"Suicide By Cop” Means Manslaughter

By James Mazzocco of Portland, Oregon. James is on the Advisory Council of the Mental Health Association of Portland.

It was January 25, and Brad Morgan wanted to die.

Maybe it was earlier. He had problems. A day, a week, or a month before -- nobody can know for sure. All the same, Brad Morgan knew it was time.

A tragic event has the power to cause us to inspect it minutely. We turn it over and over in our minds, searching for meaning: a lesson, a parable, or a moral mnemonic.

The result is almost always a banal lie we tell ourselves individually and collectively. It is cheap and convenient. Whether to salve pain, gain absolution, or conveniently sop tears of shame and frustration, that lie is above all human, but the price is that we are left casting about for a reason why.

The banal lie in Brad Morgan’s death is a socially acceptable euphemism for manslaughter commonly known as “suicide by cop.” It is the same lie police spokesmen have used to describe the deaths of Aaron Campbell, Keaton Otis, Jack Collins, Darryel Ferguson, Anthony McDowell, Jimmy Georgeson, Elias Angel Ruiz, Larry McKinney, and many others. In each of these cases, a suicidal man was killed by someone other than himself. When a life is cut short by another person, it is wrong to call it suicide -- especially when the man behind the trigger is a police officer.

Just 21 years old and a new father, Brad Morgan climbed an elevator tower at a downtown parking garage and used his cell phone to tell the 9-1-1 operator that he planned to kill himself.

Long before that moment, it had gone too far. Brad Morgan’s fate was sealed when he did exactly what we are all taught to do from childhood.

Every social service agency, mental health provider, church therapist, doctor’s office, and hundreds of others who provide help in crises have similar after-hours greetings. We have all heard the familiar final words without paying too much attention: “If this is a life-threatening emergency, please hang up and dial 9-1-1.”

He may or may not have heard those words, but he did exactly as they instructed.

Brad Morgan now had two problems: Not only did he want to die, but police were on their way.

When 9-1-1 is the default overnight number for hundreds of agencies that promote their ability to help in a crisis, we have effectively criminalized mental illness. We force police, at best lightly trained in mental health issues, to be all-night, ad hoc therapists -- a proven poor match.

When cops learn by trial and error, our friends die.

It is not a crime to be mentally ill. It is not a crime to be drunk or high. And it is not a crime to attempt or commit suicide.

It is, however, a crime to assist a suicide. To intentionally cause or aid another person to kill himself is second-degree manslaughter.

In a more just society, the officer who fired the fatal shot would be facing six years, three months in prison.

The 9-1-1 transcript reveals that Brad Morgan told the dispatcher, “I’d actually prefer for a police officer to shoot me at this point. I am not looking forward to this jump.”

To face criminal charges as a result of assisting a suicide is rare. A prudent person would never help. Imagine a distraught man in a hardware store, tears streaming down his face, clothing torn, in obvious anguish, demanding of the bewildered shopkeeper, “Show me how to tie a noose!”

Brad Morgan told a 9-1-1 operator that he wanted a cop to shoot him. That operator passed the call to the police, along with the details of Morgan’s desire to be shot by them. Informed by this banal lie we have all unthinkingly agreed to call “suicide by cop,” and expecting that they would be tasked with ending Morgan’s life, police hurried to arrive at the scene of a foregone conclusion. As always, they were ill-trained to handle a mental health situation.

How is it that our hypothetical shopkeeper is able to refuse to give instruction in tying a noose, but our police bureau is unable to field officers capable of refraining from shooting a man who is actively seeking to be shot? Why didn’t the Morgan grand jury bring a charge against the officers involved?

Astonishingly, they could not. The wrong training is provided to our police, and the wrong charge was put before the grand jury.

The proper training would have taught our police not to facilitate “suicide by cop,” and the proper charge would have been assisting a suicide.

Desiring, attempting, or completing suicide is a lonely, broken expression of intolerable pain. It is not a criminal enterprise, but a public health matter. To effectively make suicidal thoughts criminal, simply because we have no mental health safety net, is inexcusable.

We failed Brad Morgan, and in doing so, failed ourselves.

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    Well written. There are two issues--the lack of consequences for police officers who kill people, and the lack of training.

    The first is a tough nut to crack. Even in cases where it seems clear that there is misconduct by the officers, they don't get indicted, much less convicted.

    The second is long past due. We give officers one tool, a hammer, and we're surprised that they see all of the world's problems as nails.

    Police training needs to emphasize that using the gun is a last resort, and they need to be given more tools to use before that last resort.

