Daniel Chilson’s life was difficult, darkened by mental illness and peppered with failure and violence. He was in the midst of his second divorce. His wife had obtained a restraining order against him. He had been fired from his job just days earlier and, on an industrial road in Ventura, kept police at bay during a 12-hour standoff. In the early hours of Nov. 15, Chilson was shot to death after brandishing what appeared to be a hand gun by three members of the Ventura Police Department in what is being called a suicide by cop.
It would be expected that any time an officer is involved in a shooting, the incident will have an emotional impact on his or her life, both on the job and at home. Chilson’s shooting is a recent example of a trend that has gathered momentum during the past decade. A landmark study released earlier this year in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that more than one-third of police shootings in North America can be classified as suicide by cop.
Kris Mohandie Ph. D. of Pasadena co-authored the study and said that despite his many years working on the front lines with the Los Angeles Police Department in the Behavioral Science Unit, the study’s conclusions were surprisingly high to him. And each time it occurs, Mohandie said, the real victim is the officer.
Mohandie defined suicide by cop: “A person who engages in apparent risk of serious injury or harm to another as a component of their desire to have police use deadly force against them.”
There is a pattern of how officers cope. “There is a rule of thumb of thirds,” Mohandie said. “A third of officers will be generally OK after an incident, a third are going to have transitory issues that then will pass, and a third will go through something more significant like post traumatic stress syndrome.”
Expecting the unexpected
Police officers enter the field of law enforcement knowing they will be trained to face danger. But no amount of training can adequately prepare an officer for what he or she will feel when confronted with a suicidal individual. That is where skilled counseling before and after such a situation is key to the officer’s ability to respond appropriately and cope with the aftermath.
Mohandie said he not only counseled officers who had been involved in shootings, but he also testified in court when an officer was criminally charged. One case in which the officer was charged with manslaughter after shooting an unarmed man alerted Mohandie to the need for a more thorough understanding of what was happening out in the field. The officer was found not guilty.
Mohandie chose to create a study that would provide empirical evidence on the prevalence of suicide by cop. It was intended to give the courts and community a better grasp of what officers face. Of the 707 police shootings in North America between 2001 and 2006 documented in the study, 256 of them, or 36 percent, qualified as suicide by cop.
Increased danger for cops on the scene
The reality for many officers is, they will never unholster their weapons during an entire career. However, when confronted with a suicidal individual, the nature of the job is transformed from one of protecting and serving into one of killing in order to stay alive.
The level of danger to responding officers in a suicidal situation is extremely high. “There’s this whole mistaken notion that a suicidal person is only a danger to themselves,” Mohandie said. “But what people forget is, there is another side to that equation. Are they dangerous to others? Well, yeah. Most of them are armed with a weapon, either a firearm or a knife. Those that have a weapon are highly likely to attempt to be using it.”
And the chances of someone besides the suicidal person being hurt or killed are more than one might expect. “There’s a one-in-three likelihood that another person is going to be injured or killed during the incident. One-in-three doesn’t sound like good chances to me,” Mohandie said.
Suicidal tendencies and serious mental illness often go hand in hand. Understanding one aids in understanding the other. Officers certainly require training on how to talk to someone who is mentally unstable in a way that can defuse a difficult situation. But that training may not always be effective.
“There is this misconception that if we provide everybody with the perfect training, that somehow is going to resolve all of these incidents peacefully. The problem is, it forgets one very important variable and that is the person you are dealing with. You can try all of these things perfectly and it falls on deaf ears of someone that doesn’t want to hear it.”
Police officers are taught how to control a situation. “Attorneys, the public, the media sometimes fail to take into account the responsibility of the individual who is creating the situation,” Mohandie said. “They are the ones that are behaving, and the officers, unfortunately, are in the position of having to react to that.”
When a suicide by cop occurs, the officer often feels perplexed at the actions of the individual, confused as to why it wasn’t obvious that violence would be the outcome. It just doesn’t make sense. Others feel angry and frustrated.
“No person, let alone a police officer, wants to play a part in somebody else’s self-destruction,” Mohandie said. “So the knowledge of it can leave a person feeling used and angry that they were made to participate in this very ugly occurrence. Nobody wants to have blood on their hands.”
Before the phrase “suicide by cop” existed
On the evening of Nov. 9, 1987, a bloody and senseless rampage was about to begin in a narrow, dimly lit hallway of a Santa Barbara residential hotel. It housed people on the fringes of society. One such resident — a man with 80 percent of his body covered in burn scars — decided that the other residents were playing their stereos and televisions too loudly. So he went to the hallway fusebox and began ripping the fuses out, cutting power to the rooms. Someone complained to the front desk. The hotel manager came up and confronted the man, telling him to knock it off. That’s when the machete flashed and the first swing went through the manager’s nose and across his cheek in a sideways strike. As the manager tried to run away, he was struck several more times, nearly losing a finger and taking a strike to the back.
Hearing the commotion in the hallway but unaware of the danger, another resident stepped out of his doorway to see what was happening. The machete came at his neck, striking his jawbone and opening a flap of skin.
Then the attacking resident, machete still in hand, returned to the fuse box and continued to pull out fuses. The first officer on the scene tried to calm him down. When the lethal weapon was once again raised, the officer stepped back and waited for reinforcement to arrive.
That was when Mark Stadler arrived on the scene. Still a rookie and only a few months out of the police academy, Stadler was briefed by the first officer, and they decided to subdue the man with non-lethal means. As soon as the Mace was sprayed, the resident charged Stadler, swinging the machete at him. Stadler was moving backward as he was shooting. The man fell right at his feet.
