Editorial: Holding fire, saving a life

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 14, 2011

When a law-enforcement officer faces an armed suspect, he often has only a split second to make a decision that can alter several lives. Confronted with that situation Sunday afternoon in Kannapolis, Rowan Deputy M.L. Shrewsbury responded with remarkable restraint and kept a domestic disturbance call from escalating into a nightmare.
The officer was responding to a domestic argument situation when Michael Harrison, 56, returned to the site and pointed a handgun at the officer. He threatened to shoot unless the officer killed him, according to the police report. (It was subsequently learned the weapon was a pellet-type pistol.)
By keeping his cool and working to defuse the situation, Shewsbury helped avoid an episode of ěsuicide by cop.î Thatís a scenario that occurs more often than civilians may realize, according to recent studies, including work by Dr. Vivian Lord, a psychology professor at UNC-xxx and author of ěSuicide by Cop: Inducing Officers to Shoot.î
Although the nature of such incidents makes it hard to determine a suspectís motives or intention, the research shows that this form of suicide is not a rarity, and appears to be on the increase. Lord has studied more than 60 cases that occurred in North Carolina between 1992 and 1994, and there were no doubt other cases that occurred in jurisdictions outside the 32 agencies she tracked. Another frequently cited study, conducted by the University of Southern Carolina and the L.A. County Sheriffís office, found that roughly 12-13 percent of police shootings fit the ěsuicide by copî category.
Whenever it occurs, it can have a devastating effect on officers. While the use of deadly force can be traumatizing in any situation, itís especially so when officers learn the suspect apparently did not intend to harm them. Thatís something they can know only after the fact, however, and in many cases ó contrary to common perception ó the suspects are brandishing real weapons, with real bullets. They also are often under emotional duress (typically related to relationship or family issues) and may be under the influence of drugs. Put all that together, and the situation can be just as volatile as if officers were facing a cornered murder suspect warning he wonít be taken alive.
Many of these incidents end badly ó as occurred earlier this year when police in Cary used deadly force to end a hostage situation at a bank, only to discover that the suspect was unarmed and apparently wanted to be shot. The police are as much the victims in these cases as the perpetrators. Fortunately, that didnít occur Sunday in Kannapolis, thanks to a cool-headed deputy who knew how to handle the situation.