Analysis of Facts helps Reduce Harm to victims of DV

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE REVIEW BOARDS
WESTBOROUGH, MA  January 5, 2018 As we begin to make program recommendations for reducing intimate partner violence it is worth noting that change comes very slowly in protecting those who are most at risk. There is still a paucity of protective measures in place to assess and contain those who are most violent in our society. Retired New Braintree Police Sergeant Michael Sefton was in Augusta, Maine in October 2011 providing testimony about the results of the psychological autopsy conducted by Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Brian Gagan of Scottsdale, AZ, and Ron Allanach, Ed.D. of Conquitlam, BC, Canada and former Chief of Police Joseph Laughlin of Portland, ME.  Dr. Sefton, who holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed psychologist provider in Massachusetts provides neuropsychological and forensic consultation on domestic violence including domestic violence homicide and assessment of risk.  The report that was filed came up with over 50 recommendations directly related to reduced intimate partner violence. The report was cited over 12 times in a recent Maine Law Review publication on proposed Conditions of Bail.
PUBLIC INFORMATION
The testimony provided to the domestic violence review board offered details about a hideous case of family violence that ended with the homicide of 4 members of the same family and was culminated by an attempt to burn the bodies after the murders and the killer shooting at police officers responding to the missing victim. But they were too late. Their research was conducted over a 3 month period following the homicide deaths of Amy Lake and her children.  The team conducted interviews with over 60 persons with direct knowledge of Amy Lake, the victim, her two children, Monica and Cody, and the murderer Steven Lake.

Maine Law Review

“Although Maine’s statute lists these prohibitions, it lacks the enforcement tools to protect victims against violence associated with guns and other weapons, which is a major factor in Maine’s domestic violence deaths.” Nicole Bissonnette, 2012
Most researchers agree it is nearly impossible to predict when DVH will occur.  However, the psychological autopsy provides many obtrusive red flags that offer clues to an impending emotional conflagration. The problem in this case was two-fold.  First, the requirement for bail was not seriously considered because Lake had no criminal history – and yet Mr. Lake had demonstrated an unwillingness to adhere to the legal mandates of the order of protection and violated the court order at least 4 times over the year before he killed his family. Given this reality, he should have been held for a hearing on potential dangerousness.  And secondly, the cache of firearms that Lake was known to have kept was not surrendered to police nor was an effort made to obtain the 22 weapons Lake owned by members of law enforcement.
It is not uncommon that red flags are often present early in the relationship.  Many people we spoke to were aware something agregious was going to happen.  These include obsessional jealousy, threats of death, sexual aggression, unwillingness to integrate into extended family, any use of a weapon, and others.  In the course of their research Sefton and Gagan interviewed Dale Preston who was convicted of DVH in 1982 and served 18 years in Maine State Prison for the murder.  When asked what may have stopped him from killing his wife, Mr. Preston indicate “there was nothing that could have stopped me…”  In these cases, a greater awareness of risk or dangerousness is essential and in some cases a person must be contained for the safety of others.  Such containment requires NO direct contact with an abusive spouse, GPS monitoring, house arrest, or no bail imprisonment.
The case in Maine occurred in June 2011 – exactly 1 year to the day after the victim obtained a protection from abuse order from her husband.  The murders occurred 2 weeks before the divorce was to be finalized and were likely triggered by the abuser’s anger over not being permitted to attend his son’s 8th grade graduation ceremony.  The Bangor Daily News presented details of the recent psychological autopsy presented recently in Augusta, Maine.  Over 30 states across America have formal homicide review boards.  “To make this general deterrence aim successful, abusers must not have access to their victims nor to potential weapons, and the risk of punishment associated with breaking the law must outweigh the abuser’s urge to commit the conduct.” said Denaes, 2012. Bail is a judicial condition that allows a person to be released from jail with the promise to appear in court to answer to charges. Bail also provides for public safety by keeping violent offenders in jail when necessary.
I make an effort to review those published from New England states.  Vermont has an excellent annual report of domestic violence homicide and publishes all recommendations and changes in statutory requirements following individual cases of DVH.

