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ANALYSIS: Police Choose to Kill -- The Myth of “Suicide by Cop”

by Jeff Shantz

Care Not Cops
Care Not Cops

Killer cops, the forces to which they belong, and their police associations are regularly coming up with euphemisms and bogus conditions to excuse or legitimize their killings. The litany includes “excited delirium,” the mystical “sudden death,” and “suicide by cop.”

Suicide by cop is a dubious designation, one of those excuses police apply to publicly justify their actions when they kill civilians. The notion is dubious for a number of reasons. First, it is applied after the fact in a range of diverse circumstances, including those where the victim has not expressed suicidal wishes (or on the contrary is even happy in life) or is not posing a threat to anyone. Do not forget that the police attempted to use this defense to protect killer cop James Forcillo who shot Sammy Yatim multiple times while the youth was alone in an empty street car. Second, even if someone wishes to “die by cop” does not mean that the police are justified in killing them or should be expected to kill them. It speaks volumes that anyone could expect with probability that an encounter with police would end with the police taking their life. Third, if someone is experiencing mental health issues, the police are not the appropriate response and if they are called for such issues, health care providers should be involved rather than police who are ready to shoot to kill. Fourth, in suicide the person takes the decision and acts. In “suicide by cop,” the cops can choose not to shoot and kill the person. Someone is taking the active decision to kill you in a case where they could choose not to. Finally, “suicide by cop” should never be applied as a justification for police killing civilians as it is now. The facts of each encounter matter.

These are all issues to keep in mind when details emerge such as those in the killing by Nunavut RCMP of a 39-year-old man in Hall Beach, in the Qikiqtaaluk region of Nunavut, a town with a population of about 750. RCMP encountered the man over the evening of Monday, May 1 and Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Police claim they were alerted to the man around 11:30 PM after receiving a call about an online Facebook live video in which the man ranted about “suicide by cops.” The man is alone and crying in the video. Police promptly attended the house where the man was present, by himself, and shot and killed him.

The August 2021 inquest into the police killing of Geoff Morris, a 41-year-old Métis father in 2019, returned suicide by cop to the forefront of police efforts to excuse their decisions to kill. Morris was shot and killed by police in his own apartment on the morning of May 4, 2019. Regina police constable Devon Lee Sterling shot Morris with a carbine rifle while about six meters away from Morris. He aimed right above Mr. Morris’ left eye, according to testimony that came out at the inquest. There were at least four officers present at the scene. Officers told the inquest jury that they believed Morris was suicidal and was trying to provoke police into killing him. Once again, “suicide by cop” as justification after the fact.

Phony criminology has been used to provide justification and cover for authorities throughout the course of the discipline. One can go back at least to the quackery of Cesare Lombroso, who used facial structures and other physical features to reinforces prejudices of the impoverished working class as the born criminal (which also served nicely to direct attention away from corporate or state crime). The notion of "suicide by cop" has been one of the most pernicious and insulting ideas pushed by phony criminology in recent years. This fake theory has been mostly promoted and peddled by cops and former cops posing as criminologists (and using this “research” to secure plum faculty positions in universities). It has been used largely to get killer cops off the hook in criminal proceedings, and thus the suicide-by-cop specialists typically make their services available to police associations and defense teams trying to protect cops in the rare instances when police who kill civilians are made to face trials and inquiries.

 

The Case of Toronto Constable James Forcillo and the Killing of Sammy Yatim

Killer cops, their departments, and police associations routinely trot this piece of copaganda out in diverse circumstances. Perhaps the most notorious recent case is that of Toronto Constable James Forcillo, who shot 18-year-old Sammy Yatim multiple times while the youth was all alone and readily contained on an inoperative and empty streetcar. Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to six years in prison for the 2013 killing of Yatim. Forcillo infamously appealed his conviction on the basis that testimony arguing for “suicide by cop” in Yatim’s case was excluded from the trial. The testimony was provided from cop criminologist Rick Parent of Simon Fraser University, who has built a tidy side gig on justifying “suicide by cop” claims by his colleagues who kill.

The suicide by cop claim is ludicrous in this case (as it so often is). First, Yatim was alone and contained and posed no threat to the public or police. Secondly, Forcillo fired two distinct volleys of multiple shots at the youth, pausing before shooting the second volley even after the young man had fallen dead from the first round of shots. Clearly not a suicide. Forcillo had multiple opportunities not to shoot and to stop shooting. There is no way to construe that as a suicide on Yatim’s part.

Forcillo asked the appeal court to substitute a not-guilty verdict or order a new trial on the basis of exclusion of the copaganda suicide by cop testimony. The killer cop also sought a declaration that his mandatory minimum sentence for attempted murder is unconstitutional and sought a suspended sentence. Absent these outcomes, he wanted his sentence reduced to the minimum of five years.

