Police fear ‘suicide by cop’ cases. So they’ve stopped responding to some calls
Before George Quinn wrapped a chain around the rafters of his wood shop and hanged himself in June, he texted his big sister goodbye.
“This is the hardest part,” wrote the reclusive 63-year-old master carpenter, who lived alone with his elderly cat, Sam, in this Northern California mountain town. “Sorry for everything. You should call the Plumas Co sheriff and have them go to the garage.”
Carol Quinn dialed law enforcement from her home near Reno, more than an hour away, desperate for them to save her brother’s life.
The answer she received was startling: Deputies were no longer responding to calls like hers, because the situation could end as a “suicide by cop.”
“Go to the garage” could be a hint at an ambush, a deputy told her. She would have to try to reach her brother on her own.
“We were flabbergasted,” Carol said. “I think almost anyone assumes when you call the sheriff’s office for help that you’re going to get some help. And they refused to go.”
“I think almost anyone assumes when you call the sheriff’s office for help that you’re going to get some help. And they refused to go.”
— Carol Quinn
Plumas County is not the only jurisdiction in California that is rethinking how it responds to suicide calls. Some small and midsize law enforcement agencies across the state have stopped responding to certain calls because of the potential dangers to both officers and the person attempting to end his or her life. They also present a financial liability from lawsuits — especially if the situation turns violent.
Other departments, including the Los Angeles police and sheriff’s and San Francisco police, use “disengagement” strategies that allow them to leave calls without confronting someone in crisis. These tactics are used most often when the person is alone and does not present a threat to anyone else, and no crime is being committed.
“In too many instances, we show up and further aggravate a crisis situation,” Plumas County Sheriff-Coroner Greg Hagwood said. “And then, in the end, bad things happen.”
Some fear that, as police stand down, civilians will be left to handle difficult and potentially dangerous situations alone. But Hagwood and others in law enforcement say the profession must examine its legal and moral obligations in an era when use of force is under intense scrutiny and there is increased pressure to curtail deadly police incidents.
A bill currently on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would toughen the state’s rules for when officers can use lethal force. It mimics civil case law, which, for years, has allowed examinations of officers’ behavior leading up to fatal encounters. For many law enforcement officers, evolving expectations combined with rising numbers of mental health calls mean changing, and potentially limiting, what they do.
“We can’t always be everything to everyone all the time,” Hagwood said.
The fear of encountering a suicide by cop event — when a person takes actions, such as brandishing a weapon, that prompt officers to use deadly force — is especially worrying. In a 2009 study of more than 700 officer-involved shootings nationwide, 36% of incidents were determined to be attempts at provoking officers to use deadly force.
Other studies have found that 10% to 46% of police shootings involved suicide by cop attempts — though the definition of what constitutes a suicide by cop is controversial. Critics say too often it is used to justify police violence. In the 2009 study, researchers found police killed the suicidal person more than half of the time and injured the person in 40% of encounters. The suicidal person was unharmed in only 3% of police encounters.
“Police are right in assessing these [calls] are significantly dangerous,” said John Reid Meloy, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and author of the nationwide study. “This is not a rare event.”
Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn., said stepping back from some suicide calls is “definitely a source of conversation in the police profession” and happens as a practice rather than a formal policy at many departments.
It is a protocol he uses as chief of Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Departments including those in Mono and Lake counties and the city of Hemet also are selective in answering calls, said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas deputy and statewide police trainer who championed the policy in his county. There is no statewide data on how agencies handle suicide calls, but Obayashi says the hands-off approach is increasingly common.
“Walking away, that is really counterintuitive for police to do,” said Lawrence, the statewide police chiefs’ leader. “But we have just learned through evolution that sometimes police presence is not the answer.”
But the idea of not responding sits hard with some. When staffers brought the suggestion to Hagwood, the Plumas sheriff, he thought it was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.
“It initially ran against every sensibility in my body because I’ve always subscribed to when people call needing help, we will go,” Hagwood said. He calls George Quinn’s death “sobering.”
Quinn was a relative newcomer to Plumas, a county of about 19,000 residents spread across more than 2,600 square miles of the Sierra Nevada.
Hagwood, who was raised in Plumas and has been in law enforcement for three decades, thinks about how he would have reacted if police had declined to respond to a call about someone he knew, or his parents knew. But he says he believes the protocol is necessary for changing how his county, and California as a whole, handles mental health.
