Experts debate whether deadly Fort Mill shooting was 'suicide by cop'

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comApril 9, 2014 

York County Deputies responded to this house on Lurecliff Place off Pleasant Road in Fort Mill to conduct a well-being a check prior to the deadly shooting.

JONATHAN MCFADDEN, THE HERALD

— Authorities might never know why a reportedly suicidal Fort Mill man pointed a handgun at York County sheriff’s deputies, who then shot and killed him.

But a professor who studies police use-of-force practices warns against calling the death of James Calvin Youngblood a “suicide-by-cop” incident, saying without clear evidence it’s impossible to know if Youngblood really wanted to die.

Other experts say it’s possible Youngblood, 28, pointed the weapon at police hoping they would shoot him to death, if allegations that he had threatened to harm himself prove true.

Such details will not be made clear at least until State Law Enforcement Division agents complete an investigation and turn the case over to York County prosecutors, who will decide whether criminal charges should be filed.

Deputies went to 1220 Lurecliff Place, off Pleasant Road, at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday after Youngblood’s mother, Kathy Michelle Culp, told police he had threatened to harm himself, according to a sheriff’s report. After deputies didn’t find anyone at the house, they called Culp, who couldn’t tell them where else her son might be.

As deputies were leaving, Youngblood pulled a red Toyota Corolla into the driveway, the report states. Youngblood refused to get out of the car, the report states, became “irrational” and said he would harm himself if deputies approached.

Youngblood then “concealed his hands,” the report states, and pulled a pistol and pointed it toward deputies, “creating imminent fear and forcing deputies to fire.” York County Coroner Sabrina Gast pronounced him dead at the scene.

The two deputies – Sgt. Nathan Clark, 33, and Deputy Todd Zeigler, 29 – have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. Clark has been with the sheriff’s office for nine years, and Zeigler has been a deputy for six, officials said.

Youngblood’s death was the 12th officer-involved shooting reported in South Carolina this year, according to SLED, and the third in York County.

After listening to details of the shooting, Lorie Fridell, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, said it’s possible the situation could be “suicide by cop,” in which suicidal individuals put themselves in situations that force officers to shoot them.

David Klinger, a criminology professor and police use-of-force expert at the University of Missouri St. Louis, said the shooting “sounds like ... a classic example” of suicide-by-cop. He cautioned that SLED agents have more information to gather before submitting the case to prosecutors, who will make the judgment call.

Paramount to their investigation, though, will be whether the officers believed Youngblood’s actions imminently threatened their lives or safety, which meets the criteria for a justifiable shooting, said Candace McCoy, who teaches criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. She calls those standards “too subjective.”

“You can do everything you can to make (the investigation) objective,” she said, which will include examining forensic evidence collected at the scene, taking testimony from witnesses and looking at the background of the person shot.

The only other witness to Youngblood’s shootingwas a third deputy at the scene. That officer will be able to testify about what he saw and heard, McCoy said, so “it’s going to be the officers’ words, basically, and it’s going to be hard to say they didn’t feel threatened.”

Deputies reported that Youngblood did not fire his pistol, meaning the only bullets recovered from the scene will be the ones police fired.

“If (Youngblood) actually shot, that’s really, really strong evidence that someone’s life was in danger,” McCoy said. “But if the victim did not shoot, it’s likely to come down to that person’s mental health history.”

McCoy called suicide-by-cop a “cute little catchphrase” that people use to exonerate officers of guilt. She called such incidents “rare,” typically involving “people who are mentally ill and don’t know what they’re doing.”

Of 707 officer-involved shootings reported between 1998 and 2006, 36 percent were attempted and completed suicide-by-cop incidents, according to a 2006 study by the American Association of Suicidology, which works to reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts nationwide.

“Many people will say, oh, it’s suicide-by-cop,’” McCoy said. “It’s an easy way for them to support the officer. They want to automatically assign it because it absolves the officer of any question that the officer is responsible.

“Unless there’s a suicide note that says, ‘I’m going to go out and let myself get shot,’...you really don’t know what the person’s thinking.”

Trauma for officers

Officers who have killed often suffer from a gamut of “cognitive” and “emotional” responses, said Dr. Bill Wells, a Rock Hill psychiatrist who has treated many police officers. Some are able to cope, he said, by turning to their faith or leaning on supportive families. Others second-guess themselves constantly – even questioning whether the dead person actually pointed the gun at them.

“They may question... ‘Was he really pointing it at me? Maybe he was just gesturing. Maybe he really didn’t mean that. Maybe he wouldn’t have pulled the trigger,’ ” Wells said. “On the other hand, some officers say, ‘He would have pulled that trigger.’

“What is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic” for the next.

Physical and emotional reactions to the incident, Wells said, can include tremors, shakes, chills, sweating, nausea, panic attacks, anger, crying, anxiety, spiked adrenalin, trouble sleeping and flashbacks to the incident. Sometimes, officers feel isolated because “no one really understands,” and some might suffer from visual distortion to the point they can’t remember “pulling the trigger 10 times.”

Wells has counseled officers who couldn’t recall the sound of bullets being fired.

“Even though these officers go through extensive training,” he said, “there is just no way to prepare for something like that. No officer I’ve ever spoken to has ever wanted to harm anybody.

“They didn’t go there with the intention of doing this.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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