Ronald Allanach et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic
Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011),
http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-
111.pdf.
Nicole R. Bissonnette, Domestic Violence and Enforcement of Protection from Abuse Orders: Simple Fixes to Help Prevent Intra-Family Homicide, 65 Me. L. Rev. 287 (2012).
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol65/iss1/12
Johannes N. Denaes, PUNISHMENT AND DETERRENCE 7 (1974) (“General prevention may
depend on the mere frightening or deterrent effect of punishment—the risk of discovery and punishment
outweighing the temptation to commit crime.”).
See id. at 34-35
Advertisements

Public Awareness Needed for Meaningful Jail Diversion

teachinginprison

“If mental illness drives the violent behavior than all weapons and substance use must be carefully controlled and eliminated.” Sefton, 2017

Westborough, MA December 21, 2017 Jail diversion is a hot topic across the country even here in Massachusetts. Since July, 2017 the Massachusetts Legislature has passed sweeping changes in the Criminal Justice System.  Locally and across the country, the numbers of persons incarcerated for minor offenses and drug crimes has grown in some cases exponentially. Many of these individuals have mental illness or drug abuse in addition to their criminality. The interaction between poly-substance abuse or dependence and exacerbation of underlying mental health symptoms is complex and multifactorial. The interaction of the two is sometime lethal as reported by the Globe Spotlight team It is the focus of mental health advocates and criminal justice experts nationwide as it pertains to jail diversion, alternative restitution and reduced police use of force. In Massachusetts, there is a move away from mandatory minimum sentences for all drug crimes except for those involving the sale and distribution of narcotics. Arguably, the impact on behavioral functioning when persons are gripped with co-occurring illness, such as alcoholism, is a recurrent problem for law enforcement and first responders. I have written about the impact of co-occurring illness such as alcoholism on mental and behavioral health is previously published posts here on Word press Human Behavior (Sefton, 2017). It is difficult to uncover which comes first – the addiction or the diagnosed mental illness and yet these are inextricably linked in terms of the strain on public resources and health risk to those so afflicted. Why is this important?

The importance of treatment for substance dependence and mental illness cannot be understated as violent encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill have been regularly sensationalized. The general public is looking for greater public safety while at the same time MH advocates insist that with the proper treatment violent police encounters may be reduced and jail diversion may be achieved. The referral and treatment infrastructure needed to provide a continuum of care in this growing population is available in very few places across America.

Yet in places like Bexar County, Texas – including San Antonio and 21 other towns or cities – the county jail population has dropped by over 20 percent as a result of crisis intervention training for police officers and mobile mental health teams to intervene with those in crisis. I have seen this for myself during a visit with the San Antonio Police Department where I rode with two members of the Mental Health Unit – Officers Ernest Stevens and Joseph Smarro. These men are exemplary in their assessment and intervention skill for keeping identified subjects off radar screens and out of the revolving door of the county jail.  It takes ongoing training, medical and psychiatric infrastructure, community compassion, and active engagement with members of the community to fly under the radar and effectively reduce the jail population. When necessary those most in need must have 24-hour availability for detoxification, emergency mental health, and access to basic needs such as food, clothing, and medicine. In San Antonio, they offer so much more including pre-employment training, extended housing, interview preparation including clothes, and opportunity for jobs.

The unpredictability of behavior by those who carry a “dual” diagnosis has emerged as a confounding factor in the criminal justice system raising the specter of frustration over the limitations within the system. Jail diversion programs and treatment options are needed in order to retain public safety goals and provide for needs of the mentally ill and substance dependent. In Massachusetts, cities and towns are grappling with how best to intervene with the mentally ill in terms of alternative restitution for drug-related misdemeanor crimes in lieu of mandatory jail sentences that many crimes currently require. The Massachusetts legislature has taken up Criminal Justice Reform and passed a bill in late 2017 making changes in the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Some believe, as much as 20-40 percent of all incarcerated persons suffer with mental health diagnoses and are not getting the treatment they require. To provide a bare bones system would add billions to state and federal dollars spent on the needs of inmates at a time when measurable outcomes for in house care are limited.

