'Suicide by cop' incidents highlight concern for mental health

It didn’t happen once, but twice.

Within a week, two men were shot by Howard County police after antagonizing officers with knives.

In each incident, there were calls to stand down. Each time, the victims refused.

Each time family members reported that the victims needed psychiatric help. There was even talk of suicide.

For mental health experts, the term “suicide by cop” can be a life threatening  reality for those who want to end their lives.

It can also be a hard concept for police, who are attempting to balance the safety of the community with the need to help those in need.

In the last five years, there have been a total seven police involved shootings in Howard County, which includes the two last week.

Dr. Elizabeth Stullar, a psychiatrist at Medstar Union Memorial hospital, said it’s not uncommon for those who are suicidal to consider calling police to end their life.

RELATED: Another suicidal man provokes police

“I’ve  heard this considered many times,” she said. “They know law enforcement will use  deadly force if they have to.”

Stullar said one misconception people have about suicide is the rate at which occurs.

“For every homicide, they are at least two suicides,” she said. “The reality at which this happens is pretty shocking.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, on average, the USA will have 15,000 homicides a year. Suicides are more than double that number, with over 39,000 reported last year.

“Sometimes an officer doesn’t have much of a choice, when put in a life-threatening situation,” Stullar said. “After they shoot, that’s when the thinking begins, not in the moment.”

Mary Phelan, spokesperson for Howard County police, said police involved shootings are rare, but when they occur, the they are investigated to ensure officers acted accordingly.

Officers are also trained to handle calls that involve  someone who might need mental health services.

Last year Howard police hired a mental health liaison in the force to coordinate resources available to repeat callers who might need mental health services.

RELATED: Howard County police forced to shoot suicidal man

“ When police officers are called to situations where a person is exhibiting signs or has a history of mental illness, they forward that information to our mental health liaison so she can contact the person or family to make referrals to mental health services,” Phelan said.  

The aim of the program is to reduce repeat calls for mental health services. The two men who were shot last week were not repeat callers, Phelan said.

The first shooting occurred on Aug. 20 in the 760 block of Coachlight Lane in Ellicott City. Around 1:30 p.m. Darren Friedman,45, stabbed himself before confronting police with a knife.

After  repeatedly threatening police, officers shot him. He later died on the way while at the hospital.

The second incident occurred Saturday  when police were called to the 5000 block of Montgomery Road in Ellicott City.

When officers arrived they confronted Hernan Milton Ossorio, 61, with a knife in the front yard. An officer used a taser gun on him, but the suspect ran back into the house.

Moments later he came back outside armed with a knife and began approaching officers. After warning the man several times to drop the knife, two officers shot him to death, police said.

Pfc. Russell DiAngelo, 25, a member of HCPD for four years, and officer Susannah Raff, 22, who joined the department last year, were the officers who responded and fired their weapons.

John L. Grumbach, president of the Association of Baltimore County Retired Police, Inc. said the effects of police-involved shootings linger for years for an officer.

“We are there to protect,” he said. “I’m a former officer...any  incident with a gun stays with you.”

To cope with the issue, Grumbach said there needs to be more of an understanding of mental illness and more of a willing of society to talk about it.

“This still is a hard concept to come by,” he said.

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