Experts: 'Suicide by cop' cases are hard to prevent

Experts: 'Suicide by cop' cases are hard to prevent
San Diego police at the scene of a fatal police officer-involved shooting of a 15-year-old boy in a parking lot in front of Torrey Pines High School early Saturday. Police say the boy called police, and when they arrived, pointed a semi-automatic BB air pistol at officers. (Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

"Suicide by cop" is a phenomenon recognized since the 1980s where someone deliberately puts a plan in motion to compel officers to use deadly force.

It's a situation that's difficult to diffuse or prevent, once it is in play, experts say.


A FBI bulletin issued in 2014 backs that up: It found that suicide by cop is often "unpreventable" because officers arrive in the midst of a planned scenario.

In the Torrey Pines case Saturday morning, 15-year-old Jacob Peterson "pulled that BB gun and pointed it at the officer. There was no time to deliberate on the part of the officers; it is an automatic shoot or be shot situation," said Ed Obayashi, an expert on the use of force.


While officers are being trained to de-escalate situations involving mentally ill or suicidal people, that approach doesn't work with individuals intent on having police kill them, said Obayashi, a deputy sheriff and deputy district attorney in Plumas County.

"There's not time to say, 'what's wrong with you, can we talk about this,'" he said. "Someone is going to get shot — either the officer or the individual."

Obayashi said such shootings are traumatic for police officers.

"It puts the cops in a horrible situation," he said. "It isn't like they are shooting a bad guy who just killed someone… Everybody is going to suffer on this one."


San Diego police say the boy had a suicide note tucked in his jacket pocket when he called 911 to summon police to Torrey Pines High School early Saturday morning. He took a BB air pistol from his waistband, pointed it at officers and refused repeated orders to drop his weapon.

The two officers fired.

"When someone is in a true suicidal depressive episode they will got to amazing lengths to end their life," said David Klinger, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Klinger, who has interviewed dozens of officers involved in police shootings, said when someone is determined to die, "it is very difficult to slow that train down and to avoid police gunfire."

Looking at the police account, Klinger said the officers involved showed remarkable restraint by giving the boy multiple warnings and holding off on firing until he was advancing. "They put their lives in danger to (try to) avoid a shooting," he said.

Fatally shooting someone who is suicidal brings an additional burden for officers, Klinger said.

Officers who end up killing a bank robber or a carjacker or "a righteous bad guy" feel like they are protecting society, he said.

But when officers are involved in a suicide by cop incident, when the person wants them to take their life, "it is completely outside the rubric of what policing is about," Klinger said.


No one keeps statistics on such incidents in the U.S., but in San Diego, a report by the District Attorney's Office in 2015 found that 19 percent of the 358 officer-involved shootings between 1993 and 2012 were considered "suicide by cop."

According to a Union-Tribune database of officer-involved shootings, 41 youths between the ages of 5 and 17 have been injured or killed by law enforcement since 1980 in San Diego County. Most cases involve teens suspected of being involved with a criminal act.

In two cases, officers shot teen boys, one fatally, who had been described as depressed or distraught.

San Diego police officials identified the two officers involved in Saturday's shooting as Officer Gilbert Flores, a 28-year veteran, and Officer Kai Johnson, a four-year veteran.

The officers will be on paid administrative leave for at least three days, although it can be longer at their discretion, said department spokeswoman Sgt. Lisa McKean. They also have been offered peer support and counseling provided by psychologists and chaplains.

Obayashi from Plumas County said everything he knows about Saturday's fatal encounter "is as justified a shooting as there is." But the fact that it was a teen who died at the hands of officers likely will hit especially hard, he said.

"You don't have to be a cop to understand, that's going to be with them for a long time," he said. "There's not special cop training or special cop therapy. We are not any more invulnerable than any other person would be in a similar situation.

"The toll? All I can say is, if it was me, it would be with me the rest of my life."