It’s Really Difficult to Prevent ‘Suicide by Cop’

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Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

For anyone who is still trying to figure out what lessons should be extracted from the tragic death of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, who was shot dead by police in St. Louis last week after he stole a few dollars worth of food and drink from a corner store, a 2011 story in Pacific Standard is very much worth a read. It offers up a nuanced, detailed account of the difficulties of preventing "suicide by cop" incidents — a category that can at least arguably be applied to Powell's death, given that once police arrived, he walked toward them with a knife, yelling at them to shoot him.

A few things jumped out:

1. Researchers can't even agree on a precise definition of suicide by cop — for instance, whether it should include situations in which the individual attempting to provoke the shooting may not understand the ramifications of his or her actions due to schizophrenia or other mental illnesses.

2. Police are particularly ill-equipped to handle suicide-by-cop incidents because their training, for understandable reasons, gives them the authority to use lethal force if someone is coming at them with a weapon. The normal logic underlying these encounters goes out the window when the individual in question wants to die.

3. More generally, as the article puts it, "National data on police shootings is remarkably thin" — the government simply does a poor job tracking this information, which is unfortunate given that almost 400 people were killed by police per year during between 1976 and 1998.

This only captures part of why this is a really interesting, important article, so you should read it.