Some in the mental health profession used to call it “schizophrenic suicide”: involving others in one’s own deliberate self-destruction. It didn’t mean the person who died was schizophrenic, of course, and the term caused confusion, falling out of favor. This gave way for the more relevant term, suicide by cop.
Suicide by Cop
It occurred most frequently with police. The general public knows that peace officers carry guns and receive training to shoot anyone who attempts to kill them. By attempting to murder the officer—or convincingly pretending to do so—they would force the officer to accomplish the goal of ending their own life.
Sometimes the motive was also to gain a financial legacy for the family they left behind. They read stories of police departments giving large financial settlements to heirs of people shot by police for threatening officers. In these cases, the person either faked being armed or were armed with fake weapons.
The phenomenon became known by a more correct term than schizophrenic suicide: Suicide By Cop. I’ve heard the phrase attributed to two giants in the homicide investigation field. One is Clint van Zandt of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. The other is one of my own instructors, NYPD’s Vernon Geberth, former commander of the Bronx Homicide Task Force. He is also the writer of the authoritative text Practical Homicide Investigation. It is entirely possible that each of these wise, experienced men came up with the term independently.
In Case One in the American Midwest some three decades ago, I was expert witness in such a case where I testified that the fatal shooting in question fit every element of a suicide by cop. The deceased was a disturbed man entirely alienated from friends and family by his aberrant behavior.
On the night in question, he had completed the classic “departure ritual” of putting his affairs in order. He gave away the last thing that seemed to love him, his cherished puppy, and then burned his accumulation of unpaid bills in an almost ceremonial fire. He stepped outside his home and violently threatened a newspaper deliverer, who predictably called the police.
When two officers and a sergeant arrived, he attacked the two patrolmen with a club. He then went for the sergeant, who shot him dead with his duty Beretta 92. The sergeant won the lawsuit against him. I was told later it was the first time the suicide by cop defense had been allowed in that state.
The concept is even recognized in other countries. In Case Two in Harrow, Middlesex, England, in 2003, a man attacked his wife with a rolling pin and when the bobbies were summoned, held them off with a gun in the course of a long siege.
It ended when he shouted a warning at police, stepped out of his house and fired a gun at them. A bullet from an armed constable dropped him dead. He left behind a suicide note indicating his intention to force the police to kill him. It became Britain’s first officially recognized case of suicide by cop.
Reading the above, don’t think with relief, “I’m not a cop, so that can’t happen to me.”
Suicide By Armed Citizen
Case Three in Texas was my own first suicide by armed citizen case. Two attorneys had become friends in law school, but then went divergent paths. John had become the senior partner in a very successful law firm. But Bill had exhibited a mental illness that caused him to fail repeatedly. For old times’ sake, John took Bill in and gave him office space, but Bill’s life continued to spiral downward.
One evening at an after-work party at the firm, Bill asked to see John in his private office. Once there, he screamed at him and pulled out a Detonics Pocket Nine pistol and leveled it at him. John snatched his own 9mm pistol, an Astra 600, from his desk drawer and fired until Bill dropped his gun and fell. By then the Astra was empty, every 9mm round had struck home and Bill was dead.
John was arrested and charged with murder, and for good measure was sued for wrongful death. I spoke for the defense at both trials. To make a long story short, after a long and arduous criminal court battle the shooter was a free man, and the civil trial resulted in a total defense verdict.
It was reportedly the first case in Texas where the court allowed a “psychological autopsy,” in which a psychologist interviewed those who knew the deceased and studied his known behaviors in detail. The psychologist determined Bill to have been paranoid schizophrenic and in the grip of a psychotic break when he pulled the gun on John and forced the latter to shoot him.
I also spoke for the defense in Case Four in Florida. A troubled young man had hooked up with an equally troubled young woman. On his last day on earth, they had been doing drugs and committing burglary together, and he had repeatedly told her that he wanted to end his life.
As they were leaving a shop they had just burgled, the shop owner—alerted by the burglar alarm—pulled up. When they confronted one another, the owner leveled a Ruger revolver at them and ordered them to halt. The female froze, but the male rushed at the armed citizen, reaching for his gun. Three rounds of .357 Magnum stopped the attack, fatally.
An anti-gun prosecutor charged the shop owner with murder on the theory that he had killed an unarmed man for revenge for stealing from him. The defense team showed the jury the truth, and he was acquitted.
In 2019, I debriefed the armed citizen who pulled the trigger in Case Five in Indiana. The deceased was a large, muscular and very troubled man. He blamed himself for the death of his young child and had descended into a maelstrom of substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
On the day in question, he snapped and began savagely beating his wife on the lawn in front of their home. When the wife’s little girl tried to stop him with a baseball bat, he threw her to the ground and began attacking the wife with the bat.
A man across the street realized what was happening, he grabbed his 9mm Sig Sauer and ran to her aid. He took the attacker at gunpoint, allowing the wife and child to escape to safety, while his own wife called the police. After a brief standoff, the assailant lunged at the armed citizen and when he was nearly on top of him, the rescuer fired. The assailant collapsed and did not survive.
This shooting was so blatantly obvious as clear-cut defense of self and others that no charges were lodged and no lawsuit was filed. In fact, the authorities publicly declared the armed citizen to be a hero who had saved innocent life.
Suicide by armed citizen runs parallel to suicide by cop. We all want to help suicidal people, not harm them. In situations like Case Four and Case Five, society can easily misperceive it as wrongful death when an armed man kills an unarmed person. We have to remember that suicide is nothing more nor less than inner-directed homicide, and that homicidal impulse can easily direct itself outward.
Cases Four and Five involved suicidal men attempting to disarm people rightfully pointing guns at them, and doing so in an apparent state of rage. Perhaps each of those men would have killed the good guy if they had gained control of the gun. Even if it was a “bluff charge” to force the good person with a gun to shoot them, no fault should lie with the shooter.
Cop or armed citizen alike, the person who pulls the trigger in a situation like this is not a criminal. Instead, the shooter has become a victim—the person who was literally tricked into killing someone who intentionally forced them to do so.
This article was originally published in the Combat Handguns May/June 2021 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email [email protected]