Suicide by Cop and Victim-Precipitated Homicide

There is a ritual form of terroristic Islamic violence where a person, most often a male, puts himself in harm’s way and, upon his deliberate and predictable death becomes a martyr. His demise becomes an occasion for the like-minded to come together and chant slogans—“God is Great!” “Death to the Infidel!” “Death to America!” Might we be seeing something like this in the United States? A man’s demise becomes an occasion for the like-minded to come together and chant, “Black Lives Matter!” “Off the pigs!” and “Death to America!” A criminal becomes a left-idealist hero. Murals are painted. GoFundMe accounts are established. The enemy is framed.

If the jihadi wanted to the live, he wouldn’t strap on a bomb vest. He is behaving in a manner that any rational observer can see is likely to result in his death. He has come to believe that his death is part of a struggle of which he is necessarily a part. His actions, he believes, represent resistance to an oppressive power that he damages by damaging himself. He is a brave soul against mighty forces of evil. Many outsider observers agree with him. If it were not for the oppressor, they rationalize, members of the oppressed class would not have to blow themselves up. Is it not conceivable that, in some cases, the man who charges the police officer with a knife or goes for the police officer’s gun is not similarly motivated? If he wanted to live, he would follow the officers orders. He still has his rights. Cop rarely shoot persons submitting to detention or arrest. But the man chooses the different path. The path of martyrdom?

This is not an outlandish suggestion. In criminology there is a name for the phenomenon in which persons behave in a manner that increases the likelihood that officers will shoot them. It’s called “suicide by cop.” A species of victim-precipitated homicide, suicide by cop (or suicide by police) occurs when an individual deliberately elicits a lethal response from a law enforcement officer. It applies to civilian encounters, as well, such as when a man aggresses upon another man carrying an AR 15 and gets shot. If the man had left the armed man alone, he would not have been shot. Assuming he is reasonably intelligent, he would understand that aggressing upon an armed man may result in his death. He has a death wish. He gets himself shot.

There is a popular reluctance to study the behavior of victims in lethal encounters. It stems from the idea that to do so constitutes “blaming the victim.” Blame and explanation are not synonymous. We can hold people blameless while still acknowledging their behavior that elicited the response that killed them. The kid who pokes the dog with a stick doesn’t deserve to be bitten. But when we ask why the dog bit the child, the presence of a stick makes the case different from an unprovoked dog bite. Of course, humans aren’t dogs. Humans have motives behind their actions. Thus responsibility becomes a matter to be considered. And we should consider it if it is relevant to the explanation.

The idea of victim-precipitated homicide has been around for decades and there is quite a substantial literature on it. The literature has to this point suggested two types of motives: (1) the person has planned his suicide by this method; (2) the person decides in the moment that death is preferable to arrest or some other fate. The first may include several of Durkheim’s motives, specifically anomie (distress at loss of normative structure), egoism (distress at loss of solidarity), and fatalism (distress at loss of liberty). The second is more specifically fatalism. Sociologist Émile Durkheim argues that motives lie along an intersecting scale of integration and regulation. One way the group exerts a force on the individual is through internalized beliefs, norms, and values that constitute a collective consciousness or a shared worldview. This concerns how well the person is integrated into the group. The other way the group exerts a force on the individual is through the imposition of external rules. When internalized beliefs and values fail to control the individual’s behavior, social control agents move to control the individual. One can scale up these dynamics. The culture of groups may conflict with the greater culture in which those groups embed. I trust the reader can see the implications for understanding the situation we face today with respect to violent crime.

When I discuss Durkheim’s motives in lectures, I apply altruism, i.e. self-demise because it signifies solidarity to identity or cause, to the explanation of suicide bombing. The jihadi blows himself up because his sacrifice is meaningful to him, but also because he knows it is meaningful to his comrades. He knows they will celebrate his sacrifice. He’s counting on it. It will strengthen faith in the ideology of Islam. The applicability of altruism as a motive to situations where victim-precipitated homicide is significant for advancing the ideology of systemic racism, the belief that America is an evil country, is hardly a stretch. Human beings act on the basis of their beliefs about the world. If the person officers are attempting to take into custody a man who believes he has a role to play in a movement against law enforcement and the greater oppressive culture, then he may knowingly risk his life by disobeying their commands, even violently confronting them. He knows how this will turn out for him and that may be the very reason for his actions.

