Inspector (Ret.) Chris Butler

Subject-precipitated homicide (SPH) refers to incidents in which a citizen consciously engages in behavior to a degree that compels a police officer to fear he or she is under an imminent deadly threat so that, the officer(s) will respond with lethal force. In this article I have intentionally used the term ‘subject-precipitated homicide’ rather than the more common vernacular ‘victim-precipitated homicide’. I do so because of the fact that I have reviewed several such incidents and have met with and/or interviewed many officers who had been forced to pull the trigger of their weapon. I state unreservedly that in each and every case, the involved officer(s) is truly a victim of a violent crime. Many of these officers will experience significant stress injuries often leading to PTSD. Some of these officers have left the profession of law enforcement as a result of the incident. In saying that the officer is the victim, I do not desire to diminish, to any degree, the amount of pain, suffering and mental anguish that the subject involved in the incident was experiencing that led them to take such drastic measures to end their life. I also fully acknowledge the legacy of length of hurt that remains for the surviving family members of a subject who has forced a police officer to be the instrument of their death.

SPH refers only to those killings in which the subject’s intentional behavior is a direct, positive precipitator of the incident; it is therefore, in the final analysis, an act of suicide. In fact, one Coroner’s Inquest has found ‘suicide’ to be the cause of death in a case where the decedents threatening actions were undertaken in order to force the officer to respond with lethal force.[1]

Most police officers have heard of the concept of ‘suicide by cop’ or subject precipitated homicide. Regrettably the frequency of this phenomenon continues to increase in law enforcement; in fact, there have been several successful and many ‘attempted’ SPH events in recent history. The purpose of this article is to briefly discuss the current understanding of this serious issue and to assist officers in identifying and managing potential SPH events.

In one case from Vegreville, Alberta in July of 2008, 59-year-old Leo Poulin became agitated at his residence, took his shotgun and began driving towards the RCMP detachment for the purpose of locating and confronting the police. Officers on patrol were advised and managed to locate and stop his vehicle. Poulin exited his vehicle brandishing his firearm and despite repeated warnings from the officers, Poulin and raised and pointed it at one of the officers. The officers shot and killed the subject. Referring to this incident, Dr. Liam Ennis professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta stated:

‘Committing suicide by forcing a law officer to pull the trigger happens more often than many people think. For some it may be a more passive attempt at killing themselves. It’s one step shy of actually pulling the trigger on themselves. It’s also quite dramatic’[2]

‘SPH subjects engage in an intentional life-threatening criminal incident or perceived life-threatening behavior, typically resulting in a police officer or someone else taking the subject’s life’ (Doctoral Thesis, Parent, 2004). Indeed, in a highly publicized case from Edmonton, Alberta (January 2010), EPS officers were confronted by a female subject who despite repeated police warnings, approached and pointed a handgun at the containment officers leaving them no choice but to discharge their weapons in fear of their lives. It was later determined that the firearm brandished by the decedent was a non-functioning replica, a fact that could not have been known by the officers at the time.

Sub-types of Subject-Precipitated Homicide Incidents

SPH incidents can either be pre-planned by the subject (such as the 2008 Vegreville and 2010 Edmonton incidents) or can occur spontaneously. For example, in a case from Calgary, Alberta, a male brutally murdered his spouse and subsequently placed a 911 call stating that he had just killed her and demanded the police. When the police did not show up promptly he placed another call and angrily demanded the police attend immediately. Upon police arrival he confronted the officers with an edged weapon forcing an officer to fire his service weapon in self-defense. Consistent with the literature on SPH behavior, this subject intentionally drew officers to the scene for the purpose of forcing them to be the direct cause of his death.

In over 70% of incidents, causal triggers for SPH behavior are typically adverse stressful events such as diagnosis of terminal illness, relationship breakups, domestic violence, job loss or financial ruin – often clusters of these trigger causes are present in a single incident.[3] Drug and alcohol addictions as well as underlying mental health illnesses (frequently undiagnosed) are also common contributors to the suicidal behavior.

Regardless of whether the subject behavior is pre-planned or spontaneous, these situations provide few, if any, alternative options for the attending officers.  Suicidal, mentally ill, or irrational subjects typically confront officers while in possession of weapons and refuse to obey police commands for compliance and control.  These subjects will typically rapidly advance or attack officers in a Kamikaze manner, rather than attempting to flee or avoid apprehension.  As a result, time for officers to make decisions is critically compressed often leaving just fractions of seconds to respond.

The characteristics associated with individuals predisposed to SPH are generally defined within the category of suicidal behavior and include a general sense of depression, hopelessness, and low self-esteem.[4] Although SPH situations evolve rapidly and officers are presented with incomplete, fragmentary information, subjects usually elicit behaviors which point to a suicidal state of mind.

SPH subjects often choose to interact with police for the following reasons:

  • Police carry firearms
  • Police are trained to react decisively to potentially life-threatening situations with accurate and deadly force
  • Police are easily accessed (e.g., by telephone) and must come when called

Many SPH subjects need immediate psychological or emergency medical treatment; however, no psychological or medical aid can be rendered to a violent subject until they are first safely either contained or restrained.  Rendering a scene safe, preserving public safety and restraining a subject is the role of the police; there is no alternate service provider.

