Suicide by Cop

On the evening of Aug. 10 last year, Mike Holman, 57, called 911 in Alachua County, Fla., and calmly told the dispatcher, “I just shot my wife…between the eyes.” One of the six cops who responded to the call was a longtime friend of Holman’s, Sgt. Pete Briggette, who had been over at his house the night before talking about computers. Standing outside, Briggette yelled to his friend to give himself up. Instead, Holman emerged holding a pistol in firing position; without a word he began to walk rapidly toward the officers, who had taken up positions behind their squad cars. “He had a crazed look on his face,” recalls Briggette. “We’re repeatedly ordering him to drop his gun. I was concerned for the five other officers and myself.”

Briggette shot twice, fatally wounding his friend in the stomach. Inspecting the “weapon” Holman had pointed at them, deputies discovered it was nothing but a pellet gun. Briggette also learned that Holman, who in fact had not harmed his ex-wife, had suffered from depression, was despondent over health troubles and had attempted suicide earlier in the year. “We did not feel like Pete had any alternative,” says Holman’s stepson Scott Logan, about Briggette’s decision to shoot. “It was not his fault, plain and simple.”

It appears that Holman felt the same way. Police found a notepad propped up against his home computer; on it he had written in a neat script: “I’m sorry officers.” But for Briggette, who had been forced to kill another apparently suicidal suspect 13 months earlier, forgetting about the incidents has not been easy. “It’s something that will be with us the rest of our lives,” he says, adding that he often has nightmares about the shootings. “I relive it. It’s traumatic.”

The phenomenon is known as “suicide by cop,” loosely defined as when an emotionally disturbed person deliberately forces officers to open fire and kill them. By the estimate of Rebecca Stincelli, an expert who has written a manual on the subject, 10 to 12 percent of officer-involved shootings are thought to be such suicides. (In 2003, the most recent year for which there are statistics, the FBI says at least 370 people were killed, justifiably, by law enforcement officers in the line of duty nationwide.) And even when the cops involved are absolved of any wrongdoing, as Briggette was in both shootings, such incidents are often among the most haunting that they face in the line of duty. “You don’t like to feel you killed an innocent person, even when it’s justified,” says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Psychologically it’s easier to deal with if you felt you were dealing with a dangerous criminal.”

Often the suspects appear to do everything possible to ensure a bloody outcome. Investigators later surmised, for instance, that Holman had lied about shooting his ex-wife so that the arriving officers would be on a hair trigger. Recently Dianne Carlsten, a 61-year-old grandmother, left little chance for a peaceful resolution. On the afternoon of Jan. 10 the retired nurse, apparently distraught over the anniversary of her husband’s death, pulled a handgun on her landlord in Longmont, Colo., before threatening to kill herself. As a squad of officers surrounded her mobile home, imploring her to surrender, Carlsten went out and started shooting in the direction of the cops. Two returned fire, and in an instant Carlsten lay dead of a shotgun blast to the chest. “Everybody feels terrible,” says DA Ken Buck. “The officers did their best to ask her to drop the firearm. They had to protect themselves.”

It is not uncommon for police in smaller towns and cities to know the civilians involved. Officer Marvin Woods had been buddies with Claude Webster, 51, the former director for public safety in Franklin County, Va. But when Woods pulled up at Webster’s home in April 2003, it wasn’t a social call. A warrant had been sworn out for Webster for stalking a girlfriend. As Woods and his partner approached the house, Webster stepped out the back door and from six or eight feet pointed a handgun at them. “Training kicked in,” says Woods. “It was eerie how quiet those .45s were. It was like popping microwave popcorn.” Webster was dead at the scene. “I can’t describe what I was feeling,” says Woods. “I had just shot a very good friend.”

In many instances the officers’ first instinct is to question their own actions. “They replay the event over and over, imagining other outcomes,” says Stincelli, the author of Suicide by Cop: Victims from Both Sides of the Badge, used by many police departments. “Intellectually they know they were correct in shooting, but their emotions can sometimes overwhelm their ability to process the shooting appropriately.”

It doesn’t help that in the aftermath of the shootings the media, as well as ordinary citizens, have a tendency to second-guess the cops. In October 2001 Joe Schili, a part-time cop in suburban New Jersey, shot and killed a 37-year-old man who had aimed a gun (which turned out to be a fake) at the officer during a confrontation and refused to drop it. It emerged that the man had often talked about suicide. But that didn’t matter, says Schili: “I knew the media would be hard; they were going to take this and run.” Sure enough, he recalls, in reading newspaper accounts of the incident, “They called him a ‘victim’ in every article.”

In many cases critics wonder why the cops didn’t simply wound the suspects or otherwise disarm them. “It’s crazy,” says Tom Faatz, who retired from the Longmont force last year and who in 1989 was one of three officers who shot down a knife-wielding suspect who apparently wanted to die. “We had letters to the editor asking, ‘Why didn’t you use a lariat?’—stupid stuff.” But as Faatz points out, in training it is drummed into officers always to aim at the torso of their targets—known in police parlance as the center mass—which can be tough enough to hit in a crisis situation. “When an officer makes a decision to shoot, they rarely have more than a couple of seconds,” says Debra Glaser, the head of the LAPD’s psychological counseling unit. “You have to look at it from their perspective, not from that of somebody sitting at a desk with all kinds of time and nobody’s life at stake.”

The net result in many cases—though not all—is a form of post-traumatic stress. Says Woods of his experience in the Webster killing: “The first week I was down in the dumps, I’d get teary-eyed just talking to people.” Then the anger set in. “He put us in a position where it’s over for him,” says Woods, “but it’ll never be over for us.” The key is to get the officers to open up and talk about the whole range of emotions—from sadness to anger—that they may be feeling. John “Butch” Jones, a cop who also owns a counseling center in Gainesville, Fla., has worked with Briggette and other officers involved in suicide incidents. “The big thing is creating a relaxing environment,” says Jones, who uses hypnosis, among other techniques, to help the patient talk more freely. “Pete didn’t deny the feelings he had from the trauma, which is a death trap for officers who do.”

For some cops, though, the anguish is not worth it. In the fall of 2002, Schili, a third-generation cop who had nightmares and difficulty sleeping in the months after his incident, decided to turn in his badge and concentrate on his career as a firefighter. Tom Faatz sadly recalls the day 15 years ago when he had been forced to kill Timothy Wood, a restaurant employee who, intoxicated and distraught over the impending loss of his job, had taken a hostage and then charged at Faatz and two other officers with a butcher knife raised over his head. “He was basically a nice guy who was having a really bad day,” says Faatz.

His hope is that the officers in the Carlsten case won’t have to go through the turmoil that he experienced. But he also knows that even though they have been cleared of wrongdoing, as he was, their ordeal may be just beginning. “It wasn’t until a year or two later that I realized I was having problems,” he says. “I started having sleep problems—nightmares and insomnia. I have insomnia to this day. In my nightmares I was getting stabbed to death. More often than not, I would try to fire and my gun wouldn’t work—it would just click.” The torment would only end, he says, when “I’d wake up in a sweat.”

Bill Hewitt. Vickie Bane in Longmont, Siobhan Morrissey in Gainesville, Sam Dealey in Rocky Mount, Va., Anne Driscoll in New Jersey and Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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