In my practice, I see many cases of co-occurring pain syndromes with other physical debilities such as stroke or traumatic brain injury. Some of these cases are substance dependent and live lonely, chaotic lives.  Generally the emotional impact of two or more diagnosed illnesses yields a greatly reduced capacity for adaptive coping and puts a great stress on the individual system. The importance of addressing co-occurring substance abuse or dependence is now well recognized and with treatment can result in healthy decision-making, growth in maturity, and greater self-awareness. If legislators have a serious desire to reduce statewide numbers of incarcerated persons a comprehensive plan must be considered for both pre-arrest and post-arrest. Programs greater understanding of addiction and added treatment options must be explored through a joint public and private initiative.

Mental and Physical Health Screening

At time of arrest the individual must have some level of mental health assessment if mental illness is suspected or documented. When I was a police officer prior to 2015 we often asked the D.A. to provide a court clinic assessment of the suspect to rule out suicidal ideation or delusional thinking. This must also include a screening for dangerousness especially when a subject is arrested for intimate partner abuse. Next a health history questionnaire should be undertaken to screen for co-occurring illness – both physical and mental. If a diabetic suspect is held without access to his insulin he is at great risk of death from stroke. Similarly, a person arrested for assault who suffers from paranoid ideation is at greater risk of acting violently without access to psychiatric medication. Finally, an alcoholic brought to the jail with a blood alcohol level greater than 250 is at great risk for seizures and cardiac arrhythmias when delirium tremens begin 6-8 hours after his last drink. The risk to personal health in each of the scenarios above must be taken seriously and the obtained data should be factually corroborated. Police departments across the United States are pairing up with private agencies to provide in-house evaluation and follow-up of individuals who fall on the borderline and may not be easily assessed by the officer in the field.

Diversion Safety Plan with Mandated Revocation

Next, the probation and parole department must obtain an accurate legal history prior to consideration for bail. A nationwide screen for warrants and criminal history based on previous addresses is essential. In many places these are being done routinely. In the case of someone being arrested for domestic violence he may have no convictions thus no finding of criminal history. For these individuals the dangerousness assessment may bring forth red flag data needed for greater public safety resulting in protection from abuse orders, mandated psychotherapy, and in some cases, no bail confinement when indicated. Releasing the person arrested for domestic violence without a viable safety plan increases the risk to the victim and her family, as well as the general public – including members of law enforcement.

Bail, Confinement, Mandated Treatment

There is some thinking that higher amounts of bail may lessen the proclivity of some offenders to breach the orders of protection drafted to protect victims and should result in revocation of bail and immediate incarceration when these occur. Mandated treatment may be more successful when legal charges are held as leverage where after 6 months of sober living and regular attendance at 12-step recovery meetings charges can be dismissed or modified to each individual case.  This takes a complete overhaul of the front end of criminal justice system and requires buy-in by judges, district attorneys, and individual family members.

When it comes lack of compliance and repeated domestic violence, I have proposed a mandatory DV Abuse Registry that may be accessed by law enforcement to uncover the secret past of men who would control and abuse their intimate partners. This database would also include information on the number of active restraining orders and the expected offender’s response to the “stay away” order. In cases where the victim decides to drop charges there should be a mandatory waiting period of 90 days. During this waiting period the couple may cohabitate but the perpetrator must be attending a weekly program of restorative justice therapy, 12-step recovery and substance abuse education. Violations of these court ordered services are tantamount to violation of the original protection order (still in place) and victim safety plan and may result in revocation of bail. If the waiting period passes and the perpetrator has met the conditions of his bail than he may undergo an “exit” interview to determine whether or not the protection order / jail diversion plan may be extended or whether he/she has met all requirements.  In any case further police encounters will be scrutinized and prior charges may be re-instated or filed as needed.

Michael Sefton


Sefton, M. (2017) Human Behavior Blogpost: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/police-are-building-bridges-and-throwing-life-savers/ taken December 10, 2017

Police response to Domestic Violence

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and domestic violence.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray – whether an arrest is made or not.  This affords them a window into the chaos within the effected family system and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold. At these times the communication between family and police may be operationalized, improved and redefined.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.

