How Do Cities Prevent 'Suicide by Cop'?
On New Year’s Day 2015, Marisela Martinez walked into the Hidalgo County Jail swinging what was later determined to be a BB pistol. She said she just committed a robbery at a nearby bail bonds business and she'd shoot anyone who came near. People in the waiting room ran for safety. Officers arrived on the scene. The woman screamed: "Shoot me! Shoot me!"
The case looks like the textbook scenario of someone attempting "suicide by cop” – instances which are happening more and more frequently. But are incidents like this, in fact, on the rise? Or are we simply more plugged in and therefore hearing more about them?
Experts say it’s a bit of both.
Vivian Lord wrote "Suicide by Cop – Inducing Officers to Shoot: Practical Direction for Recognition, Resolution and Recovery." She's a researcher and a criminal justice expert at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
“There are a number of researchers who have tried to at least put a scope, [give] some idea of how many officer-involved shootings would be considered suicide by cop,” Lord says.
Experts say there are three main reasons for suicide by cop. The first one goes back to the Reagan era – specifically his omnibus Reconciliation Act, which reduced federal mental health spending by 30 percent. That meant fewer beds for people with mental health challenges. This decrease prompted the second reason – a rise of police interactions with those with mental health challenges.
Austin Police Lieutenant Brian Jones leads APD's Crisis Intervention Team, which intervenes in situations involving people with mental health challenges when someone calls 911.
"I remember 20 years ago, when I was a rookie patrol officer on the streets,” he says. “I personally did not deal with that many mental health calls and it seems as the years have gone by they have gone up exponentially."
The third reason? Guns. Greg Hansch with the National Alliance on Mental Illness says every time a suicidal person brings a firearm into the situation, the likelihood of a lethal outcome rises.
"Firearms suicide rates in Texas are outpacing the U.S. national average,” Hansch says. “We'd likely be grouping suicide by cop into that overall firearm suicide rate."
This is what Texas is doing to curb suicide by cop: Some counties are introducing jail diversion programs. Instead of sending a person in crisis to jail or to an emergency room they’re partnering with crisis intervention teams to help the person. But these are small programs.
JP Rodriguez, with the Hidalgo County Police Department, was there when Marisela Martinez walked into the jail asking to be shot. Instead of shooting her, officers used a stun gun to subdue her.
"We were proud of that moment because we had just recently transitioned over to an additional, less lethal force option which was our tasers,” Rodriguez says. “To us, that was a real big success story.”
Rodriguez says that since their training in 2014 – Hidalgo County has had zero suicide by cop. There have been other officer-involved deaths, but the department is sticking by their training in mental health situations.
But there are other solutions out there.
In Germany, they're introducing social workers who respond to these emergency mental health calls. Essentially, they removed police officers entirely from these situations, with the exception of extremely dangerous cases.
That's something America could take note of. Suicide by cop are expensive – not only is there a loss of life, but the investigations, lawsuits and insurance are all costly. Vivian Lord says not to forget the psychological costs.
"With so many of these cases – when officers realize that somebody just pointed up a replica or their cell phone and manipulated them, manipulated that officer to carry out and kill them – they live with that. [It] emotionally damages them for life," Lord says.
Experts say if we were to implement something similar to Germany’s plan here, the benefits could outweigh the costs. We'd be talking about saving money, but more importantly, we would be saving lives and preventing emotional turmoil on both sides of the interaction.