Monday, June 11, 2001

'Suicide by police' cases recognized

Ky. officers report 5 attempts in 3 days

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — Within three days last week, Kentucky police officers faced five individuals who seemingly invited officers to kill them in a phenomenon called “suicide by police.”

        Two of the encounters ended in deaths; two ended peacefully; another ended in injuries that weren't life-threatening. Suicide by police describes a situation in which people who want to end their lives deliberately provoke police into shooting them. It was not widely recognized until a few years ago.

        “People find it hard to believe someone would attack a police officer knowing that officer is going to put five bullets into them,” Clinton Van Zandt, a consultant and former FBI agent who was involved in a suicide by police episode 20 years ago, told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

        “But these are individuals who want to die and don't want to do it themselves,” Mr. Van Zandt said. “They also know, however, that the police have guns, that they are trained to use deadly force, and that they are readily available.”

        In three days, police officers faced these encounters:

        • On June 2, Louisville police subdued a man who stabbed himself in the chest with a steak knife and then shouted for officers to kill him. Four officers were injured in the scuffle.

        • On June 3, Gary Sexton, 35, was shot and killed by a state trooper in Letcher County after he refused to surrender and advanced toward officers with a hunting knife. Witnesses said Mr. Sexton urged police to fire.

        • Also on June 3, officers rushed to a motel in Florence where a man, distraught over marital problems, threatened to exchange gunfire with officers in an attempt at suicide by police. He surrendered after talking with a negotiator.

        • On June 4, Luke Thorpe, 37, was fatally shot by a state trooper in Lee County after randomly firing a shotgun. Mr. Thorpe reportedly told friends that he expected to die.

        • Also on June 4, William Wood, threatening suicide, barricaded himself in a room at Lexington's University Inn. He surrendered early Tuesday after more than 12 hours. Lexington Police Chief Larry Walsh said the case was attempted suicide by police.

        No one knows just how often suicide by police occurs — a definitive conclusion is possible only in cases where a note or other record is left. But many police agencies, including the Kentucky State Police, now train officers for such situations.

        One of the most extensive studies of suicide by police was performed by Dr. H. Range Hutson, a Harvard Medical School researcher. Dr. Hutson reviewed more than 400 police shootings from 1987 to 1997 in Los Angeles, and concluded that one in six were suicides by police.

        Mr. Van Zandt and Dr. Hutson say that such cases can be defused peacefully if police recognize them as suicide attempts and have enough time to bring in negotiators, or simply back off and let the individual calm down.


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