Suicide by cop: A rights perspective

By Jason Renaud and Jenny Westberg
This article appeared in Oregon Trial Lawyer magazine, Summer 2011

The most discriminated against class of persons – in any place, at any time, within any society – are persons with an active mental illness.

"We fight to stay out of hospitals – not jails, hospitals -- with bars on the windows, guards in the halls, surrounded with razor-wire."  (Image: .:Amy:./

“We fight to stay out of hospitals – not jails, hospitals — with bars on the windows, guards in the halls, surrounded with razor-wire.” (Image: .:Amy:./

Race, religion, class – any and all of these biases are there as well, but with an extra push. A person may, for instance, be Hispanic (with a mental illness), or gay and in a wheelchair (with a mental illness). Or a person may be white, middle-class, respectable income bracket, 1.4 kids and dog  — with a mental illness.

Discrimination on the basis of mental illness, then and now, will add to anything and everything that is hated about a person, and it can — does — stand by itself. Persons with a mental illness are discriminated against in employment, education, insurance, housing, in courts of law, and banking. Throughout history we have been excluded, exiled, persecuted, spat upon with impunity.  We are routinely held against our will by law without criminal charge.  We are routinely force-fed dangerous drugs by medical technicians who don’t know our names, much less our medical records, with barely a thought to either “informed” or  “consent.” We fight to stay out of hospitals – not jails, hospitals — with bars on the windows, guards in the halls, surrounded with razor-wire.

And we’re routinely shot — often killed — in encounters with cops, an immovable force of instant death.

Consider Marcus Lagozzino, 34.  In late December of last year, Lagozzino was shot and critically injured in what was termed a “suicide-by-cop.” It was the sixth Portland officer-involved shooting of 2010. Of those six, two of the victims were black. Four were white. All were in crisis from acute mental illness or untreated addiction. Except for Lagozzino, all are now dead.  (Lagozzino was lodged in a locked treatment facility; multiple felony charges await.)

Consider those who go to jail in our city.  The most common class of prisoners, perhaps as many as 90%, are persons who are drunk, loaded, or crazy.  In jail there is little psychiatric treatment, less respect, and shrugged-off brutality — but in some ways, to some of us, it is still better than the hospitals.

And no doubt we cause plenty of problems.  We do crazy things all the time; it’s in our nature. At least, those of us who cannot get access to medical treatment do crazy things — and those of us who continue to try treatment after treatment, to no avail.

For those who find and can pay for treatment, those for whom a treatment works (or those who’ve learned by craft or hard experience to conform), it is still a difficult life – but one that is rarely marked by violence against others. Statistically, individuals with mental illness are more likely to be victims than victimizers.

Yet people with active mental illness and/or addiction make up, by far, the largest part of our crime prevention problem.  So: How do we address this medical, social, experiential, very human problem?

The most expensive, least effective response to mental illness is the law: cops, courts and jails.

The least expensive, most effective response is treatment – an effective bio-psycho-social intervention immediately available for the asking.

We approach through the worst means possible, and the high black irony of this vortex of reason is the euphemism, “suicide-by-cop.” When you hear this term of art, does it not come with a smirk of condescension for both the “suicide” and the officers claiming, by inference, that a psychotic person caused themselves to die with a bullet from the officer’s gun?  Does it not come with a general unease that there, but for some broken-brain chemical accident, go… you?

Recent examples, from the Portland area

Jesse Weatherford, 22, lived in an apartment with his mother Alice.  Neighbors described him as “despondent.”  Late on a June afternoon in 2009, he called his mother, saying, “Mom, I’ve cut myself again. I’ve called police. Mom, I love you. And goodbye.”  He then called Milwaukie police.

Officers encountered Jesse, covered in blood, in the parking lot. When he was unresponsive to their commands, Sgt. Tom Broomfield and Officer Luke Strait fired, striking him twice in the chest. Later, the officers said Jesse had a “big knife.”  Witnesses saw no knife.

The cause of Jesse’s death, ruled Medical Examiner Larry Lewman, was suicide. “His actions precipitated this, both slitting his wrist and the subsequent activity,” said Lewman. Autopsy results showed Jesse Weatherford died from two gunshot wounds to the chest.

