Did police properly respond to suspected “suicide-by-cop”?

How should police respond when a person has communicated a intent to provoke a deadly confrontation? According to reports by the Tulsa World, this scenario recently occurred in east Tulsa and resulted in an officer shooting a citizen armed with two BB guns. You can read the article here.

According to reports, a suicide hotline contacted a dispatcher for the Tulsa Police Department to report a suspected “suicide-by-cop” scenario. Police were dispatched and made contact with 44 year old Nathan Boyd. Boyd apparently did not immediately respond to officer commands, and when he emerged from his truck, Boyd was carrying two BB guns. At this point Boyd was shot in the neck by a Tulsa police officer. He was transported to a local hospital for his injuries.

The reports do not include a timeline indicating how long Boyd was non-compliant, whether he emerged from the the truck with the guns aimed at the officers, whether the officers were exposed or behind cover when Boyd exited the truck, or how long Boyd was outside the truck before he was shot.

Suicide-by-cop places police officers in a difficult situation. They have the right to protect themselves, but they must also carefully evaluate the circumstances because they have reason to believe the person in question intends to provoke a confrontation that requires police presence and the use of deadly force. The Tenth Circuit addressed these situations in Allen v. Muskogee, Okla., 119 F.3d 837 (10th Cir. 1997).

In  Allen, a man left his home after an altercation with his wife and children, taking ammunition and several guns. He later parked in front of his sister’s house. The altercation was reported to police, who knew the man was armed, had threatened family members, and was suicidal. Police arrived at the sister’s home and observed the man sitting in the driver’s seat with one foot out of the vehicle. He had a gun in his right hand, resting on the console between the seats.

Police told the man to drop his gun as they approached the driver’s side door. One officer reached into the vehicle and attempted to seize the man’s gun, while another officer held the man’s left arm. Another officer approached the car from the passenger side and attempted to open a passenger door. The man reacted by pointing the gun toward the officer opening the passenger door. That officer ducked and moved behind the car. The man then swung the gun toward the other two officers and shots were exchanged. The two officers fired a total of twelve rounds into the vehicle striking the man four times and killing him. The entire sequence lasted approximately ninety seconds.

The court held that police could be liable in this circumstance if a jury concluded that the officers’ own reckless or deliberate conduct unreasonably created the need to use deadly force.

Allen teaches that police should approach “suicide-by-cop” situations with extreme caution. Some departments have written protocols for responding to these situations, and provide training specific to handling “suicide-by-cop.” In circumstances where the suspect does not pose an immediate threat to another person, best practices caution police against escalating the situation. Precautions should be taken to ensure the safety of the police and third-parties, and specially-trained mental health professionals should be summoned to the scene.

Because time is not of the essence where third-parties are not in harm’s way, law enforcement should exercise abundant patience before taking action that might provoke a use of force event.

If you have questions about “suicide-by-cop” scenarios, contact the Oklahoma injury attorneys at Bryan & Terrill Law, 918-935-2777.