Police are building bridges and throwing life savers

WESTBOROUGH, MA  – March 30, 2017  Police officers are being trained in crisis intervention techniques across the country and Canada. This training offers plenty of practice role-playing scenarios that come directly off of the call sheets affording a reality-based training opportunity. I recently spent time riding with members of the San Antonio PD mental health unit and have the greatest respect for the officers with whom I rode.  In contrast, some departments regularly have highly trained clinicians riding with officers bringing expertise in mental illness and abnormal behavior across the thin blue line.  It is thought that by sharing knowledge at working with unpredictable, drugged out, psychotic and delusional and angry who police encounter on a daily basis better outcomes may be achieved. No single model is best and all are still in the growing stages of establishing protocols for bringing those most disturbed individuals in from the margins. More and more officers are receiving CIT training every year.

The important part of crisis intervention training comes in the interdisciplinary relationships that are forged in by this methodology. Trust and respect between the police and its citizens builds slowly one person at a time.  Community policing is not a new concept but fiscal priorities often prevent its full implementation.  Just the same, there must be trust and respect between the police and the purveyors of crisis intervention and mental health risk assessment including doctors, nurses, and health care practitioners. This also takes time and training and the shared belief in the model.


“When officers are faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures,” according to Grace Gatpandan, spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department


IMG_7187
Michael Sefton, Ph.D. in 2017 photograph

The use of force continuum belies each officer contact and guides the process when police are called upon to defuse a dangerous encounter. It is best that a mental health contact be made long before violent threats are made – long before terminal rage erodes personal judgment. The community policing doctrine affords this front end contact and encourages officers to know the people living on the beat.

POLICE ENCOUNTERS WITH MENTALLY ILL CITIZENS

The Boston Globe Spotlight series on police encounters with the mentally ill cites one distraught parent who was quoted “I only wanted the police to disarm him not shoot him dead.” Unfortunately for this family, when faced with lethal violence it is the behavior of the subject that drives the ship in terms of what will or will not happen.  “When faced with a deadly situation, when there is a gun pointed at a cop, there is no time to go into mental health measures”. All too often people fail to see the cause – effect relationship between citizens with guns or other lethal weapons and the police officer response.  The use of force continuum follows the principle of causation by guiding police decision making based on the level of threat.

What came first the threat or the police action?  It is the primary action of the citizen the evokes the lethal response by police.  If citizens dropped weapons and listened to police officer directives during these high energy and chaotic events there would be fewer deaths.  To say they lack training in mental health is preposterous.  Almost as preposterous as saying if they were better parents the mentally ill subject might not aim his gun at police or threaten his mother with a knife.  No, the responsibility lies with the mental decision-making and subsequent behavior of the subject himself.  If mental illness drives the violent behavior than all weapons and substance use must be carefully controlled and eliminated.  When people attend psychotherapy sessions and 12-step recovery programs the proclivity for violence is greatly reduced.  Inevitably, drug abuse is a co-morbid factor that alters perception and fuels underlying anger and violent tendencies.  Who is responsible for this? When drug addition or alcoholism begin – all emotional growth including adult “problem solving” begins to fail until it is fraught with uncontrolled, impulsive violence. Rather than placing blame, greater emphasis on sobriety, counseling and developing emotional resiliency should be encouraged.


Lowery, W. (2015) DISTRAUGHT PEOPLE, DEADLY RESULTS: Officers often lack the training to approach the mentally unstable, experts say. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/06/30/distraught-people-deadly-results/?utm_term=.86e44d33dfab Taken March 5, 2017

What are “collateral consequences” in domestic violence?

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 21, 2017 When working as a police officer I was asked to take the statements of women who were asking for protection from an abusive spouse or intimate partner.  These requests were usually granted by the on-call judge – especially if children were at risk or a history of physical abuse was suspected.  But these orders only last a short time – perhaps a weekend.  In order to have restraining orders extended the victim is expected to go to the district court and swear testimony that specifies the reasons for an order of protection including threats or actual physical harm, forced sexual contact, pathological jealousy – whatever.  Sometimes this happens and protection orders are extended usually for 6 months. During this time the couple is expected to sort out their differences and engage the help of a family therapist, if possible.  This rarely happens.