Jacob Blake’s Facebook cover image

This analysis does not rule out the other motives. Jacob Blake, for example, had a picture of police officers in a squad car dressed as a pig and a devil on his Facebook page. This suggests an anti-cop attitude. He may have been plugged into the Black Lives Matter movement at some cognitive and emotional levels. But he also may have decided in that moment, given the seriousness of the warrant for his arrest, that death was preferable to being taken into custody. That is, his motive was fatalistic in character. The fact remains that he made choices that put himself in a situation that greatly increased the likelihood that police officers would use deadly force. He was violently resisting arrest and appears to have been armed. His actions are an intrinsic part of the explanation of his injuries.

In this video frame it appears Blake is armed with a karambit. A knife was found on the floorboard of the vehicle Blake was entering before he was shot. According to witnesses, police had been yelling for Blake to drop the knife.

I teach courses on police and law enforcement. In lectures, both in my courses and in public service events, I tell students and community members that if they want to survive a police encounter—if they don’t have a death wish—to always carefully follow the officer’s commands and not act in a way that suggests to the officer that his life in in jeopardy. Officers have a right to self defense and knows how quickly an encounter can turn lethal. The officer is armed for this reason. The officer wants to go home to family and he knows about police officers who didn’t make it home. Tens of millions of Americans encounter the police every year, and there is rarely any violence associated with these encounters. The vast majority of police officers are decent people doing the necessarily work of law enforcement. If they are matter-of-fact and not particularly friendly it is because that is what their job entails. They use a command voice to keep the peace. The vast majority of civilians follow the officer’s commands. An encounter with a police officer may be tense, however, if the officer suspects criminality, so it is important to know how to behave to make the officer’s job go smoothly while also protecting your Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.

The organization Flex Your Rights has produced a video, 10 Rules for Dealing with the Police, instructing individuals on how to deal with the police. It has high production value and stars criminal defense attorney Billy Murphy, whom some readers may remember from the TV show The Wire. Watching the video you will learn how to safely interact with a police officer, as well as learn about your constitutional rights. These will come in handy if you are ever detained or arrested. For those bent on violently confronting police officers, I wish there was a video that could help them.

Earlier I noted that victim-precipitated homicide occurs in the civilian realm, as well. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, a teenager from Illinois was attacked by several men who had assembled in Kenosha either to protest or riot the shooting of Jacob Blake (who survived his injuries). The teenager was armed and shot three of them. The following account is drawn from multiple news sources. Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, a registered sex offender for a sex crime involving a minor, chased the teenager and threw something at him. Rosenbaum was shot multiple times and died from his wounds. Anthony Huber, 26, who had a criminal history that included charges of battery and domestic abuse, chased down the teenager and was beating the teenager with a skateboard while the teenager was on the ground. Huber was fatally shot in the abdomen. Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, a member of the People’s Revolution Movement of Milwaukee, who also has a criminal record, was chasing the teenager alongside Huber. Grosskreutz was armed with a pistol, which is clearly visible in video and images. Grosskreutz was shot in the upper arm and survived. He reportedly regrets not killing the teenager. The two dead men are being portrayed as martyrs. Did they think of themselves as heroes in a situation of their own making? Were these redemptive acts?

Jacob Blake, the ritual totem currently at the center of the unrest allegedly over police violence, also had a criminal record. The reason the police were arresting Blake on August 23 was because authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest in July on several charges including criminal trespass to a dwelling and felony third-degree sexual assault, all with domestic abuse as modifiers. The police had been called to the scene of a domestic disturbance (the 911 call indicated a very serious situation) and thus has a legitimate reason for detaining Blake. They were carrying out their duties as sworn law enforcement officers. During the arrest, which became physical and saw the deployment of a Taser, Blake wrestled free and was moving with purpose to a vehicle that may or may not have been his. There were kids in the car. He either still had the knife, was reaching for a gun, or trying to leave the scene with small children in the car, any of these constituting a very dangerous situation. The police officer stopped whatever Blake had planned. Unlike a lot of men who violently confront police, Blake has an opportunity to tell the public about that plan.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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