Suicide by cop ruling may be only second in state

STAMFORD — The tragic police shooting death of Dylan Pape last week was an exceedingly rare event for Stamford, a city in which police have not shot a civilian in over 30 years.

Rarer still is the state medical examiner’s determination of the manner of Pape’s death, effectively calling it “suicide by cop.”

There was a similar ruling in a 2013 police involved shooting in Farmington, but before then it has been at least 24 years since a suicide-by-cop determination was made in Connecticut, the state’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill said.

“There were other police shootings, but I do not have the details of each to know what the circumstances were,” said Gill, who has held his position since 2013.

In most cases, he said, the police shootings were deemed homicides, but without criminal intent.

On Monday evening Stamford police responded to a 911 call reporting a man threatening harm with a gun at Pape’s home on Wedgemere Road, a quiet cul de sac in the upscale Newfield neighborhood.

Responding officers called for the Hostage Negotiation and Special Response teams. After an hour of “intense” negotiation, Pape, 25, a student at Norwalk Community College, was shot by two officers. Police have said he appeared outside the house holding a fake gun.

Pape’s death certificate states that the injury occurred when Pape “provoked police to shoot him.” Pape, who survived childhood cancer, is to be buried Monday.

While Gill declined to discuss Pape’s case or the subject of suicide by cop further, he co-authored a paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 2011 called, “Death Certification of Suicide by Cop.”

Gill’s paper says such suicides may happen far more than is realized and it references a study of officer involved shootings in Los Angles from 1987-1997 that says 11 percent were suicide by cop.

The paper also explains that pathologists assessing the manner of death rely on not just the autopsy, but also the circumstances of the death, which might include police reports, family accounts and other evidence collected at the scene such as a suicide note.

“For police shootings, the conventional certification remains ‘homicide’ in the absence of other compelling circumstances,” the paper states. “But just because these deaths occur at the hand of another, there should not be an automatic homicide determination in all instances. Suicide should be considered in these deaths.”

Candace McCoy, professor of Criminal Justice at the Graduate Center and John Jay College, City University of New York, said she is wary of such a determination because it could be used to justify an otherwise unjustifiable situation or misunderstanding.

McCoy said she was most interested in finding out who called the police from Pape’s home.

“If he himself called the police, that would be evidence of his suicidal intent,” McCoy said. “When we want to justify a police shooting, a common response is he wanted to die. If there was a credible threat and he created the threat himself, the police would be justified because there was a threat to life. If he did not create it himself, the police aren’t justified.”

The state police are investigating Pape’s death and have not released the 911 tape.

“I think it is unlikely this case was a suicide by cop,“ McCoy said in an email. “I think what is most likely is that a medical examiner who has studied suicide by cop in the past simply assumed that any justifiable shooting is ‘suicide by cop,’ but that is not the case. Nevertheless, the shooting may be justified.”

Police officers are legally justified in using deadly force when there is probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious harm to the officer or others.

Increase in calls

Speaking to Hearst Connecticut Media, Chief Jon Fontneau said he first wanted to express his sorrow for the loss of life.

“I want to say again how sorry I am to the Pape family,” Fontneau said. “Their lives as well as the lives of the officers involved will never be the same again.”

Police officers in Stamford are now responding to an “astronomical” number of calls for service to help deal with people who are emotionally disturbed, Fontneau said, a problem that is not unique to Stamford, whose officers are fully trained.

“This is an unfortunate incident that has not happened in Stamford for a long period of time, and we hope it never happens again,” he said.

The officers involved in Monday’s shooting, Lt. Chris Baker and Steven Perrotta, are each son's of police officers.

Baker, who is commander of the Special Response Team, has a record against gun violence, Fontneau said. Last year the Narcotics and Organized Crime squad, which Baker also commands, took 26 illegal guns off the street in Stamford and Special Response picked up another seven.

Perrotta, who in addition to heading up the department’s Property Crime Unit, is the Special Response Team’s second in command.

The two have been put on modified duty.

“They were very shaken by the incident and continue to be. They acted as they were trained,” Fontneau said.

An earlier case

Farmington Police Chief Paul Melanson said a suicide by cop determination may be new to the medical examiner’s office, but it is a fact of life for many officers and he and his men have been hearing and talking about it for many years

Melanson headed up that 45-person department on Dec. 12, 2013 when 43-year-old Gregory Bendas confronted police with a gun while standing on the street outside of his home and was shot and killed. Melanson said every shooting is difficult, some more than others.

Eventually, Bendas’ death was to be ruled a suicide by cop.

“Eventually, once the facts were all ferreted out and you find that the individual was suicidal, it was difficult for us,” he said. “Obviously it is tragic for the individual’s family. Your heart goes out to that family and at the same time, our officer being a younger officer, we had to support him and help him cope with what happened.”

Calls for transparency

John DeCarlo, associate professor and director of the online master’s program in Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven, said dealing with people suffering from mental health problems is an all too common occurrence for police officers.

DeCarlo, the former chief of the Branford Police Department, said given that there are about 900 reported police shootings per year nationwide and 700,000 police officers, police show great reluctance to the use deadly force.

DeCarlo said he would advise Chief Fontneau to get cameras on his officers as soon as possible.

“That is really going to determine what happened and people would be able to say instantly, good shoot or bad shoot,” DeCarlo said.

Stamford police are moving, albeit slowly, to body cameras. Last year the city received a $338,000 federal grant to begin a body camera program.

The Legislative and Policy Director for the ACLU, David McGuire, said a piece of useful legislation got bogged down in committee last year that would have required reports on SWAT activity detailing the reason for each deployment, the location, equipment used, whether entry was forced and the race, sex and age of each civilian encountered.

“We are not trying to single out Stamford, regardless of whether the shooting was justified or not,” he said. “The incident demonstrates the need for transparency and oversight for how SWAT teams are used in Connecticut.”

Stamford State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo said in the 23-years he has worked in the judicial district nothing like this has happened.

“The Stamford community is understanding and they want the information to come out to see what the situation is,” he said. “This is not a Ferguson situation, and there is no reason for it to become one.”

A detailed report on Pape’s death will be issued by Danbury State’s Attorney Steven Sedensky. Colangelo is investigating the death of Christopher Andrews, who was shot and killed by a Fairfield police officer in February after ignoring an officer’s orders to put down a knife.

But, he said, the reports take time.

The Hartford State’s Attorney has yet to release its report on the Farmington death, two years and three months after Bendas’ death.

“These take months, definitely,” Colangelo said. “The major crime squad is involved and these aren’t their only investigations. Their reports are the most thorough that I have ever seen. They leave no stone unturned.”;