Jack Dale Collins, 58, was cutting himself in the bathroom at Hoyt Aboretum on March 22, 2010, when Portland Police Officer Jason Walters responded to reports of a disturbance. Collins emerged from the bathroom holding a pencil-type X-Acto knife. He did not seem to understand Walters’ commands to stop until the third one, when he said, “No, I won’t.”

In a statement, Walters later described Collins as “shuffling” forward, while Walters was backing up; they were about 8-10 feet apart when, as Walters said later, “I felt had no other option.” Less than three minutes after arriving, Officer Walters shot four times, killing Collins.

Eleven days before he was killed, Jackie Collins had walked into Central Precinct, confessing to a crime that officers believed, according to their report, was imaginary. Collins then asked officers if they could help him get psychiatric help. Police advised him to contact a certain agency. No one knows if he tried.

Thomas Higginbotham, 67, was often drunk, including the afternoon of Jan. 2, 2011, when Portland Police Officers Jason Lile and Larry Wingfield responded to the abandoned Lucky Car Wash on 82nd Avenue and Powell, on reports a security guard had been threatened.

Based on grand jury testimony, as reported in The Oregonian, Wingfield and Lile knew they were looking for a man, about 60 years old, wearing a red coat, blue jeans and known to carry a knife. The security guard wanted him arrested for trespassing. The officers were directed to an office where Higginbotham “camped” (with, it seems, some awareness by, or informal agreement with, the building’s owner). The office door was locked.

"We approach through the worst means possible, and the high black irony of this vortex of reason is the euphemism, 'suicide-by-cop.'" (Image: lucasmopdx/

“We approach through the worst means possible, and the high black irony of this vortex of reason is the euphemism, ‘suicide-by-cop.'” (Image: lucasmopdx/

Wingfield knocked, and said, “Tom, this is Officer Wingfield. Portland police. We just want to talk to you. If you could come out and talk to us, that would be great.” No response. Wingfield asked a bystander, “Hey, this guy got any weapons in there?” He was told yes, he does have weapons – he’s a Vietnam vet. Tom Higginbotham added from behind the closed door, “Oh yeah, I got a weapon all right.”

“That’s when everything changed for me,” Wingfield would later testify.

Wingfield and Lile backed up, and drew their guns. Higginbotham came out of the office with a knife. He did not respond to their commands to drop it.

Officer Wingfield said afterwards in his statement:  “He steps out and he’s looking at me, and he’s got the eyes of like a shark. He looks mad. He looks angry…I knew he was going to make us shoot him.

“I started getting mad, getting angry that he was going to make us do that.”

Officer Lile used his Taser. Then Wingfield, eight feet away from the man with the knife, fired seven shots. Lile fired five.

Three minutes after officers arrived on the scene, Higginbotham was dead. He was buried with military honors. At time of death, his blood alcohol content was 0.26. The grand jury found there was no criminal wrongdoing by the officers. It was said by many, including The Oregonian, to be a likely example of “suicide by cop.”

Officer Wingfield testified to the grand jury that “he had no options left. ‘The only thing left was shoot him…We didn’t want to shoot him.’”

What is this, “suicide-by-cop”?

The manufactured idea, “suicide-by-cop,” implies several conditions – all false.

1. That violent suicide is a rational, reasonable state of mind. That a suicidal person is determined and unswerving from suicide.  Or, that suicide is an impulsive conclusion to avoid capture.
2. That police officers are entirely unwilling participants, with little or no choice but to comply with suicidal demands.
3. That suicidal people repeatedly trick or connive or stage situations where they cause lethal force to be used against themselves, and because of this fearsome trickery, police officers are not responsible for their lethal actions.

While it’s important to remember the vast majority of police contact comes without violence of any sort, when lethal force is used, most often, in the last many years, in Portland and throughout the U.S. —  it’s directed at someone in crisis.

It seems such a problem of timing. The cops arrive in the midst of a crisis and “have no choice” but to use violence. What if they came an hour earlier? Or a day earlier? What if there was a worthwhile community mental health system which would anticipate crisis and manage it versus stick their heads in the sand? What if that worthwhile community mental health system could come a day or a week or a month prior to the crisis?

