The 2014 death of Christian Sierra in Purcellville, recently detailed by The Post’s Tom Jackman, is a textbook — and heartbreaking — example of “suicide by cop.” It underscores the need for police agencies to adopt a protocol developed by a leading national police think tank that has been proved a safe and effective means of defusing such incidents.
According to Mr. Jackman’s account, Christian, who had battled depression for years, was with friends May 24, 2014, when he locked himself in a bathroom and started cutting himself with a three-inch paring knife and saying he wanted to die. The friends called 911, and Timothy Hood, a relatively new officer with the Purcellville police, responded. Within four seconds of informing dispatchers that he was on the scene, he fired three shots into the boy, killing him. Prosecutors in Loudoun County ruled the shooting justifiable, but a civil jury last year found the officer liable for battery, awarding damages to the boy’s parents and sister.
There are nearly 1,000 fatal police shootings in the United States every year, and experts estimate that about 100 of them are, like Christian’s, suicide by cop. The typical response to someone in emotional distress, officials with the Police Executive Research Forum told us, is for officers to advance and draw their guns, repeatedly shout “Drop the knife!” and hope for compliance. But pointing a gun at a person in crisis tends to increase their anxiety and exacerbate the situation, while advancing toward them may put the officer in unnecessary danger.
The police forum’s protocol, developed in response to The Post’s 2015 launch of a database analyzing fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, emphasizes that police must first consider their own safety and that of others, but it outlines an approach keyed to deescalation. Officers should be trained not to point weapons at potentially suicidal people, to move a safe distance away and continue backing away when possible, and to converse with the person rather than shouting commands.
More than 500 police agencies have attended some type of training in the new protocol, and at least 77 agencies have implemented it. That’s a good start, but unfortunately there is still some resistance by those averse to change. They would do well to listen to the juror in the Sierra case about the need for judicious response: “Back that car up. Use the loudspeaker. You could have kept the windows closed.” It’s hard not to think that if any of that had happened, a young man might still be alive today, his family might have been spared their grief, and a police officer sued for taking a life might instead have been hailed for saving one.