Sunday, August 24, 2014

“Suicide by Cop” : What Do We Know About It and What Should We Do About It?

Petra Kottsieper Ph.D

A video has just surfaced of the events that lead to the shooting death of 25 year old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis. It is a very disturbing video to watch.  Initially, he is walking around the sidewalk seemingly muttering to himself, after he apparently stole two energy drinks from a convenience store that he had placed on the sidewalk. He ignores other people walking past him until the cops show up, who jump out of their car and very quickly draw their weapons. Mr. Powell is seen walking towards them and you can clearly hear him yelling at the police officers to shoot him, and they do. Apparently he was wielding a knife, which is not clearly visible in the video, and was threatening the officers.

People on the scene, as well as news writers, have been quick to call this a suicide by cop event. From what you can see and hear from the video, it could very well be. So what is suicide by cop? Suicide by cop (SBC) “ is a method of suicide that occurs when a subject engages in threatening behavior in an attempt to be killed by law enforcement” (Mohandie & Meloy, 2000). Usually this involves a subject brandishing a gun at police, both loaded and unloaded, which of course is an extremely dangerous situation for officers. 

SBC stats are not easy to come by, but several studies have attempted to arrive at some percentage of SBC of all police shootings.  One of the more recent studies published in 2009, found suicidal motivation accounted for 36 percent of more than 700 North American police shootings.[i]

These incidents have been around for a long time, but have not received scientific research attention until 1998.  Police departments and the FBI are also clearly aware of SBC, however, it is interesting to note that it was not until 1989 that the FBI began to track the number of justifiable homicides by police. Incidentally, a report from the Department of Criminal Justice, presents a large number of historical SBC case examples in their article.[ii]

Clearly calling a police shooting a SBC involves a clear and present danger to the responding officers. Most often this involves a firearm or what looks to be a firearm, but later turns out to have been a starter pistol or BB gun.  In the case of Mr. Powell; however, it was a knife.

It also requires the police to be aware that the person they are dealing with is actually suicidal and or mentally ill, and some kind of recognition of the behavioral or cognitive state of the person. This is of course not easy to tell, unless the person is yelling at the police to shoot them (which sadly occurred in the case at hand), or behaves in a very erratic manner.

Which brings me to one of my final points. Do police receive specialized training to deal with individuals who appear “erratic”, or may appear threatening either due to drug use or mental health problems?  And the answer is that indeed they do.

As early as 1974, forward thinking pioneers at Montgomery Country Emergency Service (MCES) in Norristown, PA started a training program where volunteer police officers were trained on mental illnesses and dual diagnosis (mental illness and substance abuse).[iii]  This was part of a pre-booking jail diversion training program.  This program was not started as a response to SBC, but rather as a response to the increasing arrest rates of people with mental illnesses for relatively low level offenses such as loitering, simple assault, trespassing etc. There are now numerous programs like this in the country, the best know being the Memphis CIT model (that is based on the local Montgomery Country, PA example). However, these programs fulfill the dual role of not only preventing unnecessary arrest and incarceration of individuals with mental illnesses, but also train officers of how to deal with individuals in crisis without resorting to force.

From their website: “The Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is an innovative police based first responder program: 'This program provides law enforcement based crisis intervention training for helping those individuals with mental illness. Involvement in CIT is voluntary and based in the patrol division of the police department. In addition, CIT works in partnership with those in mental health care to provide a system of services that is friendly to the individuals with mental illness, family members, and the police officers.”[iv]

I do not envy police officers for the many challenges they have to face on a daily basis and the often ambiguous and dangerous aspects of their jobs. However, I also believe that the law enforcement community in every single jurisdiction in this country has a responsibility to implement something akin to CIT programs and/or to train all of their officers in how to deal with individuals in the community who may be mentally ill or high on substances; including those wanting to die at the very hands of the people sworn to protect them.  According to a NAMI CIT fact sheet, 2000 communities in more than 40 states have implemented these kinds of trainings for their officers and we can only hope that training on how to deal with individuals in crisis (including those with a mental illnesses) will be provided to all law enforcement officers everywhere in this country for everyone’s safety.  It will not bring back Mr. Powell, but it may help others who are dealing with a crisis they think they cannot overcome. It will also help the officers who are often emotionally scarred when realizing they may have unnecessarily taken a person’s life, realizing that they were dealing with a person with serious mental health problems and could have possibly responded in a different manner.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?”

by Celine I. Thompson, Ph.D.

