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Coined by a former California police officer, the concept of “suicide by cop”—the idea that some people force officers to shoot them because they want to die—has been around for more than 30 years.

In 2015 alone, seven fatal shootings by police officers across the U.S. officially have been designated as “suicide by cop” by local authorities, alarming some experts and the families of those killed, The Guardian reports. Critics have pointed to the possible misuse of the ruling by officials.

In one such ruling in Illinois, prosecutors explained in an email to The Guardian that one victim, Tommy Smith, “expressed suicidal ideation” before being shot by police. Smith aimed a rifle at officers following a standoff, prosecutors said.

But such suicide rulings – two more of which were made this year in South Carolina, along with one each in Indiana, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania – run contrary to guidelines from the National Association of Medical Examiners on how to classify a manner of death. They may also pre-empt criminal inquiries by effectively exonerating officers of wrongdoing and removing their actions from consideration, according to some criminologists.

Members of Smith’s family who saw the encounter deny that he pointed his gun. While he experienced depression on and off for years since his fiancée died in a car accident, said his mother, Jean Tomlin, he did not want to die. “He hadn’t said nothing like that in the last few days,” she said. Shortly before his death, Smith invited one of the officers who would shoot him to join them in watching his beloved Denver Broncos in the NFL playoffs on television.

Police have shot dead more than 100 people who were described by associates or authorities as suicidal so far in 2015. Many of those who died did display suicidal intentions as they entered lethal encounters with officers. The total was described as alarming by mental health advocates, who said law enforcement agencies should urgently provide better training for police in dealing with people in mental health crises.

Most of these deaths were classed as homicides and investigated as usual for potential wrongdoing by the officers involved. But a growing number of state and county authorities are effectively bypassing this process by placing official responsibility for the shootings on the shoulders of the dead, who are judged to have given officers no choice but to kill them.

Such suicide rulings may further undermine the US government’s much-criticised efforts to record the number of killings by police nationwide. This system centres on voluntary reporting by police departments of the number of “justifiable homicides” by their officers each year. Even departments that participate are under no obligation to include in their totals any deaths that were ruled suicides. Amid calls from lawmakers and activists for a more comprehensive database, the Guardian is recording extensive details of all deaths caused by US law enforcement in 2015.

Read more here.

Posted by Jenna Berbeo

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