If you or someone you know are in crisis, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached anytime by calling 988.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For police, they are among the most dangerous and unpredictable encounters — calls of suicide by cop.
Since early June, officers in Ottawa County have shot and killed two reportedly suicidal men, both armed with guns.
Last week, police in Grand Rapids said they arrested a barricaded man who had vowed not to be taken alive.
“It’s more common than you hear about, and it’s dangerous, it’s terrifying,” Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom said.
Experts say at least one in 10 officer-involved shootings in the U.S. are suicide by cops. They kill about 100 people a year.
Glendale, Ohio, police officer Josh Hilling’s encounter with a suicidal murder suspect, captured on his body camera, went viral in 2016.
Hilling, just three months on the job full-time, had stopped to help a man walking along Interstate 75. He didn’t know he was wanted for murder in Maryland.
“You can’t walk on the highway,” Hilling told the man.
The man pulled a knife as Hilling prepared to pat him down. Hilling fired a quick shot that struck the man in the abdomen, but the man got back up waved a knife at the officer and, later, at his backups.
“Kill me, kill me, kill me now, kill me,” the man said as he walked toward the officer.
“He states ‘kill me’ over 40 times,” the officer told Target 8 in an interview. “I was in a life-or-death situation.”
The officer repeatedly yelled at the man to get down, to drop the knife.
“Let us help you. Drop the knife. Let us help you,” he said.
After three minutes of this, a stun gun finally knocked him down.
Seven years later, the officer is helping to train police across the country. He helped develop new “suicide by cop” protocols for the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a research group that includes police chiefs and sheriffs nationwide.
The protocols urge calm, but safety first, and suggest talking not yelling.
“To me, yelling ‘drop the knife, drop the knife’ is not going to get me anywhere,” Hilling said.
It also suggests that officers doing the talking lower their gun, if possible.
“If I’m pointing my gun at you and you’re looking down the bottom of the barrel, and I’m here telling, ‘Hey, I’m here to help, what can I do to help?’ you’re not focusing on one thing that I’m saying, you’re looking at that gun.
“I think of them as a patient, they’re not a suspect, they’re not a subject. They’re a patient, and what do patients need? Patients need help. So you are there to help somebody.”
Last Wednesday in Grand Rapids, a man wanted for absconding on parole and assault barricaded himself in a northeast side home. He was armed with a box cutter.
“He says over and over, ‘You’re going to have to kill me, you’re going to have to kill me,'” Chief Winstrom said.
Grand Rapids Special Response Team officers, working with one of the department’s embedded social workers, talked him out six hours later.
“If you have the patience, which our SRT team certainly has, you know, we have the sanctity of life policy here, we always use time as a tactic,” Winstrom said. “If we can take time instead of taking a deadly force option, we’re going to take that here.”
But, the chief said: “The game changes if it’s a gun.”
Hilling, the Glendale, Ohio, police officer, agrees.
“Once somebody’s armed with a firearm, all bets are off,” he said.
Police said that’s what happened in Ottawa County in recent weeks.
On July 9, Grand Haven police shot and killed a 66-year-old suicidal man armed with a rifle outside Trinity Grand Haven Hospital.
Police say it happened so quickly they couldn’t get a social worker out to help.
They didn’t release his name or many details, but a death certificate shows he had worked as a truck driver. He suffered gunshot wounds to the head and torso. He had no criminal history.
A month earlier, on June 10, police say a 28-year-old man threatened to kill others and himself before pointing a gun at responding officers, police said. An Ottawa County deputy shot and killed him with a rifle.
It happened after 10 p.m. on River Avenue off Baldwin Street in Georgetown Township — the sound of the fatal shot captured by a Grandville police body cam.
Police haven’t released his name. His only criminal record was for using marijuana.
But six years ago, according to court records, he armed himself with a knife and threatened suicide in front of police. A diagnosis of major depressive disorder and suicidal ideation led to court-ordered mental health treatment.
His death certificate shows he was a wrecker driver. He died of a gunshot wound to the chest.
“I was sitting here watching TV and all I did was hear a couple of shots, around a minute apart,” neighbor Mike Bauer said.
The neighbor still has questions since Ottawa County deputies don’t wear body cameras.
“It depends on if the gun is pointed at them and they feel endangered, then I feel they have the right to do it,” he said. “But if he had the gun at his side, or pointing it up in the air…”
The families of both men declined to comment.