It is hard to have completed at least one course in African American studies without hearing DuBois’ question posed from The Souls of Black Folk.  A century later this same question dominates my thoughts about the recent Michael Brown shooting.  I think about my own brothers and male cousins and am thankful that such violence has not claimed them.  Unfortunately, my hurt and rage are not assuaged, because even though the urban, young, Black males closest to me have managed to skirt violent ends, nearly all of them have had encounters with law enforcement and the justice system before the age of 25.

 Additionally, they have lost peers to violence, incarceration, and have vicariously (if not personally) experienced unwarranted police surveillance and brutality in addition to other forms of violence in their communities.  Every time the media covers the shooting of a young unarmed Black male, my own anxiety increases as well as my concern for the physical and mental welfare of my loved ones.  However, I do not have the exact same ominous thoughts about my young female relatives, or for myself, although being Black and female has its own experiences and challenges.  For the most part I maintain the privilege of being able to walk down and across the street and not fear if a rolling cruiser will stop me on my way, and what might happen if it does.

However, Arizona State professor Ersula Ore cannot do just that at the college campus where she works, so it would seem that I should add to my list of things to be mindful of as a young Black woman the prospect of being arrested for jaywalking.  Although, I think I would have handled the situation differently from Professor Ore.  I probably would have done everything the police officer asked of me, given my ID, thoroughly explained what I had been doing in that area, mentally rewind and scan my last steps and actions in order to build a credible defense for any possible trial coming against me. I would feel the need to prepare and present my whole life story just to persuade the police officer that I had done nothing wrong, or if I did do something unlawful that I was not aware it and would have apologized immensely.  That would be my totally “warranted” response… for jaywalking.  And whether I was allowed to continue on my way or if I found myself sitting in the back of a police cruiser on the way to jail, I would feel useless.  I would feel powerless and hurt and scared and uncertain of what to do, if I could do anything.  If I did not know that I was perceived as a problem before such an encounter, I would definitely know what it felt like to be one.

Many young men in our city know how it feels to be a “problem.”  Two months ago I had the opportunity to sit in the audience of Alice Goffman, the author of the recently published book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.  She read a selection from her ethnography detailing the vulnerability of young Black males in encounters with law enforcement and the justice system of our dear city of brotherly love.  While listening to the stories Goffman shared, I reflected on the experiences of my own young male relatives and heard in her words what many will view as legitimate recognition of what it means to be young, Black, and male in Philadelphia in the 21st century.   Such vindication should be a relief, but in a room with a majority of educated women of color, you could feel tension and sorrow grow in our silence as Goffman spoke of the young men who were lost to violence and the struggles that many endure to try to steer clear of law enforcement for their own survival. 

It is the same tension and grief that I experienced in a conversation with a soon-to-be kindergartner. When I asked him if he was excited about going to a new school, he responded that he was a little “nervous.”   He continued to explain that “kids get locked up for fighting” at this school and if he was ever bullied, he was not sure if he could keep from fighting or getting into trouble.  I really wanted to tell him that he did not have to worry, but the most I felt that I could responsibly do was give him a few tips on how to deal with bullies.  The possibility of having to prepare a five year-old to deal with police officers is simultaneously distressing and surreal.

Perhaps these same emotions fuel the ongoing protests and riots in Ferguson as well as the peaceful protests observed throughout the country.  As psychologists experiencing such times and circumstances, we should be drawn to ask and search for answers to the following questions:  
  • How do developing young men manage these disproportionate and unfair experiences?
  • What “healthy” forms of parenting can take place under the threat of raising children so  undervalued in our society? 
  • And these captive young men, what can motivate them to strive for success under the     inescapable reality of how the world will view and treat them?

Charles Blow in a recent NY Times op-ed piece captured this sentiment in an equally poignant version of the question posed by DuBois:“What psychic damage does it do to the black mind when one must come to own and manage the fear of the black body? The burden of bias isn’t borne by the person in possession of it, but by the person who is the subject of it.”

My mentor, Dr. Howard Stevenson, Constance E. Clayton Professor at Penn, has worked to help Black families manage this misplaced burden.  His work helping Black boys manage anger and racial stress in schools and to help African American families raise children in an environment affected by racism has brought attention to these issues and provides families with information and guidance on promoting resilience in our youth.  As mental health professionals, we need to be aware of and familiar with research literature and resources available to guide our understanding and treatment of the issues that affect vulnerable youth and those who are responsible for their care and survival.  For a soon-to-be kindergartner it cannot begin soon enough.

Dr. Celine Thompson is an Assistant Professor in the Clinical PsyD program.  Dr. Thompson obtained her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development from University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, where she also completed her Master’s degree in Psychological Services (currently known as Counseling and Mental Health Services).  Her dissertation research focused on understanding “racially-gendered” identity development processes in Black adolescent females.