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December 22, 2014

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Q&A:

Former SWAT officer now an expert in psychology behind ‘suicide by cop’

Jason “Lucky” Mahe was in police custody outside a Dotty’s Casino when he wriggled free and pulled out what looked like a gun.

The three officers were forced to respond, shooting Mahe several times and injuring him. They later found out the handgun was actually a pellet gun; it was, police said, all part of Mahe’s plan. He was wanted on parole violation warrant in Ohio and told his friend he wouldn’t let police take him alive, a Metro Police arrest report indicated.

He planned to commit suicide by cop.

According to authorities, the incident last month was the fourth attempted suicide by cop this year in Metro’s jurisdiction. Suicide by cop is a phrase defined by a suspect provoking police into shooting and killing them. Yet, the incidents are rarely that clear in the moment, Barry Perrou said.

Perrou is a former forensic psychologist and retired officer of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office who has been studying the issue since the late 1990s in Los Angeles. Perrou said people who attempt suicide by cop often are depressed and on drugs or alcohol, and try to escalate a situation so a responding officer is forced to shoot.

Perrou specializes in training officers with how to handle a potential suicide by cop.

The Sun spoke with Perrou about what makes a situation a suicide by cop and the effect it can have on the officers involved.

What has your experience been with suicide by cop?

We saw quite a bit of this when I was attached to the SWAT team as commander of hostage negotiations. People get poised to do something, and if you don’t step out so they can point the gun at you, then you’re not going to kill them.

I was the first person where a guy was barricaded in his house in the middle of the summer, smoke coming out of chimney, just him and couple rifles. I suggested let’s pack up our stuff and go. He was doing nothing illegal. So we packed up and left.

Once you take away the audience you’re not going to have a performance.

What might lead a person to want to commit suicide by cop?

Usually its depression and substance abuse.

We shot and killed a guy because he forced our hand, and right before he died he said, ‘Prison isn’t a pretty place, and I ain’t going back.’ So, not wanting to go back to prison. Another reason for suicide by cop is a way of going by a blaze of glory. Also it can bring litigation against P.D. to bring money to the family.

How are they typically planned?

You gotta do something to get the cops there. Most typically these things occur in residences. They walk out of the front door, fire three rounds into the air or at the neighbor’s dog. You’ll get a rapid response. Their intention is to remove nondeadly force options from officer. This is why we institute questions, so we can prevent police officers from running up to the door, and then he points gun at the officer and the officer kills him.

What impact can that have on the officer?

Well many of them don’t make it. They can’t handle what they’ve done. A person is crying out in some ways for help and the officer uses force, which is allowable to protect himself. Later they find out they killed somebody who really should’ve been in hospital. They really weren’t planning to do anything illegal. They take it hard. Many retire because of the emotional impact of killing somebody who really wasn’t a “bad guy.”

Has suicide by cop always been an issue, or is it a new problem in society?

You go back to the movies with Jimmy Cagney, and he says, “You ain’t taking me alive, coppers.” That notion has been around a long time. Unfortunately we’ve just become more aware of it based on consistent patterns.

Are suicides by cops becoming more frequent?

It’s becoming more frequent, but the officers are using better tactics as they train to deal with questionable behavior — behavior now that sets off a flag in their mind to go easy, don’t get too close because it could be a suicide-by-cop situation.

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