Press Releases

White House Shooting Reflects National Issue: "Suicide By Cop"

Feb 09 2001

Arlington, VA - When Secret Service agents wounded Robert Pickett, the man holding a gun and accused of firing shots at the White House on Wednesday morning (Feb. 7), they faced a situation that could have confronted any police officer anywhere in the country. It's called "suicide by cop," in which a suicidal individual deliberately seeks to create a dangerous situation so that police are forced to shoot. Like Mr. Pickett, sometimes the person is only wounded. Other times, the shooting is fatal.

"Suicide by cop" occurs frequently in many cities, but rarely gets the kind of national attention the Pickett case has achieved. Standard criteria do not exist to classify such incidents. However, one Los Angeles County study determined that at least 10 percent of police shootings between 1986 and 1997 fit the pattern of the "shooting by cop" phenomenon. If more ambiguous cases are included, one Canadian police researcher believes the figure could be as high as 40 percent.

"Suicide by cop" reflects two tragedies. One involves the person who suffered from mental illness and lacked clear, rational, balanced judgment at a critical moment and may not have received adequate or continuing treatment beforehand. The other involves the police officers who are forced to shoot. Approximately 85 percent of police officers involved in such cases experience at least transitory symptoms of emotional trauma. As many as a third have moderate to severe reactions. Between three to five percent experience long-term problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) supports Department of Justice and community efforts to expand and strengthen training programs for local police in identifying and dealing with people with mental illness. Further, NAMI looks forward to President Bush's creation of a National Commission on Mental Health to improve our overall treatment system. Ninety percent of all suicides are the result of serious mental illnesses, which are biological brain disorders. Approximately 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year, the eighth-leading cause of death overall and third-leading cause among young people, ages 15 to 24.