Police trained to prevent suicide by cop tragedies

By Evan Goodenow - egoodenow@civitasmedia.com

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part examination of suicide in our area as part of Mental Health Month.

He was found walking in the middle of Rt. 58 in Oberlin on April 27 with traffic whizzing by on both sides.

When police approached, the man said he was going to kill himself by jumping in front of a train and asked officers to shoot him, according to a police report.

Those in law enforcement regularly deal with people seeking to end their own lives — and the vast majority of encounters end peacefully.

However, there are exceptions that end in “suicide by cop,” including in Lorain County

In the Oberlin case, tragedy was averted. Officers escorted the man into a police cruiser and drove him to Mercy Regional Medical Center in Lorain. Upon arrival, they said he became violent and cut his hand on a cruiser partition as they pried him from the car.

A 2012 incident in Elyria ended worse. Police killed a man they said had come out of his home threatening to shoot himself and then pointed a gun at officers.

There are at least 400 police homicides annually in the U.S., according to the FBI, and many are suicide by cop incidents.

A study published in 2009 in the Journal of Forensic Studies examined 707 police shootings in the U.S. and Canada between 1998 and 2006. It found 36 percent were suicide by cop killings or suicide by cop attempts.

While researchers cautioned that obtaining mental health data on the victims was difficult, they found at least 62 percent had a history of mental illness or a probable history of mental health problems and 48 percent were diagnosed with depression. Researchers said the study was another example that it is a myth that suicidal people are rarely homicidal.

“A suicidal individual poses a greater risk of homicide, or at least violence toward others, than a non-suicidal individual,” study authors Peter Collins, Reid Meloy and Kris Mohandie of Operational Consulting International wrote. “Law enforcement apprehension of an armed, suicidal individual requires a high degree of vigilance for the safety of all civilians and officers at the scene of the incident.”

To reduce violence, more police are receiving Crisis Intervention Training designed to improve officers’ understanding of depression, mental illness, and suicide. Through education, officers are better prepared to communicate with and help suicidal people.

Training began nationally in response to a 1987 suicide by cop incident in Memphis, Tenn., according to The Nord Center, which trains Lorain County police.

Since 2002, nearly 200 officers from 14 county departments have received the 40-hour, week-long training, including officers in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington, where our news coverage is focused.

“Many officers who’ve attended the training have said it’s one of the better training (sessions) they’ve gone to in their career,” said Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey. “That’s spurred continued interest in the program.”

Nine of Amherst’s 24 officers, 10 of Oberlin’s 17 officers, and four of Wellington’s 17 police officers, including a hostage negotiator, have been trained.

Amherst police chief Joe Kucirek said his department tries to have two or three officers who’ve undergone CIT on each shift.

He said there have been several suicide by cop attempts in the city since he joined the department in 1988, but none were carried out. Kucirek said officers are trained to try to keep a person in a suicide by cop incident talking while rapidly evaluating the situation

“There are so many things that come into play,” he said. “There’s a lot of thinking that has to go on.”

While Nord doesn’t charge departments for the training, Wellington police chief Tim Barfield said freeing up officers for a week of training is difficult in a small department. However, he said he’s committed to getting all officers trained within the next several years. “It’s very important,” he said.

Police are often on the front line of dealing with people who have mental illnesses, some of whom are suicidal. A generation of deinstitutionalization prompted by federal and state budget cuts, overreliance on prescription drugs, and abuses in state mental hospitals — like the shock treatment dramatized in the 1975, Oscar-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — have put millions of mentally ill people on the streets.

In a nation of 320 million, about 9.8 million Americans, 4.2 percent, had severe mental illness in 2014, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Less than 37 percent are receiving “minimally adequate treatment,” according to the institute. That puts more pressure on police and jail and prison guards with jails and prisons serving as de facto mental hospitals.

“There’s just not as much available treatment for those suffering from mental illness,” McCloskey said. “It eventually manifests itself on the streets if they’re not getting adequate treatment.”

Police in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington respond to far fewer calls involving suicidal people than their big city counterparts, but they get their share.

In Wellington, police said a 17-year-old boy shot himself on Wednesday at the Wellington reservoir. The boy was hospitalized at Metro Health Health Medical Center in Cleveland. Because police would not identify the teen, we do not know his status.

Wellington suicide statistics for the last five years were incomplete, but police said they responded to 10 suicide attempts last year. They responded to no actual suicides. Amherst statistics were unavailable, but in Oberlin, police sometimes respond to up to 150 mental health calls annually including calls to Oberlin College.

Between 2011 and 2015, Oberlin averaged one suicide annually and about eight attempts, police said. Through Monday, there have been two suicides and seven attempts.

McCloskey said training has helped change attitudes and tactics in dealing with potential suicide victims or mentally disturbed people. Officers are more likely to try to deescalate a confrontation with a person who is disobeying them as a result of mental illness.

“We’ve all seen scenarios in which somebody was in a mental health crisis and maybe officers didn’t recognize it and the level of force escalated unnecessarily,” he said. “If you’re able to respond and recognize, ‘Hey, this is someone in a mental health crisis,’ then you’re going to respond to that situation differently, and hopefully you’re going to have a positive outcome.”

Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.

By Evan Goodenow