Lance Schilling, a former New Orleans police officer who was fired for being part of a group of officers who beat a man in October of 2005, apparently committed suicide earlier this week. His body was found on Sunday. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the roof of the mouth, according to the Associated Press on Fox News.
Schilling’s trial was to be held in a month. He and two other officers were charged with battery and other offenses in the beating of a New Orleans man on October 8, 2005. Robert Davis was a 64-year-old retired elementary school teacher; he had returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to check on his property. He stopped in the French Quarter to find a place to buy cigarettes when the beating happened. The beating was videotaped by journalists covering the damage done by the hurricane.
According to Davis, and reported by the Associated Press on Fox News, it was when he was looking for a place to make his purchase when the officers grabbed him and began to beat him. The videotape showed one of the officers hitting Davis on the head four times. He was dragged to the ground by the officers and one of them kneed him and punched him twice.
When the officers noticed the taping, Officer Stewart Smith demanded that APTN producer Rich Matthews and the cameraman cease shooting the video. Matthews held up his credentials to show them to the officer, and that is when Smith grabbed him and jabbed him in the stomach. He then doled out a verbal lashing. Smith has been suspended but is still with the force. The other officers, Schilling and Robert Evangelist, had been fired.
Schilling’s attorney, Franz Zibilich, said that the suicide had nothing to do with the impending trial. “The truth be known, he was looking forward to having this matter tried and heard,” he said.
But suicides in the police community are nothing rare. According to the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation, the suicide rate among police officers and other law enforcement and emergency workers is two to three times higher than the death rate of these workers in the line of duty. The foundation believes that the suicide rate among these professionals is high due to the high stress rate and lack of awareness of the warning signs and techniques to prevent suicide.
Bob Douglas, who founded the P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation with his wife, Carolyn, was a police officer for 25 years, and he’s been a pastor for 21 years. In a telephone interview, Bob revealed that in 1984, he lost a good friend and fellow officer to suicide. Police departments historically have not acknowledged the issue of suicide in the force. Many deaths are listed as “Accidental Discharge,” or as “Undetermined Death.” He and Carolyn found the need to begin their work in counseling police officers and Bob began giving seminars in 1997.
According to 2004 statistics, roughly 450 police officers per year commit suicide. It breaks down to one officer every 17 hours, in comparison to one officer every 58 hours who is killed in the line of duty.
With such staggering statistics, it is difficult to believe that out of 18,000 law enforcement agencies, less than 2 percent have suicide awareness training; according to the FBI, there are approximately 673,000 certified officers nationwide. On a positive note, however, the organizations that mandate officer training are close to implementing mandatory suicide awareness training. But, as Douglas says, the system moves slowly.
In the telephone interview with Douglas, he states that he believes that stress causes a higher suicide rate.
And it isn’t as simple as just job stress; these officers, who are primarily men, have an entirely different mentality. To illustrate this point, Douglas explained that there is something about suicide among police officers; they most often use their own service weapon.
Though many say that’s because it’s so accessible to them, Douglas disagrees. He points out an important element: A police officer has a warrior mentality. He’s trained that way. His weapon becomes an extension, a part of him. It takes on its own personality. A relationship forms between the man and the gun; it is his best friend, most reliable, providing solutions in critical situations. So, when the time comes, and the officer is suicidal, the friend is again the one he can rely on, Douglas notes. It is to be the one who stops the pain. It is seen throughout history: The warrior ends his own life with his own weapon, be it falling on his sword, or shooting himself in the head with his gun.
It is estimated that about 20 percent of police officers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. More alarming is the estimate that a great deal of the remaining 80 percent suffers from something different, Bob said, citing a study that is underway.
Cumulative career trauma refers to the stress that builds up over time that is not addressed and often leads to devastating circumstances. This might have been the circumstances that plagued Lance Schilling and eventually caused him to “snap” and subsequently beat a civilian. Perhaps, Douglas said, they had, as many officers do, “personalized” the situation. This means that the action taken by the person who’d offended them, so to speak, was interpreted as a personal affront to them. The stress had built up and their cups were overflowing.
Douglas continued to explain that police officers and emergency workers are conditioned to “depersonalize.” Their job becomes the definition of their lives; they are the job. And, if something should jeopardize their job, they lose what defines them. So, in the case of Schilling, who was fired, they no longer had a definition of self.
When Congress passed a law in 2003 that allowed police officers to travel anywhere in the United States with their firearms, most were happy. They could now carry along with them that extension of their person. In the eyes of Congress, they could be a greater asset and offer more security to the general population. Douglas was asked if, mentally, they are ever off duty. “No, never,” he replied. Although some authorities point out that most officers commit suicide at home, they don’t leave work at work.
There are warning signs that show an officer is in trouble and contemplating suicide. Police officers have a great respect for weapons. They don’t joke with them, and they don’t play with them. So, if an officer was seen kidding about playing Russian Roulette at the card table, that would certainly be a sign. Any joking around with the weapon would be. So would other gestures, such as if he is acting angry or laughing and sticking his finger in his mouth to mimic a gun, Douglas said. That, too, is a warning. It is all relative to the respect for firearms. Also, if he is engaging in risky behavior or puts himself in harm’s way, those too are signs of alarm. There are other symptoms too, and they can be found with other information on the website for the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation website.
It is important to prepare a way to respond. Stop and ask, “Why? What’s going on?”
Douglas is often asked about how he stays upbeat. After all, it’s a dismal task, talking about suicide.
It is difficult, he admits, but rewarding. He once was giving a suicide awareness seminar and one of the attendees was an El Paso border control agent who had been shot and left for dead in the desert. When he came to the seminar, he was not at all in good shape, had many of the symptoms that lead to suicide and had contemplated it. The next morning, when Douglas and his colleague were at the airport early in the morning to depart, the agent was there to see them off — in uniform.
He told them that after the seminar, he called his wife. They talked for hours, and he cried, and apologized for the way he’d been treating her. He assured her that he now knew that he could recover from what he had been going through. He hugged and thanked the two men. He turned and walked away. The man with Douglas asked, “How do you feel now?” Bob replied: “I feel like we’re up 35,000 feet already.”
NO Officer Charged in Beating Found Dead, Monday, June 11, 2007
By CAIN BURDEAU, Associated Press Writer
Three New Orleans Police Officers Indicted for Beating Man in Katrina Aftermath
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation
Telephone interview conducted with Bob Douglas of the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation on Wednesday, June 13, 2007.