    I understand that the police have a difficult job, and they often have to make split-second life-or-death decisions. That's why they need mental health crisis training.

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      I realize that the police are put in an unenviable position when this sort of event happens. Yet there are examples of similar situations even from within the metro area when the police have avoided the use of deadly force.

      In this situation, the officers responding to the scene were told that Morgan specifically stated his desire for them to kill him. Are we really to believe that given the advance knowledge of his intentions, there was no way they could have avoided killing him? It's not like this is the first time the police have ever had to deal with this situation. They should have been (and need to be) better prepared to handle suicidal individuals without facilitating someone's desire to be killed.

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    Time and time again we see what happens when suicide prevention and the treatment of mental illness run up against emergencies where police are called in to respond to what gets reported as a threat of deadly force.

    Police are not equipped to do that first job - but we've so de-funded and under-resourced those whose job it is that their job, which is already an extraordinarily difficult one, has become even harder.

    So in that respect I agree with James that we've effectively criminalized mental illness.

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      Here's what one candidate for Mayor - Eileen Brady - has said about that:

      “As mayor, there are two things I will do to take on this problem,” she said. “First, I will work with the police bureau to create a mental health unit specifically trained to respond to crises calls. Second, I will work directly with the county to develop a joint public safety budget and will get more money into vital mental health services. A joint budget will take a holistic approach to community safety by coordinating upstream programs for reducing and preventing crime, mental health intervention, probation, the court system, neighborhood watch, as well as community policing and incident response.”

      Full disclosure: My firm built Eileen Brady's website. I speak only for myself.

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    Indeed, there is virtually no where to turn for many families and individuals facing mental health issues. Paralling the health care industry as a whole, "treatment" is often sought in radical form. Much as medical remedies are sought at the crisis point in the crisis place of an emergency room, tail-end intervention comes with law enforcement involvement when an individual w/out other resources reaches a mental breaking point.

    In these situations, the best outcome is for a safe resolution to an incident with no injuries or death. But after a "good" incident resolution, the cops' only recourse is to deposit the arrested back into an ineffective system.

    How ineffective?

    I can add one piece of info to Bill's perspective. Various health care systems have downsized their staff in the mental health area. I am aware first hand of at least one case in a local system where mental health service providers (various levels of pysche training) were laid off, leaving no mental health care professionals on staff to conduct law enforcement or public intakes.

    Who became the intake staffers? On duty CNAs. Not only is this not sufficient in terms of dealing with a person in emotional crisis, but the CNA may be thrust into a situation s/he is not trained to handle.

    This is just one of thousands of vingettes that describe how we, as a society, shun and shuffle off folks w/ mental health issues.

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    One other quick note, Gov. Roberts is on the top tier of Oregon leaders advocating for the needs of folks w/ mental disabilities or facng mental health care issues. Sadly, even the best leaders must deal with stingy resources that shortchange our communities and it's citizens. I would agree with Bill, that a complete, comprehensive sea change in attitude is needed to enable us to forthrightly address the needs of so many of our citizens.

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    To call the police actions "assisting suicide" is a big stretch. Is there an element of intent in the definition of that crime?

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    Thanks Bill Ryan for the perspective.

    It seems that on a nitty-gritty level part of the problem is that mental health is siloed off from policing. Maybe the police need to have a 24 hour "public safety mental health crisis" staff inside the police department. Even that is hard in hard budget times, seems like it would need 5 or 6 people just to cover the 168 hours.

    But that comes back to Bill's point, and part of James Mazzocho's-- what resources are we going to put into protecting the lives of the mentally ill -- and as Carla points out the penumbra of people affected by such killings, including police officers? And the trust between community and police which also is a casualty.

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    To be brutally cold about the budget: Let's say it costs $100,000/yr salary and benefits to hire a public safety mental health crisis worker in the police department. Say staffing level is seven such workers. If such staffing had been able to prevent the deaths of Aaron Campbell and James Chasse, in addition to saving their lives, the settlements would have covered 3 years of such staffing, without figuring in costs of litigation, and whatever increment to costs of insurance the city may pay for liability coverage, mental health services to affected officers and perhaps their families under police benefits, possibly other things.

    I am not entirely sure what the duties of such workers might be, beyond being on-call for these deep crisis cases. Training? Helping out with other mental-health related 911 calls that don't rise to the level of life-threatening?

    Or maybe it could be handled with deputized professionals who are not regular police staff but are on retainer to be on-call and further compensated when they have to answer calls ... not sure that's as good. But the point would be to have the resources directly in the police department or directly contracted to it.

