Was it Really a Suicide?

Practical tool for cops offers a way to interpret suspicious 911 calls.

Not everyone who calls 911 to report a fatal accident or suicide is a concerned party – or is concerned in the right way. Some are killers hoping to deflect attention from themselves. They pretend to have discovered someone hanging, shot, stabbed, or at the foot of the stairs. They might even write a fake suicide note. How can investigators tell genuine incidents from those that are staged?

Previously, I had reviewed Crime Scene Staging Dynamics in Homicide Cases by Laura G. Pettler. She conducted a study of 18 staged homicides to identify common staging indicators, and provided a methodology for investigators.

A new book, Analyzing 911 Homicide Calls, also from CRC Press, presents a focused examination of the emergency call itself. This is the first place to start looking for clues, and thanks to Tracy Harpster and Susan H. Adams, the research on fake calls is solid. This is one of the most practical tools I’ve seen for investigators. According to their bios, Harpster and Adams have assisted over 500 homicide detectives. They also provide trainings.

Harpster is deputy chief with the Moraine Police Department in Ohio, and Dr. Susan Adams, a retired FBI agent, is an expert on interviewing techniques. Between them, they have collected a lot of info about veracity and deception.

I first noticed their work in an article. They had listed and analyzed the linguistic attributes of 50 “innocent” 911 calls versus 50 “guilty” calls, concentrating on specific verbal indicators. The calls were from adjudicated cases, confirmed to be from genuine suicides and supposed suicides that turned out to be homicides. The caller was either the killer or an accomplice. (In some cases, the 911 call is the only statement the offender had made.)

Because 911 calls are recorded, investigators can listen to the audio tones and characteristics –pace, pitch, volume, etc. – and can also read and reread transcripts. Just hearing the call can signal specific red flags. I once heard one where the caller took a breath and then launched into a narrative that sounded rehearsed. She had much to gain from the decedent’s death and a great deal to lose if he remained alive. His suicide seemed unlikely. These circumstances together justified a more focused investigation.

For the 911 analysis, Harpster and Adams examined three primary areas: the call content, which included factual accuracy and attitude about the victim; the focus of the request for help; and the manner in which the call was made (including voice modulation, urgency, and degree of cooperation with the dispatcher’s requests).

Among “innocent” indicators are requests for help for the victim, concern for the victim, self-correction, willingness to cooperate, voice modulation, and even rudeness due to a sense of urgency. On the other hand, “guilty” callers offered extraneous information, provided explanations, blamed or insulted the victim, focused on their own issues, were patient, and accepted the death without much resistance.         article continues after advertisement

The resulting device from this research is the Considering Offender Probability in Statements (COPS) Scale. The variables are organized according to distinct linguistic and behavioral dimensions. The researchers ran item analyses on the checklist, producing two columns of 11 items (now 15), along with a scoring system for when a call is questionable. If more check marks go into the “guilty” column, this does not prove that an incident was staged, but it urges a deeper investigation.

The book that has grown from the initial research, based on many more calls, offers investigators ways to see nuanced items that might not otherwise have drawn their attention. There are case studies and detailed item analyses of actual calls. (Even if you’re not an investigator, these transcripts are fascinating!) There is also a section on “independent guilty indicators,” such as attempts to convince, a lack of contractions, awkward phrases, nervous laughter, and the “Huh?” factor.

The final section offers specific tips for different involved parties: dispatchers, patrol officers, investigators, and prosecutors. Even the most superficial grasp of the book’s contents will give those who listen to 911 calls a new perspective. In addition, reviewing a call with this tool can provide a more informed frame for interviewing witnesses and suspects: it can help identify a suspect, but it can also confirm that a person of interest is most likely innocent.

That call to 911 launches most death investigations. None will be complete without using the 911 COPS Scale to suss out its overt and covert features.


Harpster, T. & Adams, S. H. (2017). Analyzing 911 Homicide Calls: Practical Aspects and Applications. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

About the Author

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of 60 books.

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