“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton.  A psychological autopsy should be undertaken to effectively understand the homicide and in doing so contribute to the literature on domestic violence and DVH according to Sefton who with colleagues published the Psychological Autopsy of a case from Dexter, Maine where a father murdered his children, estranged wife and ultimately himself (Allanach, et al, 2011).


More often than not, the victim fails to appear for this process and the protective order goes away without any consequences. Why? In the time between the initial emergency order and the Monday morning when the victim is expected to substantiate her initial claims she may have been bullied by her spouse and worked over by his family, his friends and whomever he can enlist in his camp to get her to let it go. She is made to believe that she cannot function without her abuser.  When children are involved an abusive spouse will usually say that child protective services will take the children for whatever reason he comes up with.  He promises to destroy her credit worthiness, she will be penniless, and he threatens to share lies about her on social media pages for all to see. He may also promise to kill her and cut her to pieces to be used as fish bait – as I have been told in a case being investigated by my former agency. But he swears his love for her always.

This happens over and over.

In some cases the order to extend the restraining order results from elevated risk to the victim and recurring threats of violence. In these cases orders of protection go on for months or years at a time.  This type of bullying is an example of the often secretive coercion that takes place in DV and intimate partner abuse is flagrant and often goes unreported.  It must be considered whenever an initial order is not sustained especially if the victim fails to appear.

In some cases there is more than one order of protection issued to protect one or more intimate partners. This is a red flag and should have bearing on the bail requirements but seldom does. There should be some follow-up with the original complainant by the police department to investigate her reasons for not pursuing the extended order of protection and determine what impact bullying may have played on the victim’s decision.  In rare cases permanent orders are granted because of compelling evidence that the victim and her family remains at risk – usually the result of stalking.

In March 2014, I published a blog in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted a permanent restraining order even though the former spouse was living in Utah and was remarried. In 2014 the Boston Globe did a story on the case written by Martin Valencia essentially raising the spector of the abuser in this case and the current impact the court order has on his day to day life in Utah.

Kevin Caruso was unable to get a job as a youth baseball coach because of a continuing order of protection here in Massachusetts that shows up on his CORI report. He could not own a firearm and was sometimes hassled at airports. The SJC ruled that Kevin Caruso must submit “clear and convincing evidence” that he no longer poses a danger to former girlfriend in a case dating back to 2001.  The Supreme Judicial Court  in Massachusetts has required that Mr. Caruso provide proof that “he has ‘moved on’ from his history of domestic abuse and retaliation”.  It is well-known that male abusers move from one abusive relationship to another.  A colleague Dr. Ron Allanach wrote “In the Caruso case, the Court is proactive, sensing the burden is on the offender rather than the victim; thus, the responsibility for proof that Mr. Caruso has “let it go”, poses no danger to the victim and has done the necessary therapy on his own behavior and to figure strategies to change, rests precisely on the shoulders of the offender where the burden should always remain.” The SJC called the frustration felt by Mr. Caruso the “collateral consequence” of the permanent restraining order put in place initially issued as a result of his threats to kill his former girlfriend.  Time alone and location has no bearing on whether a permanent order is sustained.  No person should live is fear that a former partner is going to appear at her workplace or stand behind her in the line at Starbucks while she thinks about what blend of coffee she might want.

“Substantive decisions about bail or no bail holds will be more reliable by having access to the violent history of domestic violence offenders and the protective orders that have been issued time and time again.” Michael Sefton


Allanach, R. Court is proactive. Personal correspondance. March 2014

Sefton, M. 2014,  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/collateral-consequences-stay-away-orders-that-are-forever/ taken January 21, 2017

Valencia, Milton. SJC rules on Utah man’s permanent restraining order. Boston Globe March 11, 2014, taken March 24, 2017

New age cops – the future innovation of community policing

WESTBOROUGH, MA December 29, 2016 I have long been an advocate for prompt and comprehensive treatment for those afflicted with mental illness.  Now police are increasingly linking up with mental health agencies as a way of diverting mentally ill person’s from jails into treatment for their emotional affliction.  In my experience this is no easy task.  In some cases criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive.  Some who suffer with emotional issues like bipolar depression, drug addiction or anxiety may respond poorly to treatment and may need containment. Those most refractory to treatment often become most difficulty to manage in society.  The untreated mentally ill have a higher rate of violence than those in voluntary treatment.

