Written By: Laura Schook
On October 28, 2020 the remnants of Hurricane Zeta powered through southern Indiana bringing with it several inches of rain. To any other person this would have been considered a non-event, just another dreary rainy day. But for me it was sure to be a natural (emotional) disaster. The smell of wet leaves would play a major role in the coming days. PTSD can play tricks on critical incident survivors. Sounds, tastes, sights, and smells can place you right back in a moment of existential life crisis. The smell of wet leaves always takes me right back to November 17, 2003.
What began as a foot pursuit down an alley ended in a hand-to-hand combat that left me fighting for my life. I was stabbed in the neck with a bayonet knife and losing consciousness- I was certain I was going to die. For any normal human being an existential life crisis can be crippling, but for a police officer it’s much different. Officers are not allowed to show weakness or admit fear. In fact, it is quite the opposite; officers are expected to get right back to work and go down that same alley to show their co-workers, supervisors, and administrators they can still do the job. I later received the Medal of Valor for my involvement in the critical incident. My department expected me to act the part so that is what I did. There was no counseling, no concern, and no acknowledgement upon my return to duty. I found that support among my co-workers was divided. In the ranks many of my fellow officers showed respect. There were also cowards whispering behind my back calling me a “tactical nightmare” who said that if I had done my job properly I would not have been stabbed in the first place. I also received a very mediocre performance evaluation for that period which somehow failed to even mention the critical incident altogether.
Any police officer who is being honest will tell you that the easy part of the job is doing the work itself. The hard part is dealing with all of the toxic, bureaucratic, political back-stabbing and drama that is continuously occurring within the agency. Local media documented this toxicity covering news stories on manipulated crime statistics, over policing low-income areas, and firing an officer struggling with PTSD. This type of atmosphere sets the tone within a department and it has a direct effect on the morale of every officer. When you are exposed to this environment long enough you either keep your mouth shut and simply conform to go along with the rank-and-file or you become a truth-teller.
As November 2005 approached my teenage daughter began showing signs of PTSD. She began to throw herself in front of the door as I tried to leave for work. I had failed to realize she was going through this with me but in a very different way. After being on night shift for almost 9 years I put in for a hardship transfer and went to day shift. This change did not last long and at my first chance I put in for a transfer back to nights. I found that working night shift made the job more tolerable because it provided a small barrier between the in-house departmental drama that played out during the daytime. In the years to come I continued on night shift and obtained a few more commendations. An armed robbery capture in December 2007, a burglary-in-progress capture in January 2008, and another armed robbery capture in 2013. I found the work challenging and rewarding.
I noticed that several of my supervisors were falsifying time sheets, giving themselves credit for time they had not worked, and conducting their personal businesses while on duty. I went to my administration and advised them assuming department leadership would act appropriately and take care of the problem. What ended up happening was the opposite. Not only were my supervisors not punished, but they were advised that I had told on them. I realize now how naïve I was to think they would do the right thing.
Police departments have hundreds of pages of rules and regulations. No officer can adhere to or even remember every single job requirement. The same discretion used on the street in deciding whether to arrest or not is the same discretion used within the police department in regards to who is targeted for discipline and who is not. Supervisors and administrators use this discretionary power to their advantage. Rules and regulations are selectively weaponized against those not in good favor and because I had become a whistleblower this is exactly what happened to me.
On May 21, 2015 I sat in the city county building and waited for the Merit Commission Board to return with my punishment. As I sat there, I was terrified for two very different reasons. My first thought was, “Oh my God, what if they don’t fire me and I have to go back?” My second thought was, “If they do fire me then I know it’s broken.” And by “it”, I mean law enforcement. The thought of each outcome crippled me emotionally.
All but one Merit Board member voted to fire me. The President of the Board was quoted by the media after the hearing and stated he believed I did not deserve to be fired. I honestly don’t have any animosity or anger towards the men and women of my former department who stayed silent when they knew the truth. I cared greatly for many of them and would not wish for them to experience a second of what I was enduring. Still, if I could address them today this is what I would say:
“You are part of the cultural problem. Your silence came with a heavy price and law enforcement officers are paying the price for it everywhere. Your actions are seen as maleficent and it is exactly why law enforcement has lost the hearts and minds of whom they serve. You reduced yourselves to becoming voiceless and ruled by fear. It is why fewer people are applying for the job and many others are choosing early retirements or leaving the field altogether. You are tiny cogs in a giant machine that would easily discard you to save itself. You failed yourselves when you failed to hold an administration accountable. The thin blue line that you are now forced to live behind is a thin veneer that the public can see through. For this reason I would much rather be a truth-teller.”
The day I was fired, I lost my job, friends, and purpose in life. Law enforcement life has been described as living in a bubble. You are an officer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is not uncommon for officers to have their children play together, go on vacation together, and even live in the same neighborhoods. Almost all social activities are with other officers inside the same bubble. After being fired it felt as if everything I believed in had proved to be a falsehood. The foundation on which I built my life had crumbled. I was very much in another existential life crisis. I was trapped back in that dark alley. I felt as if I was being stabbed over and over again, but this time it was by my own department.
