Before George Quinn wrapped a chain around the rafters of his wood shop and hanged himself in June, he texted his big sister goodbye.
“This is the hardest part,” wrote the reclusive 63-year-old master carpenter, who lived alone with his elderly cat, Sam, in this Northern California mountain town. “Sorry for everything. You should call the Plumas Co sheriff and have them go to the garage.”
Carol Quinn dialed law enforcement from her home near Reno, more than an hour away, desperate for authorities to save her brother’s life.
The answer she received was startling: Deputies were no longer responding to calls like hers, because the situation could end as a “suicide by cop.”
“Go to the garage” could hint at an ambush, a deputy told her. She would have to try to reach her brother on her own.
“We were flabbergasted,” Carol said. “I think almost anyone assumes when you call the sheriff’s office for help that you’re going to get some help. And they refused to go.”
Plumas County is not the only jurisdiction in California that is rethinking how it responds to suicide calls. Some small and midsize law enforcement agencies across the state have stopped responding to certain calls because of the potential dangers, both to officers and the person attempting to end his or her life. They also present a financial liability from lawsuits, especially if the situation turns violent.
Other agencies, including the police departments of Los Angeles and San Francisco and the L.A. County sheriff, use “disengagement” strategies that allow them to leave calls without confronting someone in crisis. These tactics are used most often when the person is alone and does not present a threat to anyone else, and no crime is being committed.
“In too many instances, we show up and further aggravate a crisis situation,” Plumas County Sheriff-Coroner Greg Hagwood said. “And then, in the end, bad things happen.”
Some fear that, as police stand down, civilians will be left to handle difficult and potentially dangerous situations alone. But Hagwood and others in law enforcement say the profession must examine its legal and moral obligations in an era when use of force is under intense scrutiny and there is increased pressure to curtail deadly police incidents.
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A bill on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would toughen the state’s rules governing when officers can use lethal force. It mimics civil case law, which, for years, has allowed examinations of officers’ behavior leading up to fatal encounters. For many law enforcement officers, evolving expectations combined with rising numbers of mental health calls mean changing, and potentially limiting, what they do.
“We can’t always be everything to everyone all the time,” Hagwood said.
The fear of encountering a suicide-by-cop event — when a person deliberately takes actions, such as brandishing a weapon, that prompt officers to use deadly force — is especially worrying. In a 2009 study of more than 700 officer-involved shootings nationwide, 36% of incidents were determined to be attempts at provoking officers to use deadly force.
Other studies have found that 10% to 46% of police shootings involved suicide-by-cop attempts — though the definition of what constitutes a suicide by cop is controversial. Critics say the term is too often used to justify police violence. In the 2009 study, researchers found police killed the suicidal person more than half of the time and injured the person in 40% of encounters. The suicidal person was unharmed in only 3% of police encounters.
“Police are right in assessing these (calls) are significantly dangerous,” said John Reid Meloy, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and author of the nationwide study. “This is not a rare event.” Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said stepping back from some suicide calls is “definitely a source of conversation in the police profession” and happens as a practice rather than a formal policy at many departments.
It is a protocol he uses as chief of Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Departments including those in Mono and Lake counties and the city of Hemet also are selective in answering calls, said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County deputy and statewide police trainer who championed the policy in his county. There is no statewide data on how agencies handle suicide calls, but Obayashi said the hands-off approach is increasingly common.
“Walking away, that is really counterintuitive for police to do,” said Lawrence, the statewide police chiefs leader. “But we have just learned through evolution that sometimes police presence is not the answer.”
But the idea of not responding sits hard with some. When staffers brought the suggestion to Hagwood, the Plumas County sheriff, he thought it was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.
“It initially ran against every sensibility in my body because I’ve always subscribed to when people call needing help, we will go,” Hagwood said. He calls George Quinn’s death “sobering.”