psychology2As early as 1984, I served the pediatric population in Boston at the Boston City Hospital Pediatric Emergency Department as the on-call clinician in psychology. That same year I was appointed to the ED at Hale Hospital in Haverhill, MA for screening people in crisis.  Those who were stable and had support systems in place would be released – usually with an outpatient referral. Meanwhile, patients without at-home safe guards who could not plausibly answer the question “what brought you to the decision to harm yourself?” were admitted to the hospital.  Other mitigating factors like healthy living arrangements, employment, sobriety, and no history of suicidal behavior were positive indicators of future outcome.  It was a position I loved and is an important clinical role to this day across the United States.  Later as a community mental health psychologist in Long Beach, CA, I served the Children’s Service as someone charged with screening adolescents in crisis living across Los Angeles County. In each of these locations I worked closely with social workers, case managers, police and gatekeepers at state and county psychiatric units to find open beds for kids in need.

In 25 years since there has been very little innovation and fewer still treatment beds for those in need. Today’s depressed and emotionally wounded often spend days in emergency department hallways further wounded by a demoralizing system of delivery that is overwrought and has no place to send them.  This scenario was the case in 1985 and remains the case in 2016.  In Massachusetts and counties across the United States publicly funded hospital beds – including state hospital beds have been eliminated.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s the pendulum of advocacy swung toward community-based care and away from hospital-based treatment.  This left the chronically mentally ill without a support net for treatment, medication management and long range hope.  Many became homeless, unemployable and abusive of drugs and alcohol.

Police provide frontline intervention – often with little training

Police officers became the first line of defense as the hospital beds were eliminated. The mentally ill and those addicted to any number of drugs or alcohol grew homeless and sometimes menacing as they struggle with symptoms. Now police officers are being trained to intervene with these marginalized citizens with crisis management skills.  This poses a conundrum for the current zeitgeist of community policing theory in that the notion of dangerousness relies on critical scrutiny of the underpinnings of human behavior and often nonverbal indices of psychopathology. Some believe this is state of the art police science.  Departments from Augusta, Maine to Los Angeles, CA to San Antonio, TX are using frontline officers as crisis resolution specialists for police encounters with the acutely mentally ill. Many are paired with licensed clinicians while others are working the streets alone.

The collaboration between police and mental health personnel is not new.  But the use of police officers as crisis intervention specialists is innovative and gaining traction in many places around the country. Yet these officers must always be aware of the uncertainty of some encounters with police and those suffering with paranoia or psychotic, illogical delusions, PTSD, or traumatic brain injury that may not respond to verbal persuasion alone.  Decisions about when to utilize greater force for containment of a violent person is sometimes instantaneous.

The use of force must be fluid and officers in the field are expected to modulate the force they apply to the demands of the situation and be ready to respond to changing threat levels.             Michael Sefton, 2015

In 2002, I was appointed to a Massachusetts police department having once served in southern Maine right out of college.  As a psychologist I made an effort to bring mental health concepts into police work without much fanfare or interest.  Mental health topics are not as sexy as defensive tactics or firearm training, I was once told, so finding numbers was sometimes tenuous.  There are still many myths about intervening with those who are making suicidal and homicidal threats and training opportunities are taking on more importance.  Especially these days.  Suicide by cop became a phenomenon that no officer ever wants to confront. All violent police encounters guide officer behavior. “The degree of response intensity follows an expected path that is based on the actions of the perpetrator not the actions of the police” (Sefton, 2015).

Suicide by cop – predicting behavior

In the 2014 FBI Bulletin, Suicide by cop (SBC) is defined as “a situation where individuals deliberately place themselves or others at grave risk in a manner that compels the use of deadly force by police officers” according to Salvatore, 2014.  This happens more than one might expect and is often preceded by rehearsal events according to Salvatore.  “Suicide rehearsals are practice for the attempts that will follow within a few hours or days. SBCs may be tested. Officers should use caution when recontacted by an individual who previously presented signs of mental illness, had no need for assistance, was standoffish when asked what was needed, or was anxious to assure the officers that everything was fine. The initial contact may have been practice for an SBC.”

