Tualatin United Methodist Women hosts presentation on suicide by cop

On a recent Saturday morning at the United Methodist Church, talk revolved around a phenomenon known as “suicide by cop.”

Tualatin United Methodist Women invited Sgt. Nate Cooper of the Tualatin Police Department and Kathryn Ayers from LifeWorks Northwest to give a presentation on what the group saw as a troubling local trend.

(On Jan. 25, Portland police officers fatally shot Bradley Lee Morgan in a downtown parking garage after the 21-year-old called 911 and claimed he was armed with a knife and contemplating suicide. Morgan allegedly brandished a replica handgun in front of police officers. In May, the Portland Police Bureau reported that officers prevented a potential “suicide by cop” when they arrested a 45-year-old man who approached officers with a BB gun after calling 911 and threatening to kill himself.)

Women’s group president Karen Walker says the aim of the Oct. 13 presentation was to explore what her group could do in response to the phenomenon of suicide by cop and encourage public discussion.

In a case of “suicide by cop,” an individual provokes police to act with deadly force, often by threatening officers with a weapon. Cooper reported that 48 percent of these weapons are firearms, and of those, 78 percent are replica firearms — meaning the individual never intended to actually attack.

This tactic “makes the difficult decision to end their life easier,” said Ayers. “Police are readily available, armed and trained to respond lethally. (A suicidal individual) knows that if they’re waving a gun at police, they’ll be shot.”

That individual may be trying to avoid the negative stigma of taking his own life, Ayers said. “(Suicide by cop) puts blame on a faceless person they don’t know. Police represent a social conscience” which can be attractive to “guilt-ridden people.”

“The amount of suicide work police do in a day is equal to what we do in a day,” said Ayers, who has done crisis management and mobile response work. Cooper agreed, saying he typically responds to at least one suicidal call during each of his shifts.

“I’ve been to well over 100 suicide calls in my 12-year career,” Cooper said, although he noted he himself never had to use deadly force.

Ayers provided a basic overview of suicidal individuals and risk factors: Men take their own lives more often than women by a four-to-one ratio, she said, owing to the fact men tend to use more lethal methods, like firearms, while women tend to favor poisoning. The highest risk group, Ayers said, is Caucasian men over the age of 75, followed by Native Americans, military veterans, the homeless, prisoners and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgendered community.

Individuals who have a family history of substance abuse or mental health disorders, or who have grown up in violent households, pose a greater risk of suicide, Ayers reported. Ninety percent of those who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a substance abuse or mental health disorder, or both.

Police are trained to try to diffuse such situations, and in Washington County, a collaboration with mental health professionals means that counselors such as Ayers are on call to aid sheriff’s deputies and police officers as they work with suicidal people.

Still, Cooper said, public safety was a primary concern. If someone is suicidal but presents a significant risk to others, deadly force is deemed justifiable.

Police responding to a suicide call can also put a hold on the individual so that they can be taken to the hospital and evaluated.

Ayers and Cooper agreed there aren’t nearly enough mental health resources to serve the area’s need. Still, the overall message was one of encouragement. Ayers encouraged women’s group members to create what she called a “slush fund” to help with incidentals like doctors’ and prescription copays that can be prohibitively expensive to members of the community in need of counseling.

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