None of the shots that struck Tommy Smith outside his mother’s house among the stubbled grain fields of Arcola, Illinois, came from his own gun. During his encounter with police on a chilly evening in early January, Smith, a 39-year-old hotel maintenance supervisor, never turned the AR-15 rifle against his own body.
Yet the record books of Douglas County will state that Smith killed himself.
Like in half a dozen other cases around the US so far this year identified by a Guardian investigation, authorities declared the case a “suicide by cop”, a contested and loosely defined classification of death that further complicates US law enforcement’s already fraught response to killings by police.
Tommy Smith. Photograph: Facebook
County prosecutor Kevin Nolan explained in an email that he reached the decision in “the clear objective light” after reflecting on all the details of the shooting. He alleged that Smith had “expressed suicidal ideation” in the days prior and then pointed his rifle at police following a standoff. “The officers present had to act in defence,” said Nolan.
But such suicide rulings – two more of which were made this year in South Carolina, along with one each in Indiana, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania – run contrary to guidelines from the National Association of Medical Examiners on how to classify a manner of death. They may also pre-empt criminal inquiries by effectively exonerating officers of wrongdoing and removing their actions from consideration, according to some criminologists.
Members of Smith’s family who saw the encounter deny that he pointed his gun. While he experienced depression on and off for years since his fiancée died in a car accident, said his mother, Jean Tomlin, he did not want to die. “He hadn’t said nothing like that in the last few days,” she said. Shortly before his death, Smith invited one of the officers who would shoot him to join them in watching his beloved Denver Broncos in the NFL playoffs on television.
Police have shot dead more than 100 people who were described by associates or authorities as suicidal so far in 2015. Many of those who died did display suicidal intentions as they entered lethal encounters with officers. The total was described as alarming by mental health advocates, who said law enforcement agencies should urgently provide better training for police in dealing with people in mental health crises.
Most of these deaths were classed as homicides and investigated as usual for potential wrongdoing by the officers involved. But a growing number of state and county authorities are effectively bypassing this process by placing official responsibility for the shootings on the shoulders of the dead, who are judged to have given officers no choice but to kill them.
Such suicide rulings may further undermine the US government’s much-criticised efforts to record the number of killings by police nationwide. This system centres on voluntary reporting by police departments of the number of “justifiable homicides” by their officers each year. Even departments that participate are under no obligation to include in their totals any deaths that were ruled suicides. Amid calls from lawmakers and activists for a more comprehensive database, the Guardian is recording extensive details of all deaths caused by US law enforcement in 2015.
Some experts and relatives of those killed expressed concern that suicide rulings may be misused by regional authorities eager to clear police of wrongdoing amid a changed climate across the US that has heightened scrutiny of officers’ use of deadly force.
Six out of the seven cases that were officially declared suicides have already been ruled as justified shootings by authorities, compared with only one in five of the dozens of other cases so far this year in which someone said to have been suicidal was killed by police.
The suicide ruling in Smith’s case even angered Joe Victor, the county coroner, who had been preparing to hold a coroner’s inquest, where a jury of Smith’s peers would officially decide how he died. “How are you going to get 12 people who haven’t heard the news that it was called a suicide?” Victor, a former police officer, said in a phone conversation.
The district attorney “interfered”, Victor said. “All law enforcement got together and decided that was it.” Plans for a coroner’s inquest were abandoned. Nolan’s office and the Illinois state police rejected public records requests for any material from the inquiry. “I think it’s a cover-up,” said Smith’s mother.
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