“It is creating a vacuum,” Hagwood said. “That’s where the behavioral health, mental health practitioners need to, in my opinion, recognize that the climate for them is changing as well. It’s changing for us. It needs to change for them.”
Some cities with more money and community pressure are bridging the chasm between police and mental health. Over the last few years, departments in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have developed more sophisticated responses, deploying crisis intervention teams with sworn officers and behavioral health professionals.
In San Francisco, they are trained at creating time and distance to allow mental health calls to play out slowly, said Lt. Mario Molina, crisis intervention coordinator for the department. In coming months, he hopes to put teams on patrol that have one officer and one clinician. Other cities already do.
“I tell you, it’s magic,” Molina said of the joint response. “It takes more than just cops.”
Though disengagement may seem counterintuitive, Molina said he had seen it work with the collaborative model. Earlier this year, he said, officers responded to a suicide call from an elderly father who said his adult son, who suffers from mental illness, was threatening to cut his wrists. Arriving officers saw through a window that the son was holding a knife and heard him arguing with his father not to let police enter. Police got the father out. But during an hours-long standoff, the son barricaded himself in his room.
Police entered the house but didn’t force their way into the bedroom. Instead, they looked for blood, a possible sign the son was hurt, Molina said. Finding none, and in consultation with a mental health clinician on scene, Molina’s team “decided it was best for us to walk away at that time,” he said. They advised the father not to return to the house and left.
The son didn’t kill himself, and the next day, though the man was still barricaded in the room, Molina’s staff was able to make contact and persuade him to accept help.
The son told Molina, “If you guys would have come in, I was ready to die. ... I was ready to charge one of you to shoot me,” Molina said.
But few rural and smaller departments have the resources of San Francisco, giving non-response a different feel. Ingrid Braun, sheriff of Mono County, near Yosemite, says the nearest emergency mental health bed in her county is five hours south in Bakersfield, and the county currently has no behavioral health practitioners who can respond to urgent calls.
Like Plumas, her department is selective in responding to suicide calls. “We kind of leave the person in the lurch, and that’s not ideal either,” Braun said.
She is in discussions with county medics to have them answer those calls, which she says are infrequent but happen about once every other month, with police as backup. But like Hagwood, she thinks the death of George Quinn should be a call for a broader discussion.
“There is a larger problem, not just the suicide problem,” Braun said. “If you call because you are bottoming out and you need help, we send men with guns. ... Maybe this needs to shift the conversation.”
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a national prevention nonprofit, says he understands the challenges but that, with no alternative available, law enforcement officers must remain first responders to all suicide calls. Without some intervention, he said, rising suicide rates could increase further.
“I don’t think it’s the right precedent or the right policy,” Reidenberg said. “We need law enforcement to be that stable, protective, strong force that shows up.”
For Carol Quinn, who spoke with her brother every day, the debate is irrelevant. She said that George never owned a gun and never posed a danger.
She remembers him as a triathlete with a stack of medals who still ran 10 miles at a time; a man who loved the Russian Blue cat he’d had for 15 years; who struggled with depression and wound up alone in the woods because it was cheaper and he had an iconoclastic streak that made project work preferable to having a boss.
When she realized no help was coming from law enforcement, she called her friend, Pat Costin, and they made a frantic drive to the blue-shingled house where George lived on a street filled mostly with vacation homes. In a few weeks, on the Fourth of July, the neighborhood would be packed. But on the morning they arrived, it was nearly silent among the pines. Costin opened the door to the wood shop first. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw George and knew he was gone.
He said he called deputies and told them, “It’s safe for you to come now.”
By the time the authorities arrived, Carol and Costin had found the cat and put him in a carrier. Though they both say they support law enforcement, they are angry.
“To abandon him like that was not right,” she said. “He was dear to me.”
Costin calls the protocol “pathetic,” one that potentially puts civilians in danger and forces them to endure trauma that police are better trained to handle.
“I don’t have any knowledge of how to clear a house, clear a garage,” Costin said. “I’m not wearing a bulletproof vest. I’m not trained in deescalation. I’m not trained in dealing with this. But it’s perfectly fine for me to go rushing around.”
Costin, who knew George for a decade, says the image of his friend hanging from the beams wakes him at night. He closed the door before Carol could see, and for that he is thankful.
“But this is a memory that is engraved in my mind,” he said. “I mean, just burned.”
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