A phenomenon is sweeping the nation, and it’s gaining momentum. It’s not “American Idol,” the green movement, the iPhone or even Michael Phelps. It’s “suicide by cop” and it’s becoming a bigger headache for 911 emergency call-takers.

Suicide by cop occurs when a person wishes to commit suicide but doesn’t possess the courage to do the deed. In that case, the person tries to force a police officer to shoot him, often by using extreme methods, said Paul Logan, a communications supervisor with the Dane County Public Safety Communications Center in Madison, Wis., who spoke last week at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials annual conference in Kansas City.

According to Logan, suicide by cop is on the rise. In his county alone, there have been at least four “clearly documented” cases in the last five years.

Logan told of an incident where a man walked into a Madison daycare center early one morning armed with a meat cleaver. He had no connection to the daycare center, which was located a short distance from a police station. He immediately whacked a worker over the head with the blunt end of the cleaver, then grabbed a teacher and held a knife to her throat.

It was an outrageous act—and the man knew exactly what he was doing, Logan said. “You walk into a daycare center at 7 a.m. and you’re going to get a response. Walk into a daycare center three blocks from police headquarters and you’re going to get a much bigger response,” Logan said, adding that a suicide note later was found in the man’s home.

The injured worker managed to escape the building and called 911 from an adjacent business. Another woman slipped into a classroom and also called 911 moments later. Police arrived and shot the man to death. It only took three minutes for it all to play out from the time of the first emergency call.

“These things are very dynamic. Things happen very fast, and officers have to be armed with as much information as possible when they arrive at the scene,” Logan said.

That’s where the 911 call-taker comes in. Often the person trying to execute suicide by cop makes the emergency call and, in such situations, it is essential for the call-taker to gather crucial information, Logan said. For instance:

  • Have they taken any drugs or used alcohol? If so, what did they consume?
  • Do they have a weapon? Have they pointed it at anybody?
  • Have they made any threats?
  • Are there any family or personal problems?
  • Are they agitated? Are they yelling or screaming?

“Anything that might have gotten them fired up today,” Logan said.

It’s also critical to keep them on the phone. “Information flow is so crucial in this type of situation,” Logan said.

He added that call-takers develop certain instincts, insights and intuitions over the years, advising that they draw on those attributes when dealing with suicide-by-cop incidents.

“Tell the police your gut feelings,” Logan said. “It’s better to be wrong than not to say anything. Officers would rather hear gut feelings, even if they don’t pan out.” It’s probably a good idea, though, to distinguish between gut feelings and cold, hard facts.

Gathering information in such a highly charged situation is difficult by itself. Adding to the complexity is the need to keep the caller calm. “You don’t want to crank them up any more than they already are,” Logan said.

When we hear the phrase “in the line of fire,” we instinctively think of police officers and firefighters being in that position. Given the stress and psychological pressures they face—which apparently are becoming even more burdensome—911 call-takers could well be included on that list.

E-mail me at glenn.bischoff@penton.com.