Convoluted Brian

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The Importance of Understanding

Suicide by Cop?

On 21 April 2007, Green Bay Police shot and killed a fleeing suspect. The homicide of Ben Sonnenberg was found to be justified. An innocent bystander in a nearby bar was shot in the chest.

Green Bay Police Chief Jim Arts emphasized suicide by cop. Maybe that is true. There was the surreptitiously recorded statement by the homicide victim’s sister that could be made to fit the theory. Yet, it seems that it was not typical of those incidents labeled as such. This was a spur of the moment act by the inebriated victim that lead to his homicide. Brown County District Attorney John Zakowski downplayed the suicide by cop issue in his report.

There are other issues here. First is whether deadly force is needed once a suspect turns and flees. A second is how is it that bullets depart from the scene and strikes or nearly strikes innocent persons? The claim of suicide by cop obscures these.

Many witness statements said that Sonnenberg jumped from the vehicle and pointed something at officers. Statements also indicated that a sound that could be construed as a gunshot was heard at the start of the incident.

The decision to use force is not always clear cut. In 1998, Manitowoc city patrolman Ten Haken was killed during a traffic stop when two teenagers decided they were not going to jail. Frequently there is no doubt that the use of deadly force was justified, and the necessity was apparent. We do want our police officer living.

But, there have been well‑publicized incidents when the response was completely excessive or not warranted. Or, the response went awry.

A November, 2006 incident in New York City demonstrates the problem. Here, officers fired fifty rounds killing an unarmed person and wounding two others in the vehicle from which the homicide victim fled. At least two rounds fired by police went far afield from the scene; one bullet struck the window of a home, another entered an elevated train platform, breaking a window.

In the melee, the homicide victim was struck by twenty‑one shots. One officer fired thirty‑one shots; another fired eleven. The remaining three officers present fired four, three, and one shots each.

The New York mayor condemned the shootings before any fact finding took place. The were theories of contagious shooting to explain the event.

Several years ago, I was attending a local Moody Blues concert. Uniformed Appleton city police were hired to provide security. I was part of a crowd leaving after the end. We rounded a corner and were headed down a sidewalk. There was a group of about five officers standing on and around the sidewalk in the path of the throng. One of the officers ordered everyone off the sidewalk and down a grassy slope. Immediately, the other officers joined in the ordering.

We were law abiding and stepped down the slope. There was no one in a wheelchair or using a walker as far as I could see. This is a trivial example, but one that helps to think about the problem.

First, the order was thoughtless. The security detail was bunched around a right of way rather than observing the crowds for potential problems. I’m not expecting every order or direction given by law enforcement to be sensible since part of being human is being fallible. But, proper training and direction by leaders would pick up on these small incidents.

Next, there is not an easy way for another member of the group to suggest a different way. There is no place for an argument to occur since that would truly make a situation worse in several respects. A code word as a heads up might be useful to at least give a pause. And as part of a community, the members will act and react without thinking.

This was not a shooting situation. If there no mechanism to take corrective behavior in a benign circumstance, there will be none to correct a very stressful situation.

In the Green Bay homicide, the shots were better distributed that the New York shootings. Thirty‑three rounds were fired with eleven striking the victim. One officer fired eleven times, one nine times, one seven times, and one six times. Seven bullets struck Sonnenberg as he was fleeing.

Like the New York incident, some rounds went wild. Here, an innocent was struck and wounded.

The suicide by cop theory is a convenient explanation. It might have some substance. But that does explain why so many shots hit the victim as he fled. Nor does it explain the shots that went wild.

This is an opportunity for the Green Bay Police Chief to look for better and more controlled responses in the future. Certainly in high risk situations the best defense is prior training and lots of drills. This preparation can protect all of us in future incidents. Unfortunately, the behavior so far has been a continued undermining of the victim.

And the Chief should keep in mind the fickle nature of the press and public. Next time, a person could be killed or wounded where the press determines that their value is greater than some poor males. And the fickle finger of blame will point at his department.

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by Brian McCorkle
posted on 4 June, 2007 at 10:17 am
in category Criminal Justice,Seeking Perspective

Too often the reaction to a shooting of a suspect by police is blame. That is; blame the police or blame the victim. But, if no attempt is made examine each incident thoroughly and without preconceived notions, nothing will be learned.

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