FLORISSANT • It was nearly eight years ago, but Kirk Lawless, a former Florissant police officer, says he can still taste the smoke from his gun and smell the blood of the man he killed.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve relived that moment,” said Lawless, 57, of north St. Louis County. “I kill this guy in my mind over and over, all day.”
Lawless had just begun an overnight shift in 2009 when he jumped on a call to back up a rookie cop responding to a home invasion. Within seconds, Lawless had shot and killed an 18-year-old coming toward him with a gun.
It was the only time he shot anyone in his nearly 28-year career, he said.
Lawless received a medal of valor for killing the man and possibly saving the lives of the rookie and two people inside the house. But the shooting ultimately ended Lawless’ police career because of the resulting post-traumatic stress diagnosis. Florissant fired him in 2012 over his inability to return to the streets.
Now, Lawless is fighting back in court against his former department, the city and his ex-bosses. The disability discrimination suit he filed four years ago goes to trial this week in St. Louis County Circuit Court. He accuses them of denying him counseling or light duty after he disclosed his diagnosis, requiring him to use sick time instead of providing workers’ compensation while in treatment, and then firing him.
“Honest to God, I feel like I’ve been in prison since it happened,” Lawless said.
Florissant police did not respond to requests for interviews. Jason Retter, a lawyer representing Florissant, said: “The city adamantly denies Mr. Lawless’ allegations that they discriminated against him or any other acts of wrongdoing, and we’re looking forward to presenting our evidence in court.”
Just after 11 p.m. on July 19, 2009, at least four intruders forced their way into a home in the 2800 block of Cranberry Court and held Michael L. Jackson and his stepfather, Marlon Harden, at gunpoint. They said they were looking for Jackson’s brother, pistol-whipped the two men and ransacked the house in search of cash stored in a safe.
“A couple times they shoved a gun in my mouth and kept asking me, ‘Where’s the money at?’” Jackson said in a recent interview. “There was blood everywhere. Right before the police came, they said, ‘Let’s kill them now.’”
Some of the intruders ran off as Lawless and two other officers stood outside. Jhmari C. McCoy tossed aside a St. Louis Cardinals ball cap that was concealing a stolen silver .357 Magnum revolver in his right hand. He ran past the rookie officer toward Lawless, who said he made eye contact with McCoy and ordered him to the ground before shooting him twice, fatally injuring him.
“If I didn’t do it, I’d be dead,” Lawless said.
Jackson credits police with saving their lives.
Four months after the shooting, Lawless was awarded the Crusade Against Crime’s Medal of Valor, the highest annual honor in St. Louis law enforcement.
Two years later, two of the other intruders, Javaughn Garth of Vinita Park and Jeron Ward of St. Peters, pleaded guilty to felony murder and other crimes. Garth was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Ward to 15.
Lawless was hired by Florissant in 1987 after three years with Jennings police. While at Florissant, he served as a detective; trained new officers; and worked undercover on a drug task force.
After the shooting, he returned to patrol after just one day off, despite not having slept since the shooting, he says. His first assignment was an armed robbery at an Imo’s Pizza; the robber took off before he arrived.
“That was a whistle-clean shooting, but if I went back out and got into another one, how were they going to view that one?” he said.
Months passed and he began suffering nightmares, night sweats, insomnia, violent dreams and flashbacks.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in late 2010 but waited several months to tell his department, he said. Lawless said his bosses initially told him his treatment would be covered but later required him to take family leave and use sick time. His last day in uniform was in April 2011.
Florissant “never paid a penny,” Lawless said. “Never sent me to a doctor. I literally begged them for help.”
The city’s filings also say that Lawless’ Social Security disability claim for PTSD and a heart condition dates to April 30, 2011, so the city owes no lost wages or benefits.
Lawless lives with his wife and son in North County. He used to have a therapy horse, Corrina, but sold her to pay bills. He takes numerous medications for anxiety but stopped weekly counseling sessions a few years ago because he could no longer afford them.
His wife, Lynda Lawless, said the shooting and PTSD have alienated them from people at the department whom they once called friends.
“I realize now why people don’t reach out for help,” she said. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for what the backlash would be from the department. For all those years, we were part of that police family, and after this happened, it’s like we fell off the face of the Earth.”
PTSD has ruined her husband’s sleep and makes him anxious about leaving the house; sometimes he takes clippers and tears off the skin around his fingernails until they bleed, she said.
“He says it reminds him he’s still alive,” she said.
Police and PTSD
While traumatic stress among military veterans has received lots of attention, less has been paid to police and first responders, experts say. Police often bottle up those emotions and ignore yearslong exposure to traumatic situations.
“We’re very closed up, and it’s not just police. It’s all first responders,” said Kansas City police Maj. Darren Ivey, who developed a training program on recognizing stress and anxiety from secondary trauma, which comes from observing other people’s traumatic experiences. “Not only do we keep things close to the vest, we’ve been told our entire career to basically suck it up.”
That’s partly why it’s difficult to accurately assess how many police officers experience PTSD.
President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015 urged police departments to address mental health of officers, citing statistics that police commit suicide almost 2½ times more often than others kill them.
Steven Bruce, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Trauma Recovery Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said recent studies estimate that 6 percent to 20 percent of police officers experience PTSD; he believes awareness within police departments is growing because prolonged overseas wars have produced combat veterans who return home and become police officers.
Lawless’ case against Florissant, Bruce said, “does nothing but reinforce the notion that if I come forward, that I’m going to get fired. It makes that cycle of being silent all the more powerful.”
Kyle Dooley, 44, of Cottleville, a former Lake Saint Louis officer who has suffered from depression and anxiety, helps run crisis training programs for St. Louis area police through the National Alliance of Mental Illness. This year, he said, Missouri began requiring that police get a minimum two hours of wellness training, which involves learning to maintain a healthy lifestyle and recognize risk factors.
“The state has recognized that it’s a problem,” he said.
‘Nothing to hide’
Lawless hasn’t sought work since he left Florissant; he was a police officer his entire adult life and doesn’t know what else he would do.
Nearly eight years later, he still describes feelings of “hypervigilance” — always looking over his shoulder for potential threats and ready for a fight. He carries a pistol in public.
In 2014, Lawless wrote a letter to McCoy titled “A letter to the man I killed” in which Lawless explained how he was changed by killing McCoy. Last year, a police documentary, “Officer-Involved,” which tells stories of officers after police shootings, tapped Lawless to record himself reading the letter to help promote the movie. He did it anonymously.
“I took your life, I get that,” Lawless wrote. “But still, you took something from me. And you changed me forever. … Killing a man is nothing to take lightly. It changes you. It changes what people think of you. You aren’t the same person anymore. And still I love life. I revel in the beauty of it, both the simplicities and intricacies of it. I appreciate life. This solitary act does not define me; it doesn’t even scratch the surface.”
Lawless insists this week’s trial isn’t solely about money; he wants to tell his story and be compensated for a law enforcement career cut short.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “They robbed me of 13 years on the job. I want vindication.”