Picture a man chasing a woman from home, throwing some clothes into the street shouting, "Take this s--t with you."
The man holds a gun to his head, saying, "This is what you drive me to. This is what you drive me to!"
Is this an out-of-control domestic dispute or is the expression of a death wish, a case of "suicide by cop?"
There may be no situation that scares cops more than cases like this. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's office recently became the first department in the nation to begin classes to help officers make that life-or-death distinction, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.
The Los Angeles County class instructor asks: What do you call it "when you got an individual who comes outside with a gun to their head?"
The group responds, "Suicide by cop."
"That means that they probably want to die today, and there's a good possibility that they may want to take a deputy sheriff or a police officer with them," warns the instructor.
Who are these people who wish to die but want cops to pull the trigger? And is it possible to recognize them and diffuse the situation before someone is killed?
A Harvard doctor has drawn up a profile of people involved in suicide by cop cases. They're mostly men about 35 years old. Seventy percent have a criminal record. Most have a drinking or drug problem, and many have very carefully thought through their actions.
"He had a plan and carried it out," says John Nelson, who was held hostage in one such case in Orange County, Calif. Embittered by a custody battle, Michael Ginerakos stormed into a Board of Education building. He let most employees slip out a side door but held Nelson hostage. This case demonstrates just how hard it is for police to tell a real threat from a death wish.
"He obviously had planned to - he used the words -`force the police to take action.' He mentioned that a number of times. It was obvious to me what the intent was," says Nelson.
Outside, the SWAT team and snipers took up position. Inside, Ginerakos waved what looked like a gun and told police he was coming out armed. Lt. Ron Smith was in command.
"When he came out the front doors, officers immediately started to shout to him, 'Drop the gun. Drop the gun. Let the hostage go,'" says Smith.
But he didn't. Then Ginerakos seemed to pause and stand exposed under a light in the cross hairs. When they rolled his body over, they found he didn't have a real gun at all.
"There was a reaction, a mixture of anguish, resentment and anger that he had manipulated us. He set us up where we had no choice but to take a life," says Smith.
The police instructor tells his class: "As you guys know, it's hard to rationalize with somebody that wants to commit suicide."
So the lessons are simple: Maintain your distance, keep the subject talking and learn that sometimes that it's better to simply back off.
"Make sure your commands are very simple. Again, you are dealing with somebody that's irrational. They're despondent. Life is tough. They're ready to end it," says the instructor.
And, they are dead set on having someone else do it for them.
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CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff