Editorial: Suicide by cop is a no-win situation for police

Coming unarmed won't help.  In Portland, "suicide by cop" has become an all-purpose code phrase for "police killed another person with mental illness."  (Photo: amoeck/Flickr.com)

Coming unarmed won't help. In Portland, "suicide by cop" has become an all-purpose code phrase for "police killed another person with mental illness." (Photo: amoeck/Flickr.com)

By The Oregonian Editorial Board, Jan. 31, 2012

A  painful litany of “what ifs” has begun in the police shooting death of Brad Lee Morgan, 21. And that’s as it should be. Hard questions do need to be asked in the wake of such a death.

But the tone of some criticism makes us wonder whether Portlanders are developing unrealistically high expectations. Do people understand that this was a no-win situation for the officers?

It’s been about a year since the last such police shooting death in Portland. And it’s true that the Portland Police Bureau has dramatically improved its approach to people in crisis. It’s also true that the bureau badly needed to improve. (It is still under federal investigation for its use of force, particularly against the mentally ill.)

What is not true, though, is that police can prevent all such deaths. No, they can’t, not if someone is determined to be shot. Morgan, distraught about his estrangement from the mother of his 8-month-old son, called 9-1-1 at 3:17 a.m. last Wednesday to report that he had committed a robbery with a knife and was considering jumping off a building. When asked if he had a gun, he answered: “Possibly.”

That response, conveyed by dispatchers to police officers, was frustratingly and perhaps fatally ambiguous. It put officers on their guard. But, in fact, the black replica pistol that Morgan was carrying really did work “possibly” like a gun. Once it was displayed, officers had little choice but to shoot him.

No, if the officers had a choice point, it came earlier in the decision of whether to engage with Morgan at all. They had asked for the crisis negotiation team to respond to the scene, and that team had not arrived when officers began talking to the young man.

Should officers have waited? Maybe, but the problem with “wait and see” is that Morgan had already confessed to committing a crime, admitted he was “possibly” armed and that he planned to kill himself. So the officers had reason to believe he posed a danger to himself and anyone else who tried to intervene.

What we know about suicides is that they can be prevented, but people have to act fast. They unfold very quickly. Had the officers not tried to engage with Morgan, they could have been criticized for sitting back and doing nothing while he killed himself.

In addition to a grand jury inquiry into this death, it will also be subject to other reviews. Police Chief Mike Reese needs to specifically address whether officers did the right thing in moving forward instead of waiting.

Every death at police hands deserves the full-strength illumination of a public inquest, a forum that would, ideally, range into the question of what officers could or should have done differently.

The officers involved didn’t want this to happen. Police officers can and do spend their whole careers quite happily without ever unholstering their weapons, except for target practice.

There is no such thing as a routine police shooting death. But a public inquest is needed, yes, even in a case like this one, where the facts known thus far point as plainly as facts can to “suicide by cop.”