Forced to Fire
It’s called ‘suicide by cop’ – and it’s absolutely appalling for everyone. For the officers involved, it is life-changing. Two share their experiences with Police News.
Cases of “suicide by cop” are often suspected but difficult to prove. When it does happen, it is often one of two scenarios: either an offender or suspect decides, for whatever reason, that he would rather die than be arrested; or the person is already contemplating suicide when he enters into a confrontation with police.
This year in New Zealand, a case of a police shooting has been labelled by the coroner investigating it as probably “self-inflicted”. It involved Slovakian national David Cerven. The 21-year-old was being sought in relation to a series of armed robberies and on the night of Sunday, August 2, Cerven called 111 and asked for police.
When officers arrived at Myers Park, off Queen St, in Auckland, Cerven told them he had a gun. At that point, the police withdrew and began negotiating, but Police said Cerven advanced on officers indicating he was going to use a gun. He was shot soon after. It was later revealed that he was unarmed.
Two days later, senior police officers and other officials attended a ceremony to bless the park to acknowledge what Superintendent Richard Chambers said was “the tragic passing of...David Cerven and the circumstances under which he died”.
There have been other police shootings this year that could also fall into the category of “suicide by police”. Police Association President Greg O’Connor said the reality was that in many cases “we may never know unless someone leaves a note or tells someone”.
It was something that every police officer hoped wouldn’t happen to them, but, as the number of firearms – legal and illegal – now in circulation in New Zealand is on the rise, there is a greater chance of it happening now than ever before.
It was a situation every police officer “dreaded”. “It’s a possibility police face every time they go on shift. Even so, nobody goes to work expecting to be placed in a position where they are forced to shoot somebody.”
When it does happen, it is life-changing. Here, two officers share their experiences. To preserve their anonymity, we have used the pseudonyms of Officer A and Officer B.
Senior police officers and kaumatua attended a blessing at Myers Park where a police shooting occurred earlier this year. Photo: FAIRFAX MEDIA
If an offender dies, that alters everything for the police officer involved, says Officer A. “You have taken a life. For a cop that is a big deal. Our main objective is to preserve life and protect society, not to take life.”
He knows, however, that police can end up in grave situations where their hand is forced. And it’s an aspect of policing that he thinks should be given more emphasis during training and in policy. “It’s easy to teach us how to use a firearm, but, just as importantly, we need to better understand the psychological impact that a fatal shooting has on the officer involved.”
In his case, in the space of a few hours, he “went from doing paperwork at the office to a job where I ended up discharging a firearm”.
Although he can’t reveal the details of the incident, he can talk about what happened to him afterwards.
In the initial stages, it was disbelief. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen. In the first week, I thought I was fine, but my mind was still processing it all. In the second and third weeks, all the demons came out. I replayed it hundreds of times in my head, wondering, could I have done it differently.
“I was waking up angry, asking myself if I had made the right decision. It was a paradox because, although I knew the shooting was justified, I was also thinking, ‘I screwed up because I killed a person’.
He had good support from Police and the Police Association, taking several weeks off work and, as is standard practice, seeing a psychologist once a week.
After a time, he says, he accepted that he had been the “medium” that someone had chosen to end their life, but he needed to get the “horrible stuff” out of his head before he went back to work.
He had become withdrawn and didn’t want to venture out.
“I was concerned that people would look at me and would know what I had done. I went to the local mall and felt paranoid that people were looking at me and knowing everything.”
With help, he worked to “dehumanise” the offender. “I wanted to distance myself from him to avoid any emotional connection.”
Officer B says he still thinks every day about the incident he was involved in “and probably will for the rest of my life”.
He too acknowledges the awful contradiction that police encounter in those situations. “We don’t want to take a life; we are sworn to preserve life.”
He has come to terms with it by looking at the situation objectively and not dwelling on the offender, he says. “The way I see it, police didn’t kill him, he killed himself. He posed a real threat and we had to deal with it. It was justified.”
But he does feel some resentment. As a result of the incident, he says his life has been turned upside down. “My career path in Police had to change. I had to reassess what was important. Previously, I had been doing what was right for me in my career. But afterwards, I had to think about what was right for my family and to re-evaluate my career.”
Initially, he says, going back was a bit complicated – “who knew, who didn’t know, who was trying to find out”.
“It’s definitely changed me and it varies from day to day. I have good days and then bad days when I start feeling flat and getting anxious.”
Both officers say they benefited from talking to others who have been through similar experiences. “They are the only ones who can understand,” Officer A says.
They were both involved in informal support groups, but also think that Police needs to re-examine its policies and procedures around such shootings.
“It comes down to the individuals and what we can learn from all these shootings that have been happening recently,” Officer A says.
“Maybe we should put all the information into a document to pass on to the next generation of officers. There are lessons to be learnt and there will be more shootings.”
One of the lessons he learnt, he says, was that “you have the right to be angry, but you must channel it into something positive”.
He suggests that Police considers doing some academic research with officers such as himself and Officer B who have been through “suicide by cop” shootings.
Officer B says processes should be reviewed. “In the current climate of increased firearms incidents, it’s important for Police to acknowledge this issue,” he adds.
“In some work situations you can be treated like a victim. We are not victims, but we have been involved in traumatic events.” – ELLEN BROOK
In the case of serious work-related incidents, such as a shooting, police should contact Police Association staff who will put you in touch with a lawyer and make sure you are aware of your obligations and that your rights are protected. Call 0800 TEN NINE. The Police Welfare Fund also provides assistance after serious work-related incidents.