‘Suicide by cop’ means manslaughter

Brad Lee Morgan smiles at his son, Kannon.

Brad Lee Morgan smiles at his son, Kannon.

By James Mazzocco, on BlueOregon.com

It was January 25, and Brad Morgan wanted to die.

Maybe it was earlier. He had problems. A day, a week, or a month before — nobody can know for sure. All the same, Brad Morgan knew it was time.

A tragic event has the power to cause us to inspect it minutely. We turn it over and over in our minds, searching for meaning: a lesson, a parable, or a moral mnemonic.

The result is almost always a banal lie we tell ourselves individually and collectively. It is cheap and convenient. Whether to salve pain, gain absolution, or conveniently sop tears of shame and frustration, that lie is above all human, but the price is that we are left casting about for a reason why.

The banal lie in Brad Morgan’s death is a socially acceptable euphemism for manslaughter commonly known as “suicide by cop.” It is the same lie police spokesmen have used to describe the deaths of Aaron Campbell, Keaton Otis, Jack Collins, Darryel Ferguson, Anthony McDowell, Jimmy Georgeson, Elias Angel Ruiz, Larry McKinney, and many others. In each of these cases, a suicidal man was killed by someone other than himself. When a life is cut short by another person, it is wrong to call it suicide — especially when the man behind the trigger is a police officer.

Just 21 years old and a new father, Brad Morgan climbed an elevator tower at a downtown parking garage and used his cell phone to tell the 9-1-1 operator that he planned to kill himself.

Long before that moment, it had gone too far. Brad Morgan’s fate was sealed when he did exactly what we are all taught to do from childhood.

Every social service agency, mental health provider, church therapist, doctor’s office, and hundreds of others who provide help in crises have similar after-hours greetings. We have all heard the familiar final words without paying too much attention: “If this is a life-threatening emergency, please hang up and dial 9-1-1.”

He may or may not have heard those words, but he did exactly as they instructed.

Brad Morgan now had two problems: Not only did he want to die, but police were on their way.

When 9-1-1 is the default overnight number for hundreds of agencies that promote their ability to help in a crisis, we have effectively criminalized mental illness. We force police, at best lightly trained in mental health issues, to be all-night, ad hoc therapists — a proven poor match.

When cops learn by trial and error, our friends die.

It is not a crime to be mentally ill. It is not a crime to be drunk or high. And it is not a crime to attempt or commit suicide.

It is, however, a crime to assist a suicide. To intentionally cause or aid another person to kill himself is second-degree manslaughter.

In a more just society, the officer who fired the fatal shot would be facing six years, three months in prison.

The 9-1-1 transcript reveals that Brad Morgan told the dispatcher, “I’d actually prefer for a police officer to shoot me at this point. I am not looking forward to this jump.”

To face criminal charges as a result of assisting a suicide is rare. A prudent person would never help. Imagine a distraught man in a hardware store, tears streaming down his face, clothing torn, in obvious anguish, demanding of the bewildered shopkeeper, “Show me how to tie a noose!”

Brad Morgan told a 9-1-1 operator that he wanted a cop to shoot him. That operator passed the call to the police, along with the details of Morgan’s desire to be shot by them. Informed by this banal lie we have all unthinkingly agreed to call “suicide by cop,” and expecting that they would be tasked with ending Morgan’s life, police hurried to arrive at the scene of a foregone conclusion. As always, they were ill-trained to handle a mental health situation.

How is it that our hypothetical shopkeeper is able to refuse to give instruction in tying a noose, but our police bureau is unable to field officers capable of refraining from shooting a man who is actively seeking to be shot? Why didn’t the Morgan grand jury bring a charge against the officers involved?

Astonishingly, they could not. The wrong training is provided to our police, and the wrong charge was put before the grand jury.

The proper training would have taught our police not to facilitate “suicide by cop,” and the proper charge would have been assisting a suicide.

Desiring, attempting, or completing suicide is a lonely, broken expression of intolerable pain. It is not a criminal enterprise, but a public health matter. To effectively make suicidal thoughts criminal, simply because we have no mental health safety net, is inexcusable.

We failed Brad Morgan, and in doing so, failed ourselves.

James Mazzocco is on the Advisory Council of the Mental Health Association of Portland.