Turning to police for help to die
By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
He wants to die. But instead of killing himself, he points a gun at police officers and forces them to do it for him.
Suicide by cop.
With their help, he has escaped whatever demons plagued him. In his wake he has created new demons for those left behind.
Family members: confused, bitter, sometimes furious at the "trigger-happy" cop who killed their loved one.
And the officer: Often he has to deal with a wrongful death lawsuit. Always he must come to grips with taking a life.
Around Tampa Bay it has happened at least four times since March.
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Pinellas sheriff's deputies John Syers and Tom Singleton repeatedly order him to drop his weapon. When Lappin points the gun at his girlfriend, Syers and Singleton fire six shots.
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Why make a police officer kill you?
Some people want to die but don't have whatever strength it takes to pull the trigger themselves.
"It's a solution, an easy one," said Barry Perrou, a clinical psychologist who travels the United States teaching officers about suicide intervention and suicide by cop.
"You can hang yourself, jump off a bridge, drive your car into an abutment. Or, you could engage a police officer to shoot you. Police officers are trained to kill."
H. Range Hutson of Harvard University conducted one of the first published studies of suicide by cop. He and Deirdre Anglin of the University of Southern California examined officer-involved shootings at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department from 1987 through 1997.
Of 437 cases, they classified 46 as suicide by cop, more than 10 percent. The last year of the study, it was 25 percent.
"Some people just can't take their own life. They just let someone else do it," Hutson said.
"For some people, you go to hell if you kill yourself. But if you're killed by the hands of another, you probably still stand a chance of going to heaven."
Studies from Oregon to Florida to North Carolina to Canada found results similar to Hutson's Los Angeles study. In almost every case, the person stated a wish to die or be killed, left a note or had talked about suicide, had a lethal weapon and provoked the officers.
More than 90 percent were men, most between 18 and 54. More than half asked officers to kill them. More than half had a history of mental illness or a previous suicide attempt.
"Suicide by cop is nothing new. It's been around a long time," said Perrou, whose 32 years with the L.A. sheriff's department include 11 as commander of the Hostage Negotiations Unit. "We just couldn't imagine why anyone would want to be killed by police, so we just discounted that."
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Margaret Marko paces her property in Riverview, waving a revolver. The 49-year-old fires shots into the air, puts the gun to her head, threatens suicide. She tells Hillsborough sheriff's deputies to shoot her.
After an hourlong standoff, Marko walks toward deputies, pointing her gun at them. Deputy Duane Benton fires one round from a 12-gauge shotgun into Marko's chest.
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Several officers involved in recent local shootings did not return multiple phone calls. Others didn't want to be interviewed, citing potential lawsuits against them as reason to guard what they say.
Gary Bush has made it his business to talk about the time someone used him to commit suicide. It was seven years ago. Bush was 33, a corporal with four years on the force in South Charleston, W.Va.
The call came 20 minutes before the police department's annual Christmas party: A man with a gun was threatening to kill his family and himself. Bush volunteered to go, along with a rookie officer.
The man was drunk, holed up in a 7-by-9-foot garage apartment. Bush opened the door; the man picked up a rifle.
"Drop the gun, drop the gun, drop the gun," Bush yelled, thinking, I can't believe he's doing this.
The man swung the gun toward him.
"I shot once, then stepped out," Bush said. "I knew I had to go back inside, but I didn't want to."
He handcuffed the man and ruffled through his clothing, relieved to see no bullet hole. He got to the T-shirt and found a small hole left of the sternum.
With paramedics on the way, a relative begged to come inside. Bush knew better than to let anyone disturb possible evidence, but he let the relative in and uncuffed his prisoner. He held the man's left hand, the relative held his right. Together they prayed.
The man died at the hospital. The rifle, it turned out, wasn't loaded.
"It broke my heart that that man died, that I had to kill him. But either his family was going to lose someone that night or mine was. There's no choice there."
Bush tried to return to work but couldn't cope. Diagnosed with depression and post traumatic stress disorder, he retired at 34.
Perrou said scores of officers suffer much the same.
