Suicide By Cop 101

A few free lessons for Surf Citys Finest, courtesy of the Newport Beach PD

If they want to avoid fatally shooting another young adult armed with a knife, Huntington Beach's finest might want to consider having a quick chat with Newport Beach Police Officer John Mika and his partners.

On April 27, Mika and four other officers responded to a 911 call from a distraught woman saying that her 22-year-old son had grabbed a kitchen knife and wanted to commit suicide by cop. When they arrived, the officers immediately spotted the man standing on an outdoor, second-story balcony, waving the knife above his head.

"Go ahead, fucking shoot me!" he yelled. "I want to die!"

Within five minutes, Mika had talked the woman's son into dropping the knife without harming anyone. He and his partners then quietly arranged for the man to be taken to a nearby hospital for a mental-health evaluation. While the incident may not seem particularly noteworthy, it bears striking resemblance to what happened last August, when two Huntington Beach cops responding to a 911 call approached Ashley MacDonald, an 18-year-old woman armed with a pen knife standing in the middle of an empty park.

Although she posed no immediate threat to anyone but herself, the pair closed in on MacDonald with weapons drawn and ordered her to drop the knife. Contradicting eyewitness accounts, the officers claim she rushed at them with the blade, thus giving them no choice but to unload 15 bullets into the suicidal teenager (see "Inside the Kill Zone," March 15). Because MacDonald was within 20 feet of the two officers, the district attorney's office said the shooting was legal, if not particularly commendable.

So: Two tense situations, one involving a suicidal 19-year-old woman standing in an empty park with a knife and one involving a suicidal 22-year-old man waving a knife on a balcony while his mom cowered inside the apartment. A quick review of how Mika and his partners handled the situation provides a free—yet priceless—lesson that Surf City's finest would be well-advised to follow.

First, instead of sending two officers armed with only handguns and riot batons to the scene, Newport Beach Police sent a total of five officers armed with Tasers, bean-bag shotguns and a 40 mm launcher capable of firing a tear-gas canister or a large rubber bullet. That's a total of three less-than-lethal weapons that officers could employ before resorting to a hail of gunfire to defend themselves against a kitchen knife.

"One of the concerns was, if he runs back into the house, [that means] there is a threat to the mom's life," said Sgt. Evan Sailor, a public information officer for the Newport Beach Police Department. "At that point we will have to run into the house and prevent him from harming Mom. And even when you have officers with non-lethal technology, you still need to have at least one officer with a lethal firearm. So you have one officer doing verbal negotiations, one officer with a Taser, one with a shotgun, and one with lethal cover. Everyone has their assignments."

Lesson number two: Unlike the two cops who shot MacDonald, Mika and his partners kept their distance from the suspect. "We want distance and space, because distance is reaction time," Sailor said. "The further away we are, the more time we have. If you are three feet away from me, we don't have much choice if you run at us with a knife. But if you are 20 to 30 feet away and we can hide behind a wall or something, then we don't have to shoot you."

Lesson three: Unlike the two cops who approached MacDonald with their weapons drawn, ordering her to drop the knife, the officer (Mika) who was talking to the suspect wasn't pointing a gun at him. At first, the man continued to taunt the officers. "I want to die," he said. "I want to go to another life." According to Sgt. Sailor, Mika made it clear to the suspect that if he didn't drop the knife, one of his partners would have no choice but to use the Taser. "We will tell them what we want and what we will do," Sailor explained. "If you don't drop the knife, we will use the Taser."

At that point, the suspect apparently realized he wasn't going to be able to commit suicide by cop. He was either going to drop the knife and get arrested, or get dropped with an electrical shock and then arrested. "Luckily, he complied and dropped the knife," Sailor said.

Although all five officers—Brad Green, Brian Schlottach, Bryan Gregson, Mike O'Beirn, and Mika—received commendations from their department, the incident never made the newspapers. In fact, Newport Beach cops refused to make Mika or his partners available for interviews because they didn't want to highlight the individual actions of any particular officer. The Weekly learned about the incident only from an anonymous source who felt what happened deserved publicity because of its similarity—in how the incident began, if not how it ended—with the tragic shooting of MacDonald in Huntington Beach.

Newport Beach Police also refused to release the name of the suspect because of privacy concerns stemming from his mental-health status, and they never typed up a press release about the officers' heroic actions. For his part, Sgt. Sailor refused to comment on the MacDonald shooting because he was unfamiliar with the details of the incident and the policies of the Huntington Beach Police Department at the time. He said the Newport Beach cops were just doing their job. "All we wanted to do was get the guy the help he needed, and luckily that is what happened. It was the teamwork that led to what we call a peaceful resolution—nobody injured, neither the cops, the mom, nor the suspect. And we brought him where he needed to be."

nschou@ocweekly.com

 
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