officers tried several times to get Berg into an ambulance so he could be treated for burns, but he refused.

“They knew who he was, why couldn’t they let him be?” Fensterman asked The Gazette in September.

Why suicide by cop?

One reason someone might try to force police to open fire could be financial, Wall said. The person could be hoping family members will get a settlement from the law enforcement agency, or is aware that life insurance policies often are nullified in cases of suicide.

If the person is religious, fear of eternal punishment for taking his or her own life may be a factor, Wall said.

“The big one is that they just can’t do it,” Wall said.

Companies have come up with less-lethal weapons — stun guns, rubber bullets and pepper spray are some of the most common — to be used in cases in which officers hope to distract or disable, rather than kill, someone. But the weapons have limits, particularly if someone is high on drugs and may not be deterred by the less-lethal options, Moulder said.

What can be done?

Some police groups are rethinking the way they handle suicide-by-cop situations.

The Police Executive Research Forum published a new protocol in 2019 that says if the suicidal person is armed with a knife, blunt object or weapon other than a firearm, the responding officers should move to a safe distance and see if they can engage the person in conversation rather than drawing a gun in response, the Washington Post reported.

“Officers should be aware that pointing a gun at a potentially suicidal person will increase his or her anxiety and exacerbate the situation,” the protocol states.

Plumas County, in California, has stopped responding to some suicide calls because of the risk to the officers or the suicidal person, the Los Angeles Times reported. There’s also increased likelihood of a lawsuit if someone dies.

Wall has led training sessions on suicide by cop in California, Oregon, Texas and Florida, among other states. One of the things he trains departments to do is to get more information from the person who makes the initial 911 call, including whether the person with the weapon has attempted suicide in the past. He also tells officers who arrive on the scene to slow down if they can.

“There’s no reason to rush in.” Wall said. “No. 1: Do I have to go in? No. 2: Do I have to go in right now? The answer to both is probably going to be no.”

If the suicidal person is alone and the officer can get to a safe distance, it creates more time for officers to make a plan, Wall said. Maybe that plan is calling in a trained crisis negotiator.

The Iowa State Patrol has a crisis negotiation team, which includes 19 troopers trained to assist law enforcement agencies around the state to help with situations with hostages or with people who are suicidal. The team’s website says it has saved 70 lives since 2014.

“If the situation is drawn out long enough, we’ll get people en route to the area,” Mortvedt said. “Some unfold so fast that it’s not an option.”

Mental health liaisons

Several Eastern Iowa communities have hired mental health liaisons to work with police to respond to crises that include someone having suicidal thoughts, someone with extreme anxiety and stress related to finances or homelessness or a child having a crisis at school or home.

Earlier this year, Community Crisis Services and Food Bank, in Iowa City, hired Joachim “Joah” Seelos, who has a background working in child welfare and with homeless youth. Cedar Rapids and Marion have similar positions.

“If there is no safety concerns, and the crisis ends up being a mental health crisis, the liaison can work with that client alone,” Community Director of Services Cindy Hewett said. But “we don’t have the ability to respond to calls where there are weapons involved. If the client has a gun or knife, we are not trained in that.”

Community’s goal is to do enough outreach so that people who are having a mental health crisis seek help before it gets to a suicide by cop. The agency would like to move from having on-call staff to a “firehouse” model in which mental health professionals, crisis counselors and maybe even a paramedic are stationed in a building round-the-clock waiting for calls for service.

“To really cut down on response time and have another level of assistance that doesn’t involve law enforcement if it’s not necessary,” Hewett said of the goal.

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