September 29, 2023 By Matt Logan
A psychological autopsy (PA) is a post-mortem investigative tool that aids in the determination of a person’s death. It is most often used in cases of suspected suicide or in an attempt to reconstruct the life and character of the deceased.
The purpose of this process is to determine the deceased’s state of mind at the time of death and identify behavioural patterns that might accompany suicidal and homicidal intent. Recently, the psychological autopsy has been scrutinized as a psychological assessment. The American Psychological Association clearly delineates the difference in defining the psychological assessment as the gathering and integration of data to evaluate a person’s behavior, abilities and other characteristics, particularly for the purposes of making a diagnosis or treatment recommendation.
In the case of a homicide, there is an interest in victimology as it is a key piece in determining victim selection. There is never one distinct reason for the suicide or homicide; rather there appears to be a “perfect storm” when contextual factors blend with ideation and cognition in the presence of destabilizers and the storm rages.
The psychological autopsy in police homicide
Assessment and the prediction of potential violence entails evaluating observable individual traits and situational indicators that are known to be consistent with previous violent acts. It requires deductions and subjective opinions and, as such, violence may be over-predicted or under-predicted in some cases. Risk for violence is a dynamic phenomenon; it changes with variations in the offender’s thinking and circumstances. The accuracy depends upon the completeness, currency and accuracy of the information provided for analysis.
In policing, the value of the PA can be to assist in the determination of the mode of death as well as the contributing factors that determine the why, why now, and why in this manner? This diligent process includes interpersonal, affective and behavioural characteristics, and detection of patterns that are consistent with personality disorder and/or mental illnesses. Actuarial measures are used to detect psychopathy and reveal potential violence. In the weeks and months before an incident of homicide, many subjects engage in behaviours that may signal impending action. By articulating the observable behaviours in each case, we hope to make these warning signs more easily identifiable. Finally, the assessment provides the reflective analysis necessary to gain information in assessing and predicting future violence.
The purpose of this process is to determine the deceased’s state of mind at the time of death and identify behavioural patterns that might accompany suicidal and homicidal intent.
Having completed the PAs on two mass shooters who also killed police officers (Portapique, N.S., and Mayerthorpe, Alta.), behavioural sciences see the value in this type of investigation to mine out all the factors and apply a psychological lens to the investigation. In these PAs, we’ve been able to see the mindset of the shooter in ways that others would have missed and surface these underlying reasons to provide answers and to also prepare us in a way that might prevent similar occurrences.
The psychological autopsy in police suicide
With officer suicides, the PS is based upon a review of materials submitted, and the investigative experience and training of the investigative psychologist and the criminal profilers in surfacing information through interviewing and analysis. It is not a substitute for a thorough and well-planned investigation and should not be considered exclusively. It does not infringe on work performed by a coroner’s jury; in fact, it will provide more information to that process.
In the PA of suicide, we will be able to see factors beginning in childhood and moving through to adulthood. We may unearth neglect/abandonment issues, personality disorder features, psychosis, relationship dynamics, perfectionism, substance use and depression. Further, we can map the slope downward and can unearth traumatic exposure, interpersonal conflicts, family, organizational and operational stress factors that contributed to suicidal ideation.
Finally, we can do research that employs a qualitative methodology to detect patterns and then enact policy and remediation for early detection of contributing factors which might include further screening in recruitment.
Dr. Matt Logan, a Criminal Investigative Psychologist and former police officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, performed the first Psychological Autopsy in Canada at Mayerthorpe, Alta., where four officers were murdered in 2005. He recommends this approach for understanding the deaths of officers due to suicide or homicide. The process not only clarifies the current incident but is also preventative of future occurrences.
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