Statistical Risk

While SPH has been a well-documented phenomenon in the United States for several years[5], these types of events are continuing to occur with increasing frequency in Canada. In one peer-reviewed study of LAPD shootings between 1987 and 1997, the researchers concluded that 11% of all police shootings were incidents of Subject Precipitated Homicide. In the last year of the study (1997) it was concluded that the frequency of SPH cases rose to 25% of all officer-involved shootings. In the SPH cases studied where subjects were not armed with a functional firearm, 54% used a replica type firearm (i.e. BB gun, flare gun, etc). In North America, police agencies are becoming more alive to the concerns pertaining to incidents of subject precipitated homicide and many have, quite properly, undertaken training their officers to better recognize incident cues and subject behavior that may indicate the intent to commit suicide at the hands of police[6].

While some might be critical of police officers for using lethal force against despondent, armed and suicidal subjects, the research clearly demonstrates that there is a fine, and often indiscernible line, between suicidal and homicidal behavior. In the aforementioned research, it was determined that in all the SPH cases examined subjects were armed with a weapon 80% of the time and in 60% of the cases the weapon was an operational and loaded firearm. More significantly, the offenders actually fired their weapons at the police in 48% of the incidents studied. This research shows that suicidal subjects, intent on threatening police for the purposes of having officers shoot and kill them, can pose a very real and unpredictable homicidal risk of lethal harm to the responding officers. To further underscore the risk posed by SPH subjects, in a study of Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)  the FBI Behavioral Sciences Section discovered that 62 offenders who feloniously killed a police officer committed suicide during the same incident.[7]

Managing Potential SPH Events

Preventing each and every subject precipitated homicide event from occurring is impossible. As stated, many of these tragic events arise seemingly spontaneously to the responding officers and suicidal goal-oriented individuals who have committed themselves to this course of action typically complete the act very quickly leaving the police behind the reaction curve with very little preventative options.

That being said, police officers, supervisors and call takers should be alive to the risk involved anytime a subject claims, or is suspected, to have committed or been involved in a violent offence and makes urgent and/or repeated demands for police presence or is making no attempt to flee the scene but is awaiting the arrival of the police. If the scene can be contained without forcing immediate contact with the caller, endeavor to gather as much intelligence as possible on the past history of the subject prior to making contact; the police dispatch and communications centers can be invaluable in this regard. As with most high-risk situations, stabilizing the incident by containment, time and patience, when feasible, are our best allies.

Understandably in many situations, holding back and waiting is not a possible option for responding officers. Frequently, other persons are imminently at risk or the subject has already seriously harmed another person. In a case I was involved in as a responding officer, the offender called 911 saying he had just stabbed his baby and to send the police. The dispatcher could hear the muffled cries of a child in the background during the 911 call. Obviously, the need for immediate approach and controlling the scene was required in order to determine the medical status of the child. While approaching the subject’s residence, we observed the porch light was on and the front door had been fully opened. As my partner and I entered the front door, we encountered the male offender standing inside the house 10 feet away from us, holding a large butcher knife in an ice-pick fashion. The offender yelled at us to ‘kill me, shoot me!’ multiple times. Fortunately for him, he did not make any move to close the distance – my ‘line in the sand’ for pulling my trigger was the first indication of any motion to move towards us. After approximately 15 seconds of challenging the offender he suddenly dropped the knife and we were able to take him into custody. As other responding officers cleared the house, the victim, the offenders 11-month old son, was located laying on the kitchen floor with his throat slashed and bleeding profusely from a lacerated carotid artery. One of the responding officers, who happened to also be a combat medic, pinched off the artery and held it until the child arrived at the hospital.

The point of using this incident as an illustration is to highlight the reality that in some potential SPH events, the subjects might change their minds and not all of these cases that start on a SPH trajectory will end in the use of lethal force – although regrettably the statistics state that many, if not most. And, in most circumstances, the subject will not afford the officers any discretionary time to pause and challenge such as was the case with the incident above.

Be informed and be aware about the ‘suicide by cop’ phenomenon and the characteristics as to how they typically present themselves. When the incident cues make you think you might be responding to a possible SPH event, avoid compressing the crisis point whenever possible and keep your distance. Try to get a ‘long eye’ on the scene; use time to gather intelligence and get resources in place, and make a solid response plan before making contact.

Until next time – stay smart, sharp and safe!


[1] Coroner’s Inquest of Kenneth Standingready-McKay, Carlyle Saskatchewan,  November 10, 2009, Presiding Coroner: Richard W. Danyliuk Q.C.

[2] Edmonton Journal; Tuesday July 15, 2008

[3] Hutson HR, Anglin D, Yarbrough, et al; Suicide by Cop. Annals of Emergency Medicine; 1998, 32 (6) : 665-669

[4] Calgary Police Service handbook on managing emotionally disturbed subjects

[5] Suicide by Cop Among Officer Involved Shooting Cases: Kris Mohandie PhD, J. Reid Meloy PhD, et al. Journal of Forensic Science, March 2009, Volume 54. No. 2

[6] In late 2009 the Calgary Police Service implemented an E-Learning module for all police officers on the recognition and management of SPH events

[7] ‘Violent Encounters – A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nations Law Enforcement Officers’, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, August 2006