While most police officers
have training on suicide assessment and intervention, they must also
have clear guidelines on when they should intervene, if at all
Recent reporting of the CDC’s announcement
that suicides in the U.S. have increased by 30% in parts of the country
within the last 20 years is good cause for police departments to
revisit their policies on responding to suicides and other mental health
the case, in which officers were denied qualified immunity in a federal
wrongful death action, we will begin with a suicidal person, Mr. Todd
In the last moments of his life, Hastings moved toward
police officers with a sword directed at them. The officers shot and
killed Hastings. Moments before the fatal shots, the officers had used
pepper spray to try to distract and disarm Hastings, but the spray had
no effect. Hastings had only pointed the sword toward himself or held it
in a defensive posture until he was pepper sprayed. The officers were
crowded into the doorway of a bedroom with Hastings 8-12 feet away.
were in the home because Hastings had refused to step out of his house
to speak with officers about Hastings’ call to a counselor to say he was
going to hurt himself. This had resulted in the 911 call that resulted
in the officers’ arrival.
Instead, Hastings attempted to shut the
door on the officers and retreated to his bedroom inside his house. The
officers were able to keep the door open and entered the home to find
Hastings holding the sword, which he refused to release after being
ordered to drop it.
Prior to knocking on Hastings’ front door, the
officers responded to the initial report that Hastings was going to run
a hose from his truck exhaust and die by asphyxiation. The officers
found the truck with no hose attached.
When to intervene
into the facts of the case, starting with the shooting, we consider the
same question that the courts pondered: At what point should the
officers have stopped intervening?
While this article offers no
legal advice, it does ask policy makers to consider that question and
provide guidance to responding officers.
The question for the
lawyers, in reviewing policy, is whether there is a duty to care for
suicidal persons or others in mental distress absent the distressed
person’s immediate danger to others. In other words, should the police
protect a person from themselves when there is the possibility of a
confrontation escalating into custody, force, or even deadly force?
Alternatives to immediate action
officers want to help people in distress. Police officers value life
and risk their own to save the lives of others. Police officers are
called because somebody expects them to do something. These internal and
external expectations can compel officers to take action before asking
the fundamental question of whether they should take any action at all.
doing nothing is unacceptable, but taking a moment to ask what the
objective is in a suicide call response will determine whether police
break down a door, tackle a mentally ill person, or use deadly force
against someone who wants to die.
Alternatives to immediate action
in cases where a distressed person’s danger comes only from themselves
and no one else is at risk include seeking a warrant or court order or
protecting the scene to wait for a mental health crisis team to arrive.
are under careful legal scrutiny when plaintiffs can point to police
tactics that create an exigency that otherwise did not legally exist
before their intervention. Tactical disengagement
is a strategy designed for situations where a successful outcome is not
reasonably certain until additional resources or information are
available to execute a plan to meet a clearly defined objective.
officers will always be ready to help. Their trainers owe them the
decision-making tools to know how to do that with the weight of the law
in their favor.
About the author
Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.
He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in
uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in
a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy
coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor
and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in
Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of
Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and
bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of
Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military
police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50
police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of
advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum
committee, as a subject matter expert.