This description of events has been told and retold by Stadler over the years, mostly to other officers still at the academy. But the incident stunned him. “My initial reaction was anger,” Stadler said. “What was this guy thinking? Why would he do that? He had to have known I was going to shoot him.” And that was Stadler’s introduction to what later became known as suicide by cop.
Stadler said that up until that time, officers in similar situations were not treated well in the immediate aftermath.
“Sometimes they had their weapons taken from them, were put in the back of a patrol car and read their rights, then isolated for a couple of hours,” Stadler said. “They were treated like suspects of a crime. Law enforcement has learned over the years about the damage that we were doing to ourselves.”
Stadler, now a lieutenant with the Ventura Police Department, has been a major force in changing the attitudes of law enforcement departments toward officer-involved shootings. Now, as the shootings are investigated, the possibility of the circumstances being a suicide by cop are not only considered but very heavily weighed. He has accomplished this partially by speaking to officer training classes.
“A year after my shooting, I became a guest speaker at the academy,” Stadler said. “I was able to say to the class, ‘A year ago, I was sitting where you guys are now. And it can happen that fast.’ As an officer, you are trained to become an investigator. But after a shooting, the tables turn on you. You go from being an investigator to being the subject of an investigation. It’s a little bit unsettling when all of a sudden the roles flip on you.”
Stadler continues to be a guest speaker at the academy, and Sgt. Jack Kujawa of the Oxnard Police Department is his speaking partner. Kujawa has much to tell the young officers and said these classes have been the one thing that has kept him from leaving his career in law enforcement.
The wrong place at the wrong time (again and again)
Kujawa knows far more about officer-involved shootings than he ever wanted to know. He knows about suicide by cop, about saving a citizen’s life, and about being shot by a gang member. Kujawa has been involved in three different incidents, and the third one very nearly cost him his life.
In 1998, Kujawa was a patrol officer and stopped a man riding a bicycle at midnight. He had reason to believe the man might be preparing to commit burglary.
“I had no idea the guy was going to attack me,” Kujawa said. “He had a 15-inch screwdriver, which he had ground down to a fine point, and a butcher knife in his waistband.”
The man suddenly sprang at Kujawa. “I was in a struggle for my life with this guy, rolling around on the ground for several seconds trying to keep him from stabbing me before I shot him,” he said. “It was just luck that I got away from that with no injury.”
Kujawa said he had not taken some of his training very seriously up until that point and was surprised how the shooting affected him afterwards. “I thought that it would not be easy but would just be part of the job,” Kujawa said. “I thought I would know exactly what to do. It wasn’t like in the movies where the bad guy tries to hurt the cop and the cop shoots him and it’s all over. It’s not like that at all.”
“Up until then, everybody had done pretty much what I had said. I hadn’t lost a fight. No bad guy had ever gotten the best of me,” Kujawa said. “It was really life-changing. It is never easy to take another human life, it really isn’t.”
The next time Kujawa faced a life and death decision was in 2001 as a member of the SWAT team. He and his partner were staking out a doughnut shop that had been robbed five times. The clerk, weary of being robbed, had a gun. Police believed the suspect would return to rob the doughnut shop again.
As expected, the suspect returned. Then they heard gunshots coming from the store. The clerk had shot the suspect in the face but, despite his serious injury, the suspect had wrestled the gun away from the clerk.
“We went inside and we saw the clerk was being chased around by the robbery suspect,” Kujawa said, “and the suspect had a gun in his hand. He pointed the gun at me and my partner. We both shot him.”
Kujawa said this was an entirely different set of circumstances, and so was his reaction to the shooting. “It didn’t affect me nearly as much,” he said. “We knew that we were more than likely going into a place and getting into a gun battle, but that was our job. Nobody else was hurt, so it was done correctly.”
But no amount of training could prepare Kujawa for what would happen in 2006.
“We decided to make a traffic stop on this vehicle that we saw run a stop sign,” Kujawa said. The passenger began to behave strangely so Kujawa and his temporary partner for the night, Mike Purdy, carefully looked inside the car. When they tried to take the passenger out, he resisted and a struggle ensued.
“He stood up with a gun in his hand and put it right under my chin and pulled the trigger,” Kujawa said. “He shot me right under the chin, right through my neck, and as I was going down, he shot me again in my side. My partner drew his gun and shot the guy right through the heart but he was able to shoot back. He shot Mike through both his knees and his right arm, and then he ran off about half a block before collapsing.”
The gang member was on parole and had been doing methamphetamines for six months. The drug enabled him to continue shooting even after receiving the mortal wound. Kujawa said they did everything by the book when they inspected the car, looking for a weapon, but thinks the gang member must have been sitting on the gun.
“I was very, very lucky to survive,” Kujawa said. “I came back to full duty after four months. I’m a pretty stubborn guy.”
The emotional aftermath from the shooting changed Kujawa’s life. He had been married for eight years to another officer but the strain on his wife while caring for him as well as returning to her own job became too much for either of them to endure. “It turned me into an angry, grumpy person for a long time,” Kujawa said. “When we decided to split up, it was a mutual thing. We realized that things had just changed between us.”
Kujawa has been recognized by his department, having been awarded the Medal of Valor for the doughnut shop shooting and the Purple Heart for the 2006 shooting. “But you know what? I would trade those back in a heartbeat,” Kujawa said. “I live with pain every day. I wake up with it every day. I go to bed with it. It is always, always there.”
Today, Kujawa is still struggling with the emotional toll that the job has taken. “You are told to get on with life, to get back to work, to get over it. But it’s really hard to do. People have a lot of expectations of you, and you don’t want to let them down.”
“I’ve asked myself why I stay in this job because things seem to keep happening to me. It’s just constant, the wrong place at the wrong time.”