This Article serves two purposes: 1) to determine whether suicide by cop can form the basis for a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, part of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, the main federal statute through which private litigants can bring civil rights suits against police departments, and 2) to analyze the policy implications of recognizing suicide by cop as a unique category of police killings. This Article will also determine whether a suicide-by-cop killing inclines courts to apply something other than the “objectively reasonable” standard in adjudicating a § 1983 claim. Furthermore, it will try to determine whether evidence of the suspect’s suicidal intentions can either improve or mitigate the plaintiff’s chances of prevailing in court.
Additionally, this Article makes two principal arguments. First, because suicide by cop can often result in litigation, police departments should train officers to better ascertain when a suspect may be attempting suicide by cop. While many courts bar the admission of “pre-seizure” evidence (evidence that came into being before the suspect’s interaction with officers, like a suicide note) in § 1983 suits, some courts have shown a willingness to admit evidence that the suspect was attempting suicide. Therefore, police departments face a tangible threat of litigation stemming from suicide-by-cop incidents. At least one federal appellate case, Palmquist v. Selvik, suggests that evidence of suicide by cop may be pertinent in determining whether police tactics are appropriate under § 1983.20.
Second, because suicide by cop poses a significant sociological problem, we should encourage police officers to employ nonlethal force in defusing an attempt at suicide by cop where the risk of harm to others is minimal. Victims of suicide by cop often share certain traits: they are usually poor, mentally ill, and addicted to alcohol or narcotics. Law enforcement agencies must educate officers of the underlying circumstances that can contribute to suicide by cop. Suicide-by-cop incidents may worsen police-community relations because residents might think that the police shooting was unnecessary, unjustified, or even racially motivated. Therefore, police officers should minimize the occurrences of suicide by cop by using deadly force only when absolutely necessary.
When Individuals Seek Death at the Hands of the Police: The Legal and Policy Implications of Suicide by Cop and Why Police Officers Should Use Nonlethal Force in Dealting With Suicidal Suspects, 41 Golden Gate U. L. Rev.