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‘Suicide by Cop’ Study Leads to New Training for Police

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A study on suicide by cop” conducted by Cal State Fullerton researchers has resulted in the development of a national training guide for police officers to safely respond to such incidents.

Suicide by cop incidents are said to occur when an individual provokes police officers in an attempt to be killed.

Alumna Alejandra Jordan ’18 (M.S. clinical psychology) and psychology professor Nancy Ryba Panza reviewed 419 suicide by cop incidents that occurred between 2010 and 2015 and were tracked in a database by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Mental Evaluation Unit.

Their study found a much lower rate of injury and death than in previous studies that examined data from media sources or officer-involved shooting cases.

“Looking at data from media stories and OIS databases often excludes suicide by cop cases that were resolved without officers having to resort to the use of lethal force,” explained Panza. “Essentially, we found that for every suicide by cop incident that resulted in a death, there were 60 others that were successfully resolved.

“This offers a new perspective on these cases — that with the right training, resources and approach, the majority of cases have the potential to be negotiated without involving a shooting,” she said. “This is good news for police and subjects alike.”

New Protocol for Police

The Police Executive Research Forum, an independent research organization that focuses on critical issues in policing, recently used the CSUF researchers’ data to develop the “Suicide by Cop: Protocol and Training Guide.”

“PERF took our study and used it to show that suicide by cop incidents can be successfully resolved without force, and then provided step-by-step guidance on how officers can engage a suicidal subject in a way that will decrease the person’s fears and increase the ability to interact and engage with them,” said Panza.

Jordan, who initiated the study, said the research can also help police departments understand the importance of data collection and standardized mental health training.

“Anything to increase positive outcomes and experiences of civilians and officers alike is worth looking into,” said Jordan, whose parents are both retired police officers.

Jordan aspires to pursue a doctorate in forensic psychology and serve as a psychologist or researcher for a law enforcement agency, prison or court.

“The connections and support that I have received and continue to receive from CSUF have acted as a catalyst in putting these goals in motion,” she said.

Advocating for Mental Health

As a next step, Panza plans to use PERF’s suicide by cop protocol to create an interactive training for police officers.

“While having this information out there is a great first step, taking it directly to officers and helping them to incorporate these ideas into their existing tools is what I really hope to see happen next,” she explained.

On the research front, Panza aims to study the barriers to and potential effectiveness of implementing periodic mental health screenings for police officers. 

“While police officers are required to pass a psychological evaluation prior to being hired, there is no ongoing monitoring of mental health once on the job,” she said. “Periodic mental health screenings may help identify officers who are in need of support before problems become large enough to affect their on-the-job performance or cause serious problems in their personal lives.”