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‘Suicide by cop’: Let’s just call it a homicide

The New York Office of Chief Medical Examiner has published a thought-provoking paper endorsing use of the concept of “suicide by cop.”

The office’s criteria for suicide by cop are:

Prior suicidal intent.

Specific intent to be shot by police.

Possession of a lethal weapon or facsimile.

Intentional escalation of the encounter, provoking officers to shoot.

By convention, a death resulting from another person’s violent or egregiously reckless act is certified homicide regardless of justification or intent. The authors suggest an exception applicable only to the legal use of deadly force by law enforcement.

If you take the Godfather’s daughter hostage with suicidal intent, your predictable death is still a homicide. If you kill an intruder in defense of yourself and your family, it’s still a homicide.

The authors cite criteria for the certification of suicide agreed upon by a 1988 working group: intent and self-infliction. They say that while a self-inflicted wound is understood to be an injury you impose upon yourself, this definition need not be taken literally.

As an example, a person who intentionally steps in front of a speeding train has committed suicide even though somebody else is operating the train. The authors recognize that while the train operator is given no choice and is helpless to prevent such a death, police officers specifically choose to shoot. An officer also has the option to shoot to wound.

But the paper argues that officers who have a sworn duty to protect and serve have little choice in a violent and escalating situation. This creates a reasonable exception to a homicide certification.

Exceptions to the “death by the hands of another” definition of homicide already are standard practice including deaths from athletic injury, most motor-vehicle crashes and medical errors.

I’ve given this paper a lot of thought. The arguments are well-reasoned. The proposed criteria are strict and fair. But I’m uncomfortable with this exception in large part because I see little upside and plenty of downside.

Police shootings are emotional events and usually controversial: upset cops, enraged family, suspicious community, swarming media. Medical examiners, such as Caesar’s wife, must avoid even the appearance of impropriety or bias or risk a firestorm.

Would the suicide by cop determination be consistently applied by all certifiers? Would the criteria be strictly adhered to in all cases? I doubt it. Little else in this field is universally consistent.

Any medical examiner making a suicide determination in a police shooting would have to explain to the deceased’s family, the community and the press why an exception was made for the police that would apply to nobody else.

The current definition of homicide – deaths by the violent or reckless act of another – is consistent and easy to explain. The police understand that a homicide certification doesn’t mean the shooting was unjustified. In my experience, they aren’t uncomfortable with the certification.

The medical examiner doesn’t appear biased. Families don’t feel unfairly treated. The media isn’t going nuts.

Where’s the upside for this exception?

chuser@durangoherald.com Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.