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      There are plenty of good models for crisis intervention teams that travel with police and work with them as a team, beginning with good mental health triage and assessment on the phone at the very first contact, in addition to trained professional outreach teams that bring chronically and acutely mentally ill in off the streets. The problem is funding them because this kind of system is expensive.

      But as Carla points out, having a crisis intervention system that works at prevention but ongoing outpatient treatment for medium and high risk patients is also essential. In one of my last years at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare (core service agency for Mult. Co.) they laid off nearly 50% of the entire staff and continued with more cuts every year after that. You can't pretend to have anything that is adequate or defensible with such abandonment, but otherwise "progressive" Dem. candidates like Ted Wheeler and others actually defend those kind of cuts and those deficiencies in service at the county and state levels. At least they could be honest and say there is massive neglect and abandonment of the mentally ill.

      Right now the criteria for services is all about diverting from expensive hospitalization. Period. The entire political calculus and justification for funding mental health services is not about human life and well-being. They care only about money. It's all about priorities and politics. This year not a single sports program or coach was cut in my wife's school dist. Plenty of teachers were, and counselors. And the mental health cuts continue every year.

      Given the choice between higher taxes or other priorities, the mentally ill will always lose unless there is a change in culture. and creation of a massive mental health education program. Sadly the Dem. leaders in our state pretend it's working, when they know it isn't. The GOP believes the mentally ill who are poor are simply expendable and would defund the entire public structure of services.

      The privatization argument in Multnomah County simply doesn't fly because mental health services are already run by lower wage private non-profit agencies. And county paid clinicians elsewhere don't get very high salaries either. So don't get waylaid by the ridiculous idea that mental health service providers are overpaid, when they're not. Many of the private non-profits are going broke.

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      Your estimate on the wages and benefits for a mental health clinician is way high. They don't get anywhere near that kind of salary or benefits in Mult Co. at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, which has been the primary core service agency, a private non-profit. Police agencies should not be saddled as mental health providers. They can partner effectively with existing models with those mental health agencies who have the knowledge but not the resources.

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    ORS 163.125 Manslaughter in the second degree. (1) Criminal homicide constitutes manslaughter in the second degree when: (b) A person intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide.

    According to the grand jury transcripts, the uncharged officers were well aware of Morgan's intentions to provoke them to kill him yet they approached him AFTER calling mental health outreach workers. He presented no immediate danger, and terminated a very productive cell phone conversation with an excellent 911 worker in order to respond to the approaching officers.

    Again, as in Campbell, the left hand was unaware of the right hand. This time the political and social pressure for accountability is muted - no civil liberties or faith community has stepped up to advocate for Mr. Morgan's right to not be killed.

    The proper charge is assisting a suicide. Whether the officers are guilty or not is unproven - but the DA did not present charges correctly, thus the various accountability mechanisms stalled.

    As Mazzocco states in his essay, suicide is not a crime in Oregon. Officers had no need to approach or engage Morgan.

    With Chasse the fatal beating began without contacting mental health outreach workers (who had seen Chasse the day prior WITH police officers.)

    With Campbell, where time was not a factor, the fatal shooting occurred without police contacting mental health outreach workers. They did however contact the media and prepared a 'staging area.'

    With Jack Collins, with Anthony McDowell, with Larry McKinney, with Lukus Glenn, with James Jahar Perez, with Joyce Staudenmaier, with Raymond Gwerder, police knew an impaired person was in crisis before shooting them.

    I disagree with Michael (first post.) Police accountability is not a "hard nut to crack." It just isn't done in Oregon.

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    Again the answer is not to be an adversary of the police but to give them the resources they need. I've written a lot here but it's a rare opportunity to share some awareness and information on what has been my life's work here in the state of Oregon, working with so many fine colleagues and committed people. This need can be addressed effectively and many of these tragedies can be avoided. It takes leadership to educate the public on what mental health disorders and mental health crises are, what a network of comprehensive mental health public services is, how to access them, and to create a plan of public/private partnerships to correct the deficiencies that exist so the more prominent tragedies as well as the slower, hidden, life-long tragedies don't continue to happen also. This is doable.

