Video helps officer overturn suspension

Advocate staff photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Attorney Charles Dirks, left, speaks to his client, Baton Rouge Police Department Sgt. Robert Schilling Thursday at the Baton Rouge Fire Department headquarters during a hearing on Schilling's 15-day suspension after an altercation with a civilian at the scene of a traffic accident on Sept. 10, 2011.  Show caption
Advocate staff photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Attorney Charles Dirks, left, speaks to his client, Baton Rouge Police Department Sgt. Robert Schilling Thursday at the Baton Rouge Fire Department headquarters during a hearing on Schilling's 15-day suspension after an altercation with a civilian at the scene of a traffic accident on Sept. 10, 2011.

Dashboard camera reveals details

The Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board on Thursday overturned a 15-day suspension given to a Baton Rouge Police officer accused of pulling a woman out of a ditch by her hair following an altercation that led to the woman’s arrest on Sept. 10, 2011.

Police Chief Dewayne White had suspended Sgt. Robert Schilling for allegedly violating two departmental policies — command of temper and conduct unbecoming of an officer — and Schilling appealed the disciplinary action to the civil service board.

Some board members said they based their decision to overturn the suspension, in part, on the fact that Schilling was not disciplined for excessive use of force in the incident. The board voted unanimously to overturn the suspension on a motion from the civil service board’s vice president, Julie Cherry.

The incident occurred Sept. 10, 2011, on Nicholson Drive, after an LSU football game as Schilling was trying to move back a crowd so Emergency Medical Service personnel could attend to Eric Morris, whose motorcycle had struck a car. Morris was lying unconscious, surrounded by family and friends.

When Schilling and Morris’ son began arguing about Schilling’s attempt to move the crowd back, Morris’ wife, Melinda Morris, interjected herself between the two men and began hitting Schilling in the chest, according to Schilling’s attorney, Charlie Dirks, who showed the board a dashboard camera video of the confrontation.

As Melinda Morris kept moving forward while swinging at Schilling, the officer turned so he would not fall into a ditch and Melinda Morris’ momentum carried her into the ditch, Dirks told the board.

An amateur videographer who was shooting a party turned his camera to the accident to catch only Schilling pulling Melinda Morris out of the ditch by her hair, Dirks said.

That video, showed only the last part of the altercation, not the beginning, Dirks said. He said video from the dashboard camera in Schilling’s police unit showed Melinda Morris striking Schilling. The video, which had no sound, shows Schilling talking to the son of Eric and Melinda Morris when Melinda Morris runs up to Schilling and is seen swinging at him briefly before the two go off screen.

In May, Melinda Morris pleaded no contest to interfering with an officer in connection with the incident and received three months probation and a 10-day suspended prison sentence.

Dirks said after the ruling that he had been optimistic that Schilling’s suspension would be overturned because of the dashboard camera video showing more of the encounter that night. He said the testimony of a Police Academy defense instructor also was a key factor.

Cpl. Myron Daniels, a police academy instructor in defensive tactics for more than seven years, told the civil service board at Thursday’s hearing that recruits are taught to deal with subjects based on their degree of aggressiveness.

Schilling’s actions were a few degrees below what he could have done based on Melinda Morris’ aggressive behavior, according to a widely used scale called the “force continuum,” Daniels said. Daniels said Schilling could have used a baton or pepper spray to subdue Melinda Morris.

In response to questions from Dirks, Daniels said the actions an officer can take based on the use of force continuum do not differ depending on the subject’s sex.

Daniels added that while recruits are not trained to pull someone’s hair to, they are not taught to not pull someone’s hair.

Dirks used that testimony to question testimony by Police Chief Dewayne White that Schilling’s decision to pull Morris from the ditch by her hair was a “cruel tactic” and “in violation of department policy.”

White told the board that “the conduct exhibited by Sgt. Schilling was egregious and warranted disciplinary action.” He said that Schilling did not display emotional control when he grabbed Morris by her hair, but said he regained emotional control when he let another officer initiate the arrest.

White said he made the decision to suspend Schilling after reviewing both videos and talking to other officers involved, not just after he deemed that Schilling lost emotional control.

White was unavailable for comment after the board issued its ruling and spokesman Tommy Stubbs said the department had no comment regarding the ruling. Stubbs said he could not comment because Morris is suing the city-parish, the Police Department and Schilling.