James Forcillo was ultimately unsuccessful in these attempts.

 

The Killing of Roy Thomas Bell by Winnipeg Police

In 2017, an inquest was held into the police killing of 44-year-old Roy Thomas Bell in 2007 in Winnipeg. The bogus notion of suicide by cop played a key part in this.

Roy Thomas Bell was a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who was killed in December 2007 by police officers responding to a 911 call. Friends of the victim suggest that he had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after having served in the military for over 20 years prior to his release from the forces in 2004.

According to a provincial news release, Bell threatened arriving officers with some form of weapon described as nothing more than two sticks connected by a chain (would be nunchucks). Police had erroneously claimed at the time of the killing that Bell had a firearm and a bat. This was not proven. Still, police tased the man before firing their handguns, with multiple shots hitting the victim. Bell was transported to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Witnesses at the time reportedly heard Bell say the officers should shoot him and this has given the police the in that they needed to use the suicide by cop excuse. Never mind that the man only held basic nunchucks yet was shot several times by police. Never mind, too, that someone asking the cops to shoot them would seem to pose little threat to them and would probably necessitate an alternative response. Any cop responding to such a request affirmatively should be seriously questioned.

 

The Killing of David McQueen by Calgary Police

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), the unit that investigates police harm to civilians in the province, cleared the repeat killer cop and the other Calgary police officers who shot and killed David McQueen, a 53-year-old quadriplegic man in a wheelchair, on January 24, 2016. ASIRT reported that several officers opened fire on McQueen with the last round fired, a bullet from a sniper, striking him in the head and killing him, but said the officers involved were fully justified in the killing. Police had reportedly responded to reports of McQueen firing a round from inside his house. Police fired tear gas into McQueen’s house driving him outside where they shot and killed him.

The killing of McQueen, who was quadriplegic and had limited use of his hands, and who was in a wheelchair, in his home, experiencing some mental distress, has raised many disturbing questions. One of these relates to the fact that an officer who shot at McQueen was a killer cop who had committed a fatal shooting only a year before. That officer shot 27-year-old Anthony Heffernan four times, with three shots to the head and neck, on March 16, 2015. Heffernan had also been in some distress but was alone and confined to his hotel room and posed no threat to anyone, police or public, when police broke into his room and shot and killed him there.

The ASIRT investigation into Heffernan’s killing actually found evidence that an offense had been committed by police. The Crown claimed that there was not enough evidence to gain a conviction against the officer and did not pursue charges.

In the ASIRT release on the McQueen killing, Susan Hughson, executive director of ASIRT, suggested that the killer cop’s involvement in the Heffernan case has no bearing on his right to use his firearm in another case. According to Hughson:

“You have to look at the incidents independently and look at the circumstances surrounding them to determine whether the steps taken or the actions taken were justified. And, just because the officer has been involved in another officer-involved shooting, he does not lose the protection of the law.”

Protection to kill civilians? Others might ask why the officer was still on the force and being deployed in such situations of a person in distress.

Director Hughson, noted McQueen’s distress: “There’s no doubt that this man was in crisis on this date.” Hughson noted that McQueen had been “struggling physically, emotionally and financially” in the days prior to his being killed by police. He has been particularly upset by the death of his beloved dog only the week before. Disturbingly, ASIRT appeared to use this fact to make reference to a bogus “suicide by cop” defense for the police killing of David McQueen.

 

The Killing of Rhett Mutch by Victoria Police

The killing of 20-year-old Victoria youth Rhett Mutch by police constable John Musicco was declared a suicide by a coroner’s inquest in findings announced May 19, 2017. Incredibly, the inquest report offered no reasons for why the jury classified the killing as a suicide. Constable Musicco had already been cleared by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), the body that examines cases of police violence against civilians in British Columbia.

Musicco shot Mutch in the neck, killing him, on November 1, 2014. At the time he was shot, the young man was alone in the basement of his mother’s house and posed no threat to his mother (who was safely outside the house) or to the general public.

The report even noted in detail an exchange between Marney Mutch, the victim’s mother, and police officers in which she told them that her son would not hurt anyone. She also informed them that drawn guns would only frighten her distraught son further. She told the inquest that one of the officers held a gun that looked like “a bazooka.” This is another problem of suicide by cop excuses -- they ignore the role of police actions in changing victim’s interactions. In her view, as stated in the report: “This is really overkill.” She wanted to stay in the house with her son, but officers refused her request.

