Anthony McDowell. Thomas Higginbotham. Nikkolas Lookabill.
Three men who served in the military. Three encounters with law enforcement officers. Three lives ended by gunfire.
These cases, which occurred in three separate Portland-area jurisdictions within the last five months, have alarmed observers.
“It’s really difficult for everyone,” said Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger, whose officers shot McDowell to death outside his house on Monday. “The United States hasn’t faced this since the mid- to late-Seventies, since the Vietnam War.”
“Military reintegration needs to address this issue further,” John Violanti, a former criminal justice professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote in an email.
Oregon’s military reintegration efforts focus on resiliency training — seeking to help returning veterans re-enter the civilian world. But each time a veteran dies at the hand of police is unique, making it difficult to generalize about the phenomenon. But reports suggest that the McDowell and Lookabill cases, at least, could fall into the category of “suicide by cop.”
McDowell, 50, had been home from war for seven years. His wife called for help, saying he was suicidal and when police arrived, he was holding a rifle. The findings from an investigation into his death, as customary in the case of officer-involved shootings, will be presented to a grand jury later this month.
His funeral service takes place at 11:30 a.m. today at Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, to be followed by committal at Willamette National Cemetery.
Thomas Higginbotham, a Vietnam War veteran, was 67, homeless and carrying a knife when he was shot to death by Portland police officers at an abandoned car wash Jan. 2. He was intoxicated when he was killed.
Nikkolas Lookabill was 22 and had been home about four months from a mostly peaceful deployment to Iraq when he was shot to death by Vancouver police early in the morning on Sept. 7. The Clark County Prosecutor’s Office reported that he told officers “he wanted them to shoot him.”
Jim Drylie, a retired law enforcement officer who is executive director of Kean University’s School of Criminal Justice and Public Administration, isn’t familiar with the particulars of the McDowell, Higginbotham and Lookabill cases. But through his research, he has found that some officer-involved shootings that could be considered suicides share some characteristics. Such cases usually included some form of communication — words, a note or even a gesture — suggesting that the victim intends to die. They also usually showed the victim made some deliberate choice to “enter a script” with a predictable, deadly outcome. For example, shooting victims might refuse to follow instructions, charge an officer or make threatening gestures, such as reaching toward a gun.
Oregon National Guard Master Sergeant Vince Jacques, who helps manage the Guard’s reintegration team for returning soldiers, says soldiers and law enforcement officers have a similar grasp of what will happen in an armed confrontation. Each knows that if one of them escalates the confrontation and won’t back down, someone will likely be shot.
“It’s like two fists banging into each other,” he said.
But soldiers and experts are careful not to overgeneralize about the conditions that culminate in the killing of a military veteran by law enforcement officers. A majority of military personnel return from deployments without getting in trouble with the police. Many of the ones who do come home with emotional wounds are people who had problems before they left. And not every encounter that ends in a killing by police starts with a decision to commit suicide — sometimes events are shaped by misunderstandings or accidents.
But the cases of McDowell, Higginbotham and Lookabill occurred as the armed services are coming to grips with a plague of suicides, many committed by people who have come home and are no longer on active duty.
The Army, which has been most aggressive about studying the problem and adopting suicide prevention programs, reported last year that the rate of suicides among soldiers had grown steadily over the last five years and now exceeds the rate of suicides among civilians. Even more troublingly for Oregon, a state with virtually no full-time military presence, the suicide rate among members of the National Guard and Reserves is disproportionately high, according to the Army’s 2010 report “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention.”
The study found that 73 percent of Army suicides from 2005-2009 occurred in the United States, not in a war zone and, in 67.5 percent of the cases, gunshot was the cause of death. For most members of the military, a weapon is a familiar thing.
Suicide among veterans, including suicide by cop, is “a predictable epidemic,” said Portlander Wray Harris, president of the Oregon chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Harris is acquainted with post-traumatic stress and the anxiety, fear and anger that it can generate.
“The best thing,” he said, “is to find a community of veterans.”