The Homicidal Debate Over Suicide By Cop

15 Mar, 2013 Bob Wilson


There is a difference between homicide and criminal homicide. Homicide, it turns out, is defined as "death by the violent or reckless act of another". While most of us think of homicide as an inherently criminal act, it appears not to be the case. Criminal homicide must include either the intent to kill or negligent actions contributing to or causing someone's death. Homicide without those indicators is, clinically at least, simply a violent death at the hands of another.

That is at the heart of a debate among forensic pathologists, researchers, law enforcement and academic intellectuals over the concept of "suicide by cop". It is, unfortunately, a clinical debate that scrubs the humanity and suffering from a very real, very raw human reality.

For the uninitiated, "suicide by cop" is an event where someone intentionally confronts armed law enforcement with weapons or threatening actions, forcing the officer to fire in defense of themselves or others. It is often determined in these cases that the person intended to die from the altercation, essentially using the officer as an instrument of their own demise.

It seems that the New York Office of Chief Medical Examiner has published a paper endorsing use of the concept of “suicide by cop", declaring that these events are justifiably viewed as suicides. However, this appears to fly in the face of conventional thought in the academic and pathology worlds, where this has been traditionally viewed as a homicide - albeit a justifiable one.

I was surprised to learn of this. As a member of the general populace; the "great unwashed", I had always viewed suicide by cop as, well, suicide. To me, "homicide" carries a psychological stain that the recipient would not deserve in these cases. I read an opinion piece on this recently, written by a pathologist who stated that, “The police understand that a homicide certification doesn't mean the shooting was unjustified” and in her experience,”they aren't uncomfortable with the certification”.

Her assertions were that by classifying them as suicides, the coroner then would be confronted by a convoluted logic that needed to be processed on a case by case basis. She maintains that by maintaining these as classified homicides, “The medical examiner doesn't appear biased. Families don't feel unfairly treated. The media isn't going nuts.” She concludes by asking, “Where's the upside for this exception?”

I would suggest the upside is in favor of the mental state of the officer who killed a troubled human being. We read about stress claims and other complications that arise from the use of lethal force in law enforcement. It would seem that these types of shootings are even more difficult to process and accept if you are the one who had to do the deed. Killing someone who presents true danger to others may be one thing, but finding out you killed someone who likely needed help, and may have been no real danger to anyone but themselves has got to be disturbing on its own merits.

Calling it a homicide cannot, in my opinion, make that any easier. The academics can argue the semantics of the case, but for my money, in the raw reality of “suicide by cop”, we need to side on the mental health needs of the law enforcement officers who are the unfortunate victims of this hideously selfish act.

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