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How to Avoid Legal Missteps on Public Safety Calls with Suicidal Subjects

With threatened and completed suicides dramatically on the rise, officers are increasingly facing challenging and complex calls about people in life-threatening crisis.

The overwhelming response objective is, of course, to save lives. If officers don't understand the legal realities of these dicey situations, however, they run the risk of making matters worse, with themselves and those they're expected to help potentially ending up seriously injured or dead.

Below are key training points for responding to suicidal subjects in a way that minimizes both the legal and the safety risks involved.

1. Beware of the urge to do something. Emotions can run high on these calls, with the subject often unable or unwilling to respond to verbal cues and frantic family members begging for a quick resolution. Officers often feel the need to do something, and to take action now. By pressing a rushed confrontation with the subject, for example, just to do something — anything — they may undermine their ability to save the life in question and put their own lives at risk. Often officers use forced entry to save a person from suicide — and end up killing this individual. In the absence of a genuinely urgent emergency, buying time and distance for better assessment and decision making may be the most effective approach. Taking ill-conceived action for convenience, such as clearing street closures or avoiding overtime, won't play well in court if litigation occurs.

2. Understand the limitations of responders' legal duty. When confronting a suicidal subject who isn't committing a serious crime and isn't an active threat to anyone else, the best response may be not to engage and to withdraw. This may seem like a sin of omission, but it is often the most legally appropriate as well as the safest response. Generally speaking, responders have no legal duty to keep a person from self-harm, and deciding to do nothing is not legally actionable. Don't assume that just because officers respond to a 911 call, they have an obligation to intervene. It may be harsh, but it is the reality. Officers may feel a moral duty to intercede, but tactical restraint — including possible strategic disengagement — is still a desirable consideration in order to avoid escalating risk to everyone involved.

3. Responders should not promise their way into a special relationship. Verbal restraint is necessary to avoid a bad legal position that creates a special legal duty to act where none initially existed. This usually occurs when an officer or agency made specific promises of protection that were relied on, and that result in liability if harm occurred because they were not fulfilled. Responders should resist the temptation to make promises they may not be able to keep. When people rely upon these, circumstances can become worse.

4. Avoid state-created danger. Throughout a suicidal-subject call, remain aware of three questions: Who is at risk? Who is causing that risk? What is necessary to eliminate or reduce that risk? To provide legal protection, don't bring risk to the person in crisis, unless that person is bringing risk to another person or the police. If police actions unjustifiably worsen the situation, resulting in harm to the subject, the agency may be liable for what's called a state-created danger. Qualified immunity may be in question in the litigation process. 

5. Empower the agency with information. As with planning a SWAT operation, intel is critical in avoiding potential pitfalls and responding effectively to a potential suicide. Determine quickly as much as possible about the subject at risk and the situation. What's the subject's purpose and intent? Is there a weapon involved or accessible? Are other parties at the scene in jeopardy? How can the risk be contained so the threat doesn't spread? Are cover and less lethal options available? Does the subject have a history of mental illness that might add another level of concern? Is this really a police matter, or is it more of a mental health matter? Is there legal justification for the actions under consideration, such as making a forced entry? Information will empower an agency in making appropriate decisions. Focus on practical objectives — what responders can reasonably hope to accomplish, and what must be done to accomplish it. 

6. Fully document actions. After-action report documentation will become a key document if any legal action arises after an incident. It will be scrutinized and analyzed long after the fact. Fully describe the situation and the actions taken and why. Detail the risks encountered, the legal justification for actions, the outcomes expected from actions, mitigating factors or challenges that impact the situation, and the reasons why the expected outcome was not achieved, if applicable.

For example, if entry was made, why was it justified from a legal and safety standpoint? If responders used force, what did they expect to achieve? If they chose to tactically reposition, what led them to believe this was the safest choice for the subject and officers?

7. Don't always expect a fairy-tale ending. Despite the best efforts of skilled officers, people do still kill themselves. Responders may think they have successfully resolved an immediate crisis only to have the subject take his own life after they leave — or even, dramatically, in their presence. Offices strive for better, smarter, safer ways to address suicide calls, but ultimately can't control what other people do, or the intensity of their determination. Understand there is not going to be a fairy-tale ending to every one of these situations, so be prepared and maintain situational awareness.

Portions of this article were reprinted with permission from Force Science. To read the entire article, click here.