The best predictor of behavior is past behavior.  The prior demeanor that police have observed in those frequent flyers who pop up on police radar over and again often sets the stage for violent conflict later on. But not always.  Situations grow exponentially more grave in the presence of drugs and alcohol raising the level of lethal unpredictability. For many struggling with depression or other serious mental illness being sober or drug free can be the healthiest thing they can do for themselves.  The uncertainty of the SBC scenario makes the likelihood of a successful de-escalation a tenuous exercise in the life and death force continuum.

The motives for SBC are multifactorial and undeniably linked to poor impulse control associated with drug and alcohol intoxication.  The triggers are identified by Salvatore as “individuals who feel trapped, ashamed, hopeless, desperate, revengeful, or enraged and those who are seeking notoriety, assuring lethality, saving face, sending a message, or evading moral responsibility often attempt SBC”(2014).  Some believe they will become famous and earn large monetary settlements for their surviving families following a SBC scenario.  Other victims are tortured souls who make no demands and offer no insight into their suicidal motive and are killed when they advance on police or turn a weapon toward responding officers.

Training in police-mental health encounters has slowly taken hold.  This innovation in community policing offers hope for reducing fatal encounters.  No amount of training in crisis management will reduce incidence of SBC to zero but ongoing training to identify the behavioral indices of imminent violence, psychosis, and suicidal/homicidal ideation will reduce these lethal encounters.  Most officers are highly skilled at using their verbal skills to de-escalate a violent perpetrator without using lethal force – even when a higher level of force may have been warranted.


Salvatore, T. (2104), Suicide by Cop: Broadening our Understanding. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September. Taken 12-29-16 Bulletin website https://leb.fbi.gov/2014/september/suicide-by-cop-broadening-our-understanding.

Sefton, M (2015) Blog post Law Enforcement- Mental Health collaboration. Taken 12-28-16, https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/law-enforcement-mental-health-collaboration/

Scene safety: crisis management and police training

 

WESTBOROUGH, MA  January 7, 2017 What happens once the “scene is safe”? Usually the hostile threat is taken into custody – either to jail or a hospital. In the aftermath of high stress events such as talking a violent alcoholic into surrendering there should be an opportunity to follow-up and bring closure.  In the time it takes to defuse a potentially lethal citizen encounter the police officer has established a connection – however slim it may be.  Aftermath intervention may go a long way to further validate the first steps taken with the initial encounter.  With such high incidence of polydrug abuse the threatened violence may take on a surprisingly banal theme and the importance of sobriety may be realized once the scene is safe.

Most officers are already highly skilled at using their verbal skills to de-escalate a violent perpetrator without using lethal force – even when a higher level of force may have been warranted.

I have been called to the same home over and over when a violent adult male became intoxicated and gradually overwhelmed and depressed.  Each time officers went to the residence there ended up being a fight.  We deployed OC spray on more than one occasion each of us getting the pepper in our eyes.  This man was hooked up and sent to the hospital time after time. Upon his return (usually within 1-2 days) he would have a short period of sobriety and slowly start drinking and abusing his father again resulting in the same battle we had days, weeks, months ago. Interseting to me was that the younger man was quite reasonable when he was sober. He had no interest in seeing a therapist – nor could he afford one.  The important question to me was what steps could be taken to link this guy to a 12-step alcohol (and drug) recovery program? There were meetings in our town and they were free.  I thought if he could meet a sponsor than hs abuse of his father might be reduced.  In any case, sooner or later someone was going to get seriously injured on a call at this home.  We had heard rumors of him wanting to commit suicide by cop.

Community policing has long espoused the partnership between police and citizens said Sefton in December 2013.  The positive benefits to this create bridges between the two that may benefit officers at times of need – including the de facto extra set of eyes when serious crimes are reported. The same goes for crisis management.  The relationships you build while in the community can serve to help soften the scene and slow down an escalating person of interest who may be looking for a fight.  Violence often occurs after a period of brooding isolation that is fueled by alcohol and a bolus of rage.

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and DV.  Now they are being trained to better interact with those thought to be mentally ill.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the potentially hostile foray.  This affords them a window into the chaos and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.