"The second guessing can be cruel," he said. "They think, 'Did I really need to use deadly force?' Some officers (about 40 percent) don't come back from it. Then there are those who manage it and move on."
Suicide by cop turns the officer into a victim.
"Initially the officer is faced with an armed suspect. But soon, the roles are reversed. He is trying to help (the person)," Perrou said.
"Some of the feelings (officers have) are the same as rape victims. The feeling of having no control over the situation, not having a choice in the matter, the feeling of being used."
Living now in Cincinnati, Bush teaches stress management to police officers and recruits. He counsels a handful of officers around the country who have been involved in shootings.
He says the face of the man he shot still haunts his dreams.
"The guilt of taking a human life was amazing. That moment lasted a few seconds, but it has been with me for 71/2 years."
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The next day, Pasco sheriff's Deputy Erica Fernandez finds the 39-year-old alone at her jewelry business with her husband's .357 Magnum, contemplating suicide. Jones raises the gun toward the deputy, who fires three times.
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How do you stop an officer facing a deadly threat from following his training and pulling the trigger?
You don't. But experts say police need more than the three to five hours of suicide and mental illness training that many receive.
The "Memphis Model" has been praised and imitated. In 40 hours of training, Crisis Intervention Team officers learn the intricacies of mental illness and the effects of medications. They meet with patients and study ways to de-escalate a tense situation.
In many ways, the program flies in the face of traditional police training. It teaches officers to slow things down, to show a softer side.
"You have to unlearn what you've learned sometimes," said Maj. Sam Cochran, a Crisis Intervention Team coordinator in Memphis.
Similar programs have sprouted in Portland, Ore., Albuquerque, N.M., Seattle, San Jose, Calif., Houston and Miami Beach, to name a few.
Since March 1999, the Mental Health Coalition in St. Petersburg has held seven Crisis Intervention Team training courses.
Through those classes and similar efforts, more than 400 law enforcement officers from nearly 20 bay area agencies have completed the 40-hour course. That leaves thousands who have not.
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Yukio Allen makes copies of a 26-page suicide note and tells the clerk at a Shell gas station to send them to the newspapers. He flashes a silver pistol and orders her to call police.
Deputies try to calm him for 45 minutes. Allen paces toward them, ignores repeated shouts to drop his guns and raises his right arm.
Cpl. Steve Smolensky fires three shots. It turns out that Allen's guns are fake.
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Twice Louise Pyers' 19-year-old son failed at suicide. He tried to strangle himself and another time took a cocktail of over-the-counter medications and alcohol.
Despite psychological treatment, he tried a third time, driving circles around his hometown police station, blowing his horn, until officers began a chase.
He led them through three Connecticut towns. When they broke it off, he turned around, rammed a police cruiser and pounded the hood of another cruiser with a champagne bottle.
"Shoot me, shoot me," he yelled. "I want you to kill me."
After he refused to drop the bottle, an officer shot him in the stomach. As he fell, he said: "I wanted you to shoot me in the head."
Louise Pyers said her son struggled with a thyroid condition that cause his severe depression.
"He decided the only way to be successful was with a gun," she said. "He didn't have one; he didn't know anyone who had one. So he started thinking, 'Who does?' The police do. He felt that would be the only way it would be final."
He survived and works now as an engineer. He has participated in training to help law enforcement officers learn more about suicide by cop.
His mother counsels officers involved in traumatic confrontations and has teamed with the officer who shot her son to share their story.
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Moshe "Moe" Pergament, a 19-year-old New York college student, brought "suicide by cop" into the vocabulary of many Americans.
Despondent over a $6,000 gambling debt, Pergament was speeding and driving erratically on the eastbound Long Island Expressway the night of Nov. 17, 1997. An officer pulled him over.
Pergament jumped from his car and pointed a silver revolver at the officer. He advanced on another officer, ignoring commands to drop the weapon. When he drew within 12 feet, the officers fired.
The revolver turned out to be a toy, a $1.79 model Pergament bought at a drug store. In his 1998 Honda, officers found 10 notes. Nine were addressed to family and friends. One was addressed "to the officer who shot me":
"Officer, it was a plan. I'm sorry to get you involved. I just needed to die."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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