    It's been nearly 40 years since I started my career in the mental health field. At this stage as a retired person I can reflect back and be amazed at the tremendous strides in the theory and practice of mental health treatment that have been made in the field of alleviating suffering and maximizing human potential. In the area of psychiatric medications alone huge progress has been made. I have seen the most disturbed, sometimes violent patients on the locked secure backwards of Dammasch State Hospital, later out in the community able to maintain in supported residential living and outpatient treatment with quality of life, no longer subject to horrific hallucinations and delusions and able to smile and relate in a friendly way with others, to have relationships and sometimes even have limited work experiences. And many other stories of healing with less impaired people. So much can happen if we simply educate ourselves to this and make it happen. It won't happen unless the work in the political realm is done.

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      Even my senescent grandmother wonders what's wrong with the police these days. I think it is completely reasonable to view police as adversaries, because police have created an adversarial atmosphere through shootings, civil rights violations, and continually increasing militarization.

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    Jason, I understand that you are approaching this from the perspective of an experienced mental health advocate, but the reality of the situation was not as you describe:

    "He presented no immediate danger..."

    Regardless of responding officers (ROs) being informed that Morgan was suicidal, regardless of their own observations of his behavior, regardless of how informed ROs were by the work of dispatch, in that moment that Morgan drew a weapon, they knew they had a man with gun.

    It is hindsite to now recognize Morgan as harmless. Cops must respond with a level of force in order to protect the public. From everything those ROs saw - with the toy gun prepared to look real by Morgan himself - they had a possible shooter on a roof top that was an immediate threat to not just themselves, but anyone on the street below.

    Further, the knowledge that a subject is suicidal can not definitively predispose a certain course of action. Suicidal subjects are just as likely to carry the real thing as a toy. The knowledge that a subject may be suicidal simply alerts the officers that there is another level of complexity to the situation that may be manifested in excessively waton and reckless behaivior.

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      Speaking as a clinician who has professionally walked into situations a number of times, in a home, on the street,not unlike this one, a person who describes himself or is described by others as suicidal can readily turn violent towards others as well as towards himself/herself, or be combined as part of a plan. "I'll kill someone, then kill myself." The suicidal person often has an inner drama they are playing out and usually give some thought to how the drama will impact others after they are dead. The more death, the more impact. Suicidal persons are often filled with rage and despair towards everyone and everything with little capacity for empathy in their actions. Clinicians, or any helping person, in such cases are advised to be precautionary for their own safety, especially if there is any hint of a weapon, hidden or overt. Though unarmed myself in these encounters I have been threatened and menaced with knives and guns by persons described by others or themselves as suicidal. And I had no doubt I was in danger. In retrospect I know it could have gone the other way.

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    Finally, I appreciate the thought and concern several of you have expressed in terms of not only advocating for mental health services, but in developing a better mental health issue awareness with law enforcement.

    Here's the "but"....

    Even with full attending health care pros on PPB staff 24/7, even with the luck of having one of those staffers riding along w/ and RO when an incident comes down, there is only one professional that can appropriately respond to an immediate threat of force, and that's the cop.

    No matter how brilliant, there is no mental health care professional who can definitively assert with 100% accuracy if a suicidal subject is pointing a real or fake gun.

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      A better question is, does a potential SBC's gun-pointing even matter?

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        I think more accurately, it IS the ONLY the gun pointing that matters. The individual's motivation is irrelevant at the moment he is observed to escalate to the point of becoming an immediate deadly threat.

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    Thanks for the good discussion, folks. Suicide by cop is a tough thing to define with accuracy. I have seen FBI estimates between 10-15% of justifiable homicides being SBC, up to 27% in Los Angeles.

    The problem is lack of good data combined with a degree of hysteria. One police magazine I read claimed that 80% of SBCs have a firearm and 60% of those will fire. FBI and nationally aggregated coroner data don't back that up - it's really around 47% that are armed. Because of so much bad data, we can't at this point accurately determine what portion of SBCs involve firing on officers, but it appears to be vanishingly rare. Taking another study into account, only 10% of gun battles between cops and felons results in a cop being shot.

    The numbers we do have show that cops just shouldn't be shooting people who state that they want to die. Suicide ideation isn't a crime, so why do cops respond when someone wants to die? It's completely stupid to send a cop to deal with a guy who knows he can get a cop to kill him.

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      No, suicidal ideation is not a crime, but the capacity of anyone to escalate with aggressive behavior that actually be criminal threatening, and even homicidal, is a crime.You can agitate all you want against the police, but the fact is the public wants the police there, they want them armed and ready to protect the public. Trying to convince the public that the police are enemies is a nowhere proposition. The "thin blue line" is a reality in the minds of most people. If you are serious about eliminating these incidents, try a different approach than vilifying the police, and try working with them and the professionals in the mental health system to improve methods of intervention.

