How Should Police, Schools Investigate Suicides?


After Ben Brownlee, 15, committed suicide in his Rockdale, Tex., home, last November, his mother, Karen Johle, heard that two football players at his high school had assaulted him that day. She reported the story to police, who did a quick check three weeks later and closed the case. The Austin Chronicle explores whether school or law enforcement authorities should have done more.

The school, says the Chronicle, seems “officially determined to pretend Ben’s death didn’t happen. One of Ben’s friends recently told Johle that students caught talking about Ben while in school are immediately sent to the principal’s office and reprimanded. Nor has Ben’s death prompted any internal inquiry or policy review by district officials, Johle says – a circumstance that advocates and attorneys aware of the growing number of school harassment lawsuits also find disturbing.”

Two national law enforcement experts say that they don’t believe the Rockdale Police Department has done enoug. “Rumors come up in just about every young juvenile homicide/suicide,” said Harry O’Reilly, a retired 20-year veteran homicide and sex-crimes investigator for the New York City police now at the Southern Policing Institute in Kentucky. “My concern as an investigator would be in tracking down that rumor – it would’ve had to have started from somebody being told, or somebody would have had to see it.” The police need to make a “reasonable effort” to locate the source of the rumor, he said, “but you can’t expect [the police] to canvass the whole school.”

Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York police investigator and prosecutor who teaches law and policing at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the Rockdale department compromised its ability to conduct a thorough inquiry into Ben’s death by failing to process Johle’s garage as a crime scene. “As an investigator, that is a sin,” he said. The integrity of the crime scene should’ve been maintained, and the police should’ve collected potential DNA evidence; every suicide should be treated as a homicide “until proven otherwise,” he continued. “There should not be a rush to judgment – it’s not like this has to be finished by Friday. It should be a painstaking process. This is ideal: collection of evidence, interviewing people, and close work with a pathologist.”


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