I spent the next year working my way out of that dark place and slowly the world opened up to me. I became a full-time student at the age of 44 years old, on a full ride scholarship at Indiana University Southeast and became very involved on campus. I was able to study abroad in England and Scotland. I received a grant and completed a research fellowship. I became a campus leader and a peer mentor. I was nominated and crowned fall homecoming queen. Off campus, I devoted my spare time to my local American Legion Post #42 as a dedicated volunteer, chairing the Placed Veterans Program, and cooking the fish on every Friday of Lent. To make ends meet, my husband and I created handcrafted jewelry out of spent shell casings we shot at the firing range. It is still proudly being sold at two local boutiques, Revelry Boutique and Gift shop on Main.
I am more proud now of being fired than I am of my Medal of Valor. I have built my brand on ethics and integrity. In 2017 I graduated with honor and high distinction earning a BS degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice, with minors in Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies. I was honored as the Criminal Justice Student of the Year.
I began a successful second career in 2018 as a Capital Criminal Defense Investigator. I have had the greatest pleasure to talk to other whistleblowers from all over the United States. I am always amazed to find how our stories almost mirror each other’s. I have never been healthier and happier in my life and I sleep with ease each night. That exploding bubble liberated me from a job I was no longer proud to do. I have a new purpose in life and I feel as if I am on the right side of history.
The advice I give officers who are considering blowing the whistle is the following:
Do not expect your department to do the right thing. Count on them to circle their wagons and to go on the offensive. They are interested in one thing and that is self-preservation.
Substantiate your allegations with irrefutable proof. It will be much harder for them to deny the allegations and to call you a liar. Never forget they are going to investigate themselves. This is absurd in itself.
Be prepared to give up everything. Once you go against the blue you cannot go back. You won’t get backed on runs, and if you are they are slow to arrive. You will not be trusted and you will not be safe. The department may do all it can to discredit you and get rid of you. You will no longer be one of them.
Be ready for social media beyond your control. There will be public attacks on you and your character. There will also be those who support you. For me, both were equally troubling. It was hard to see officers take to social media under the guise of their wives’ names to publicly shame me. After I was fired, memes of support with my image began to trend on Twitter. I wanted none of this attention yet it was all out of my control. I was horrified when I saw the Twitter images of me unfolding. I even went to an officer who specialized in computer forensics and asked how to make the memes stop and to ask who had created them. He told me “Laura, you asked me to go the beach and find you a specific grain of sand”.
You are going to lose more than a paycheck and health insurance. Those brothers and sisters in blue who you believed to be your friends are going to ice you out. They have no choice but to turn their backs on you. For me this was very painful to experience. I have a clear memory of passing a dear friend and former partner in the hallway at work. He would not even make eye contact with me much less speak to me. At that moment I felt invisible. I understood there was no way for him or any other officer to speak up because if they did, they too would become targets. I used to not be able to talk about my former partner shunning me without crying. Time has made it easier to deal with.
Be ready to lose your identity. For many officers, it is impossible to separate themselves from the work. You literally are what you do. For me all of this was true.
The police brotherhood I once thought was special now feels insincere and very phony. It has taken little effort to let it go.
So, if you are considering picking up a whistle and blowing it, don’t think about everything you’re going to lose. Think about what you will gain and the world opening up to you. That bubble you are living in is a cage. A brand new life full of endless opportunities and experiences awaits you. The secret is out— law enforcement is broken. Everyone is now keenly aware that there are deep, systemic problems within police culture. Whistleblowers can be part of a solution to fix the broken police culture. There is only one way to restore the honor and integrity of law enforcement and that is to act with ethical intent in all you do. We are each given moments of opportunity to do the right thing. Those moments can be very scary and feel like being in an alley and having two choices, to fight or die. When asked to write this blog I almost passed. Then I realized there can be no police reform until we shed light upon these inconvenient truths. My silence would feel like complicity and this is something we can no longer afford to do.
In 2020 the images of me began trending on Twitter again. I am no longer horrified, now I own it. Each time this happens it feels like a virtual medal of valor, one I wear with great pride. I am living my best life without limits, I am living my truth and I am honored to be considered a lamplighter.
Laura Schook is a former law enforcement officer, her decorated career cut short after she exposed police corruption. She is a graduate of Indiana University and completed an internship with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy before joining the Louisville Metro Public Defender as a Criminal Defense Investigator assigned to the Capital Trial Division. She is a member of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the National Association of Public Defenders. She remains active with her alma mater serving on the School of Social Science Advisory Board.
2021 marks the launch of her own company, Ethical Investigations LLC. Laura is dually licensed in Kentucky and Indiana and offers clients criminal defense investigation services with a specialization in capital cases. When she is not zealously advocating for clients she enjoys being with her family, reading, traveling, cooking, working out, and spending time with the three family dogs Ronin, Fedor, and Gideon.