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        Except for the growing numbers of people who are terrified of the police. You left those out.

        The fact is that PPB's approval rating has dropped over 12% in three years - 71% to 59%. City Hall's approval is down to 48% from 62%.

        Yes, the public wants the police present, armed, and ready to defend them. I agree with that. What the public doesn't want is the police to violate their civil rights and become increasingly militaristic - something PPB has been doing by the shovelful lately.

        The police are being vilified because they act in increasingly vile ways. They have a serious image problem and they're not improving it. Asking for more money for training does no good when the training accomplishes nothing.

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    The reply button isn't functioning properly on my browser -- regarding Bill Ryan's replies to me above: Bill, thanks for helping me with my ignorance. I was being conservative on costs (i.e. erring on the upward side) since I don't really know what they are, and I don't know how benefits figure in overall budgeting in proportion to salary.

    Maybe you are right that police agencies can partner effectively with existing models. But I am not really sure that's true, given what you say about the existing models' funding. If we could get the funding for the coordination you propose that would be great, assuming you're right that there are models that work that way.

    But what if we could get funding by putting the positions inside the police bureau, but not otherwise? Would you object to the pont of preserving the current dysfunction? Since police are being asked to be in the mental health business already, albeit poorly trained and with conflicts of interest in the settings involved, wouldn't it be better to make that role clear, official, well-defined and well-regulated, done by properly educated people?

    I fully concur with you about the larger issues on mental health funding, but if we want to intervene to prevent these particular kinds of deaths, I'm not sure we should make efforts to do that contingent on fixing the whole system.

    But we certainly should advocate about the whole picture and the needed culture change to which you point, and I appreciate learning from you on that.

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      Chris, I'm not saying some situation like that might not work, and funding wise it's generally easier politically to fund law enforcement than mental health services. What I think can be problematic is not having distinct roles in the intervention process. If the treatment person is also law enforcement the identified client can be confused and distrustful. A former colleague of mine had a job working for the Vancouver police some years back and he would go out on patrol with them and would be the go-to guy on mental health crises, doing assessments and doing crisis intervention work to attempt a resolution of situations. However, he was not identified as a cop or law enforcement person. From his report this mostly worked fairly well. He was the friendly good guy, the cop could be the heavy who was ready if needed. Having the law enforcement back-up can help a crisis client relax some if the approach is effective and helps everyone to stay safe and make no aggressive moves. In this case the mental health clinician provides guidance to the cop or cops about whether to intervene, make arrest, take someone into custody for hospitalization or otherwise. It can work if the roles are clear to the client and the professionals. I've had police accompany me, but it was clear I didn't work for them and we were just teaming up to resolve crises in a safe manner. In Oregon a designated mental health professional can perform a PIPOH, a Program Initiated Peace Officer Hold for purposes of emergency hospitalization. That can be a good intervention in some cases. In any event it's a complex kind of service that intervenes in extremely complex situations, but some kind of partnering of law enforcement and mental health is best.

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    Jason R.

    (b) "A person intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide."

    This does not seem to describe the case, or any of the cases. The police officer did not cause Brad Morgan to commit suicide. I am not even sure I know what that would mean, maybe egging on a person in despair on a ledge to jump??

    How about "aiding" him to commit suicide? No, IMO.

    Morgan did not kill himself. The police officer killed him, in self-defense according to the legal ruling. So the officer did not aid him in killing himself.

    But suppose we say, "well, the officer helped him achieve his aim of being dead, and that's what counts"?

    Even taking that interpretation of aiding suicide, I don't see the required element of intention. The officer's intention was to protect himself and the public, not to help Morgan achieve his aim of being dead.

    The way you and James Mazzocco lay out the problems with the overall policy and resources for handling these situations is largely persuasive to me. I believe there are much better alternatives. I believe that many, maybe all, of these persons need not and should not have been killed. In some cases I believe there was a substantial miscarriage of justice not only in the killings but in how the courts handled the officers involved, e.g. in James Chasse's and Aaron Campbell's cases.

    But I don't think making the case for changing the policy, or even stronger scrutiny and potentially prosecution in individual cases, is helped by accepting the popular misdefinition of "suicide by cop."

    Brad Morgan did not commit suicide, and the police officer did not help him do what he did not do.

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    I am going to bow out of the debate now (because once I get going, I never shut up), but I want everyone to know that I found all of your comments well-reasoned, polite, and enjoyable, and it makes me very happy to have contributed to Blue Oregon and such a wonderful community of readers.

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