Hurting to Help: Using Force to Prevent Suicide
These are tough times in which we live. Even tougher are the pressures felt by law enforcement officers across the United States. With so much scrutiny from the public on issues surrounding police use of force, it’s hard to know what actions may be called into question at any given incident. The recent movement toward so-called “reform” of the criminal justice system contains a great deal of discussion on the way that officers interact with members of the community. New terminology, such as de-escalation and proportionality appears to indicate how situations that involve a use of force will be analyzed in the future. Current law and existing agency policy can provide you with a pretty clear understanding of what justifies an officer to use force, but there will always be those unique situations where the answer isn’t so simple.
Using force to prevent an arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape is one of the most important powers that we possess. In situations where there is no immediate need to protect ourselves or protect others, we still have the ability to use force, when necessary, to control or subdue a person suspected of a violation of law.
Can You Hurt This Person To Help Them?
So how about this one? You are driving on patrol when your vehicle passes by a person standing on the sidewalk of a highway overpass. The person appears upset. As you stop your vehicle to offer assistance, the person quickly walks to the rail and demands to be left alone. Your suspicions are confirmed when the person yells out “Leave or I’ll jump right now!” at which point you call for back-up and attempt to calm the person. Emotions begin to escalate and the person is now peering over the rail, crying loudly. The person’s momentary distraction away from you creates an opportunity to close the distance and act. The question is – Can you hurt this person to help them; that is, use force to interrupt their action?
The scenario was deliberately vague. If your answer sounded something like “it depends”, you’re not wrong. There are many details that could be added which would possibly affect the outcome, but at the end of the day, under certain circumstances, you can use force on another person when they’re not a direct threat to you, to someone else, or in violation of existing laws.
When a person either attempts to physically harm themselves, or makes statements to that effect, it creates a difficult task for responding officers. The immediate concern should be the safety of all persons at the scene, followed closely by an effort to contain the situation and keep it from escalating. If available, mental health professionals can help open a dialogue and convince the person to voluntarily seek treatment. If not, you will have to rely on your communication skills. But in those cases when the person refuses the help of others, the only alternative may be taking them into custody. If the intervention results in an injury to the person being helped, the officer’s actions will often be reviewed for legality and potential civil liability.
Attempting suicide is not against the law, at least not in the state that I worked in. With no violation of law and no threat to the safety of the officer or others, what is the justification for using force to stop a person that is only seeking to harm themselves?
There is probably language written into statute within your own state which says that upon personal observation of the conduct of a person constituting reasonable grounds to believe that he (or she) is severely mentally disabled and in need of immediate treatment, a peace officer may take such person to an approved facility for an emergency examination. The key word in that last sentence is take, meaning whether the person consents or not. No one should know your job better than you, and it would be beneficial to refresh your knowledge of the laws covering this topic.
The best approach in these cases is usually to speak with the subject and convince him or her that seeking treatment is in their best interest. When communication fails, or if circumstances are present which indicate that the individual is currently attempting to commit suicide, officers are likely justified under laws that authorize police use of force when it is immediately necessary to prevent such other person from committing suicide or inflicting serious bodily injury upon themselves.
Contrary to the opinion of some, no officer that I know initiates a physical action against a subject with the intention of injuring that person. Yet even in situations where the police have superior numbers and equipment available, there is still a risk that someone will get hurt. In the case of an attempted suicide, where the goal is preventing injury altogether, any harm to the subject may trigger questions of appropriateness, even from the person who was intent on injuring themselves.
The standard by which a use of force incident will be reviewed continues to be derived from Graham v. Connor, specifically, whether or not the force used was objectively reasonable. In reaching that decision, factors that will be considered are the seriousness of the offense; the extent to which the subject poses an immediate threat to the officers or others; and whether the subject is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest.
When an officer decides to use force to control a situation, he or she has a duty to evaluate the totality of the circumstances and select the appropriate option for achieving the desired control goal. The duty to evaluate continues as the incident progresses, with the officer choosing to de-escalate, maintain the current course of action, or select another force option based on the level of subject resistance. Once control is obtained, and until the person is transferred from our custody, it must be maintained by the officer, which in some instances may require additional applications of force.
Using Deadly Force
An attempted suicide incident can be extremely challenging for law enforcement if weapons are involved. Although the subject’s intent may initially be self-harm, the situation could quickly transform into one where others are at risk of death or serious bodily injury.
While it is generally accepted that the use of deadly force to prevent suicide is not justifiable, police should always have a plan in place for self-protection, or the protection of others should the actor’s intent shift to harming others.
A Common Sense Approach
When dealing with subjects who are emotionally distraught and possibly mentally ill, a common sense approach can usually be a good alternative to an aggressive response. While the actions of the individual will dictate a lot of what happens, an officer should consider the value of time and communication as a starting point. Unless immediately necessary, police should not “force” a confrontation when resources such as Crisis Intervention Teams are available to help resolve the situation. In deciding to use force, select the force option that is most efficient and likely to control the subject quickly. Prolonged pain compliance techniques or an option that is likely to have an unintended outcome, such as Taser deployment on a “jumper” are probably not good ideas.
Remember, the goal is to help, even if help is not wanted. The goal is to save a life, even if you have to cause a little pain to do so. Finally, the goal is control, to keep the situation from deteriorating to the point where others are injured.
Nothing in this article is intended to replace your agency’s existing policies and training. For complete guidance on proper procedures, please consult your agency commanders as well as local, state and federal guidelines.