 

The Killing of Alex Wettlaufer by Toronto Police

On May 16, 2017, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in Ontario added to the suicide by cop chorus legitimizing police killings of civilians in the case of the killing of 21-year-old Alex Wettlaufer by Toronto Police on March 13, 2016. Wettlaufer was shot three times while isolated in the Villaways Park in North York after a lengthy standoff in which it seems clear police had multiple opportunities to use non-lethal means and/or have a health care provider attend.

Two 911 calls apparently made by Wettlaufer suggested he needed health care assistance. Yet no health care personnel were dispatched to the scene, only police. And they waited for the Toronto Police Emergency Task Force (ETF) to arrive. Wettlaufer was said to be holding a cell phone and a BB gun.

The claim of suicide by cop is especially dubious in this case given that on at least one occasion during the interaction with police Wettlaufer tried to get away by fleeing into the woods at Villaways Park. Police pursued him, seemingly cornering him. By the SIU’s own account, Wettlauufer even put down his BB gun several times. During the standoff the young man was alone on a bridge in the park. It is not clear that he posed any threat to the public at that time. By the SIU account, ETF had taken cover in the woods, being able to see Wettlaufer isolated and alone on the bridge. He was also apparently on his cellphone with 911 and expressing his distress during the standoff. And still no health care providers were deployed. So police, in positions of cover, shoot a distressed youth, who is on the phone with 911, who is alone on a bridge, and who has repeatedly set his BB gun down. And this is supposedly “suicide by cop.” The leap of logic by SIU director Tony Loparco is perplexing. In his conclusion, he wrote, “Given that Mr. Wettlaufer was no doubt aware that he had a mere BB gun in hand, his actions lead me to the conclusion that he was attempting to bait the police into fatally shooting him by creating a perilous situation.” Quite a claim.

The three officers who killed Wettlaufer did not participate in the investigation as is their right under the limited and insufficient oversight rules. The investigation took fourteen months despite the SIU goalpost of 120 days.

As a  result of the SIU report, no charges were laid against the three officers who opened fire on Wettlaufer.

 

The Québec Study on Police Killing People in Distress

A 2015 study led by Annie Gendron of the École nationale de police du Québec looked at 143 investigations carried out between 2006 and 2010 involving police harm to civilians at the request of the Québec Public Security Department. The study found that around 80 percent of cases requiring investigation where police harmed or killed civilians involved victims “in an altered state of consciousness.” These were said by police to involve either mental health issues or intoxication, which were lumped together, or a combination of both.

Most of the interactions with police were notably of only short duration, suggesting little time was taken to communicate, assess needs, or provide some form of care. Police do not engage in dialogue and do not make hospital referrals in enough cases. Often police seem to have a mistaken understanding about the nature of the call according to the Québec study. And they lack proper training.

To its great discredit, the study suggested that one in four of the cases was “suicide by cop," which as we have seen is an unsubstantiated, generally dismissed explanation that has no scientific basis and is typically used by police to justify their killings of civilians under dubious circumstances. It is telling that someone might reasonably expect police to kill them as an outcome of a call for help and assistance.

Smaller departments claim not to have enough resources to provide basic mental health training for officers. Police interventions against people in mental health distress has become the neoliberal form of mental health care in Canada as mental health resources and services have been cut at the same time as police budgets are increased.

 

Conclusion

Based on the outcomes of several recent coroners’ inquests and investigations by oversight agencies, it appears that the “suicide by cop” excuse is being used to let killer cops off the hook in various jurisdictions in Canada. It is becoming a go-to justification for killer cops.

The notion of “suicide by cop” is a phony construct devised as a cynical ruse to excuse killer cops and get them off the hook when they kill civilians. The problems with this myth have been detailed and analyzed repeatedly in my research. Applied after the fact and in a range of instances, including those in which the cop killed someone who posed no threat to police or the public, the excuse covers up killings which are in no way suicides. If a police officer chooses to shoot someone who is isolated from the public and poses no threat to anyone, that is not suicide. If the cop has a choice not to kill, that killing is not a suicide. Saying it is denies the dignity of the victim, who has not chosen to end their own life -- it has been consciously ended for them, without consent. Suicide by cop is in these cases purely propagandistic.

Suicide by cop is a form of copaganda used as a legitimation tool by so-called oversight agencies (none of which are autonomous and independent from police with powers of compulsion) and state inquests to justify police killings of civilians to an anxious and critical public. The claim is only applied after the fact in diverse situations and ignores the fact that, unlike in other suicides, the victim is killed not by their own actions but by the conscious decision of someone who chooses to use lethal force rather choosing not to kill.

 

Jeff Shantz is a long-time anti-authoritarian organizer and a professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver.


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