When Renita Nettles approached a police officer brandishing a knife in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, she reportedly declared that she was "ready to die," according to court documents.
Police reports say the black 22-year-old was shot in the shoulder Saturday after she advanced toward the officer holding a knife, which she refused to drop. The incident was caught on video by bystanders and at least one witness can be heard shouting, "Put the knife down." (Warning, this video is graphic.) According to the court documents, she was also carrying seven more knives and a hammer.
If Ms. Nettles was trying to get shot, as she potentially indicated by saying she was “ready to die” and refusing to surrender her weapons as she approached the cop, her case could be considered attempted “suicide by cop.”
Police training website PoliceOne defines the phenomenon as the “unique type of officer-involved shooting that occurs when a suspect deliberately provokes an officer to shoot.” It is unknown how many attempts at “suicide by cop” are made – successfully or unsuccessfully – every year, but Nettles’ shooting took place on the same day as that of 24-year-old Shamir Terrel Palmer in South Carolina amid similar circumstances.
Officials told the CBS affiliate that Mr. Palmer was shot following a car chase, when he pointed a gun at officers and refused to put down the weapon.
Dorchester County coroner Chris Nisbet told WCSC that Palmer, who died of his wounds Monday, had told friends “he was not going back to prison, period.”
"The definition of suicide is, the taking of one’s own life or creating conditions leading to it," Mr. Nisbet said in a statement Monday night. "This is what I have determined to be the previous shots fired by the decedent at law enforcement and the raising of a deadly weapon at Sheriffs’ deputies after his vehicle finally stalled out due to multiple collisions during the attempted traffic stop/chase."
While attempted “suicide by cop” can turn police into victims – PoliceOne says a suicidal person “may stop at nothing to reach his goal, including taking ... [an] officer with him” – some see the labeling of the phenomenon as a dangerous excuse not to hold officers accountable for their judgments when using force.
In studying confrontations with police in which deaths were determined “suicides by cop,” Slate’s Josh Voorhees found there was no distinction between cases where a person’s death was premeditated and when it seemed to be a spontaneous decision during the confrontation.
“There is no difference between a person who, in the moment, refuses to surrender and someone who actively seeks out the police as a means to end his life,” Mr. Voorhees writes. “That’s a distinction that absolutely has to be made. Otherwise, the phrase suicide by cop serves as a blanket excuse, a shrug of the shoulders when confronted with the worst possible outcome.”
Nettles has been charged with two counts of assault and an arson charge, for reportedly setting fire to the public housing unit where she and her mother lived. Her sister has also been charged with assaulting an officer for punching the officer after he shot Nettles.
Whether her actions were a result of mental illness – her mother claimed in the court documents that Nettles is bipolar and had been using PCP and synthetic marijuana – or an attempt to prompt the officer to shoot her, or a combination of both, is unknown. Possible racial motivation is also unclear, since the race of her shooter is unknown.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.