Lewes Beach shooting possible suicide by cop

National police report offers protocol for de-escalating similar incidents
December 10, 2019

The investigation into the fatal shooting of a man Nov. 29 who threatened to kill himself near Lewes Beach remains under investigation, but comes at a time when suicide by cop is gaining national attention.

In October, the Police Executive Research Forum released a 12-page report offering a protocol and training guide for police officers when faced with a suicidal person who draws a weapon on police.

In those situations, the person provokes police to shoot – a situation commonly known as suicide by cop.

Master Cpl. Michael Austin, spokesman for the Delaware State Police, said the Delaware State Police have not seen the report, but DSP has its own protocol in place to handle suicide by cop situations.

“We have our own internal policies of how to handle any type of crisis situations,” Austin said. “We are familiar with the term suicide by cop, and we understand what it is.”

Starting in the police academy, Austin said, officers receive training on how to de-escalate situations, and training continues throughout an officer's career.

“For this type of situation we have training in place, procedures in place of how to respond and handle it,” he said.

Delaware State Police also has a conflict management team that can respond to situations such as a suicide by cop incident.

Specifics on how police de-escalate a situation, however, are not public information, said Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe of the Delaware State Police.

“Operational security measures do not allow us to publish or release policy or procedural information,” she said.

Austin said neither policy nor protocol information is released.

“We don't disclose specific policy information,” Austin said. “That's our normal practice outside of this situation. We don't release policy or protocol information.”

Delaware State Police and Lewes police responded to a home in the 300 block of East Savannah Road about 8:20 p.m. for an armed man who was threatening suicide. In the original police release, Austin said the man was standing in the driveway of the home, holding a handgun and making suicidal statements. Police spoke to the man who put the weapon on the ground twice during their conversation, but then he picked up the handgun again even though police told him to leave the gun alone, Austin said.

Once in possession of the handgun, Austin said, the man pointed it at police, at which time a trooper discharged his divisional-issued patrol rifle, striking the suspect in the upper torso.

Emergency medical care was immediately initiated by the officers on scene, Austin said, and the man was taken to Beebe Healthcare, where he was pronounced deceased. The release of the 46-year-old man's name remains pending, Austin said.

The trooper involved in the shooting is assigned to Troop 7 in Lewes and has been employed by the Delaware State Police for five years. He has been placed on administrative leave per policy.

In situations such as a fatal shooting by police, Austin said, the Delaware Attorney General's Office does its own parallel and independent investigation into the event. Known as a police use of force investigation, the report can take weeks or months before it is released by the Delaware Department of Justice.

Suicide by Cop protocol

The Police Executive Research Forum is a research organization composed of law enforcement members across the country, who developed the suicide by cop guide.

Nationally, the report estimates each year from 2015 to 2018, there have been about 1,000 fatal officer-involved shootings. Of those shootings, the report estimates about 100 are suicide by cop. For every death, the report also estimated there are about 60 people who tried suicide by cop but police de-escalated the incident without using lethal force.

Using Los Angeles statistics, the report states 83 percent of suicide by cop incidents involved men, 67 percent had mental illness and 24 percent were homeless.

During a suicide by cop situation, John Nicoletti, a police psychologist who contributed to the report, said police must first make sure police and the public are safe. Then police should take a proactive stance to control the situation, he said.

“The suicidal person has a sense of urgency. If the officer conveys a sense of urgency, that makes the situation worse. Speaking slowly will help the person realize that you aren't in a hurry, that you have time to listen to what they say,” Nicoletti wrote in the report.

The report acknowledges police have few options when a person points a gun at them. At the same time, the report notes, pointing a gun at a suicidal person makes it difficult to establish trust, and can make the person more anxious.

“In some spontaneous suicide by cop incidents, pointing a firearm at a person may actually be what causes him to think of suicide by cop as a way out of his unhappy life. Pointing a firearm can set in motion disastrous consequences,” the report states.

When the report was released in October, police chiefs from major metropolitan areas hailed it as a positive guide.

In a Washington Post article, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said, “Pointing a gun at someone and saying, 'I'm here to save you,' it kind of has a mixed message. We should do anything we can to minimize the use of force and maximize the saving of lives.”

In the same article, New York City Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill said the protocol was innovative but he would let officers know there is no expectation to follow it for every incident. “But when the situation does present itself, and you have the right people to do this, do your best to minimize shootings,” he said.


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