For some with an active mental illness, thoughts about suicide are routine, persistent and persuasive.  Many in our community despair and suffer without end. Considering the facts of their lives — or their lives as they seem, that moment — death may be a considered option.

At these moments there are actually very few things on one’s mind – very few things that make sense. “Will this kill me?” If a police officer is involved – likely yes. “Will it be fast? I don’t want to suffer.” In this situation – you probably won’t. “Will I miss the shot, and end up a vegetable?” Not if a cop does it.

And – “Will they do it? Will the cops actually go through with it? — I don’t want them thinking about my safety; I don’t want them hesitating and getting all compassionate. I don’t want this to end at the hospital.” These days, by history, in Portland – you don’t have to worry.

Why can’t someone — cops, or anyone else — come just a little earlier? Jesse Weatherford had, that same day, run his car into a tree, leaving no skid marks. Jack Dale Collins, 11 days prior, walked into a police precinct and asked for mental health treatment.

When a person wants to die, confused and barely thinking at all, should our police officers help them accomplish it? Should they then say, “It was that person’s fault. They were suicidal. I had no choice” ?

Sgt. Anthony McDowell is laid to rest. (Image:

Sgt. Anthony McDowell is laid to rest. (Image:

Perhaps the most poignant example is what happened — just two months ago at this writing — to Tony McDowell, 50, a decorated veteran for whom grand jury transcripts show full participation, on his part, in a complex and comprehensive treatment process, through the VA, for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his service in Iraq. He went to groups, he took medication, he had full understanding of his condition.  And he despaired.  And he suffered.  And he wanted very much to die.

According to those transcripts, Gresham officers Matthew Galbreath and Jason Justus felt sufficiently threatened to oblige, shooting Tony on his front lawn, in front of his wife and 13-year-old daughter.  The lawyers will sort it out. Here is part of what we know:

“Tony McDowell DID NOT ‘confront’ the police with a gun,” the McDowell family statement reads. “He walked out of the house holding a rifle up over his head with both hands. Within seconds, he was shot and killed. He did not even know that police were outside. There were no marked cars, no flashing lights and no sirens.”

Looking at it

More and more, whenever there’s an officer, and a person with mental illness or addiction, and then death of that person in crisis — by police bullet — we hear it called “suicide-by-cop.”

Tear the term apart and note how copwatcher Dan Handelman reframes the language, “No matter what they say, it is a homicide when one person (a cop or anyone else) kills another person using such violent means.”

So what’s the solution?  Perhaps this — a solution with at least five parts.

The first is to help the general community understand that the City’s legal defense of lethal use of force begins in police academy. It is then reinforced by hiring, training, supervision, policy, union contract and legislation.

Second, concede the following: Reform through political channels is ineffective.  Bureaucracy fails us; both elected and appointed leaders remain spellbound by stigma.  Concede also our community finds no justice via grand jury.  The last Portland police officer charged and convicted in a similar situation was Steven Sims, who in 1969 murdered his girlfriend’s husband while in uniform.  The most effective strategy to affect police policy and procedure: Legal action by survivors in civil court.

Third, encourage a public conversation about the qualities of “suicides-by-cop.” Our group, Mental Health Association of Portland, helps by illuminating such cases – including James Chasse, Jr, in 2008, Aaron Campbell in 2009 and Dwayne Ferguson in 2011. Our archive shows over 160 such police shootings and deaths in the Portland area since 1975.

Fourth must be an attempt to understand the experience of persons with mental illness. It is, in part, a nascent civil rights movement, immature and disorganized now. Our timeline may occur over the horizon of our lifespan; our Barack Obama, likely, not yet a twinkle in his grandfather’s eye.

Finally – our state has been pennywise and pound-foolish for decades in providing effective treatment for persons with addiction and mental illness.  The cumulative public and private costs to respond to these urgencies, in Oregon, during FY 2012, could be over a billion dollars.  We probably don’t need to spend more, but we need to be smarter – not filled with fear and retribution.

We need, first, and now, justice. A passing glance. A range of effective treatment options available to any person, as needed and wanted.

These critical, immediate needs, when answered, will be — for us, for you, for every citizen — the beginning.