October 17, 1996 * Vol . 7, No. 4
'Death by cop'
A criminology student examines the use of deadly force by police
The split second it takes for a cop to squeeze a trigger is perhaps the
most widely seen and least understood event of our time. The image is conjured
up endlessly on TV and in movies; each real-life
incident is covered sensationally by some media.
A new SFU study adds significantly to the understanding of what really happens
and what should be done. It examines the phenomenon of victim-precipitated
homicide, also known as "suicide by cop." And it makes recommendations
regarding firearms and training.
The research -- Aspects of Police Use of Deadly Force in British Columbia:
The Phenomenon of
Victim-Precipitated Homicide -- was conducted by Rick Parent (above),
a 17-year veteran of the Delta Police Department, for an MA thesis in criminology.
He is currently an instructor in the Police Academy at the Justice Institute
of B.C. and is studying for a PhD at the university.
The thesis analyses 58 documented incidents in B.C., from 1980 to 1994,
in which police officers
were confronted by a potentially lethal threat. In 27 of these incidents,
police responded by discharging
their firearms and killing 28 people. Roughly half of these cases are victim-precipitated
homicide. In the remaining 31 cases, police responded with less-than-lethal
"The underlying reasons and causes for police use of deadly force and
potential deadly force were studied," explains Parent, who was partly
motivated by personal involvement in such an incident six years ago.
"I examined incidents of lethal threats which at times resulted in
victim-precipitated homicides," he says. "In these cases, police
were confronted in a calculated and deliberate manner by people who were
suffering from one, or a combination of, suicidal tendencies, mental illness,
and substance abuse."
At times, victims cause or con-tribute to a police shooting by intentionally
or unintentionally provoking police, he adds. "In many cases, suicidal
individuals have engaged in life-threatening behavior in order to force
the police to kill them."
Parent examined police investigations, coroner's inquests and B.C. Police
Commission data involving municipal and RCMP personnel. Most importantly,
he interviewed 34 police officers.
"I focused on their perception of how the perceived lethal threat unfolded
before their eyes," he says. "Secondly, I asked that, as they
faced it, what course of action did they take and why?"
Included in the study's framework were psychological, physiological, physical
and emotional issues relating to critical incident stress and post-shooting
effects. These are traditionally avoided during police
investigations and in court, and go beyond the scope of typical police and
"These incidents are tragic and emotionally traumatic experiences for
police officers," he reports. "There is real devastation that
can affect the officer and his family, along with a myriad of other problems
which are too often ignored. In the aftermath, police officers are frequently
"victims" of the shooting process and that's vastly different
from the common and casual, macho displays on TV and in movies."
Parent stresses that police use of deadly force is a rare occurrence in
B.C., despite highly publicized recent incidents. As well, in the racially
and culturally mixed province, he could find no evidence that these incidents
were racially motivated.
He strongly advocates finding further alternatives to traditional firearms,
recognizing that in some instances the police are faced with no choice but
to use deadly force.
"Devices such as pepper spray, net guns, glue guns, Taser guns - which
discharge electric probes -- and grappling poles/shields have been used
in other countries, and they should be considered in B.C.," he says.
"Also, the training of police must continue to emphasize non-violent
strategies in dealing with individuals who are suicidal, intoxicated and/or
mentally ill," he concludes.
© Simon Fraser University, Media and Public Relations