How one N.J. teen acted out towards recent police response to gun threats

A police consultant believes Monday's incident could help lead to positive change in future law enforcement training.

The perception of how law enforcement interacts with the public led one 14-year-old New Jersey boy to take a fake gun to an elementary school in the hope of being shot to death by police.

The Marlton, New Jersey, teenager brought a steel replica handgun to the playground outside the J. Harold Van Zant Elementary School in Evesham Township on Monday, forcing it to go into lockdown, according to an interview with New Jersey State Police Public Affairs Officer Jeff Flynn.

Two plainclothes state troopers tackled the boy, who is not being named due to his age. He was then taken to a mental health facility for evaluation.

According to published reports, Evesham Township Police “said Tuesday that the teen told them that he hoped the threat would prompt officers to kill him.” The teen is charged with aggravated assault, terroristic threats and related offenses.

According to a 2014 report on "Suicide by Cop" by the American Association of Suicidology, 95 percent of those making this type of attempt are male with the average age for men of 35, age 40 for women, with no teen or child incidents recorded. About 19 percent feigned or simulated weapon possession during the attempt.

Experts say that this is yet another troubling indicator that validates the need for a national transformation of how police behave which will, in turn, alter how the public perceives and interacts with law enforcement.

Jim Asup, director of the Public Agency Training Council who has been in law enforcement for 44 years says, "I don't know what would have caused him to have that perception. That's a psychology, psychiatry issue. It's not an issue for a police officer to answer because we're not trained in that. You're asking someone to make an answer about a psychological well being that's not qualified to answer that. We have Critical Incident Response (CIT) training which currently addresses this kind of suicide by cop incident. Did he get that perception from a game instead of a police officer? We don't know that."

“This is not a new phenomenon – suicide by cop," says Ken Bouche, COO of Hillard Heintze, a law enforcement advisory and consulting firm that works with police departments on strategic planning, program development and constitutional policing and collaborative reform, in an interview. "People know if you pull a gun on police officers the likelihood of you getting shot is high. The news right now about police interactions and shootings is so graphic that I don’t know why we wouldn’t expect our kids to believe that.”

Mr. Bouche, a former police officer, says policing needs to be changed via the way officers learn about crisis and threat response in training.

“The fact that this young man believed that [officers would automatically shoot him if he had what they thought was a real weapon] isn’t really far from the truth given the fact of how police have been trained. But five years from now it is going to be better than it’s ever been due to changes in training models that are in place now,” he adds.

However, Bouche says that, “It’s events like this one that illustrate the need to work towards changing the mindset of law enforcement from, ‘a gun is a threat, you neutralize the threat,’ to recognize that the gun may be in the hands of a mentally unstable person and then it becomes ‘a gun is a threat there are many ways to neutralize the threat.’”

The goal, he says, should be that in five years’ time the perception will be, “If I threaten law enforcement they are not only going to do everything they can to save their lives but they’re going to do everything they can to save my life and get me the help I need.”

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