Fberuary 16, 2024

Staying Fit to Fight: Insights from David Schilling

By Tom Groendal

As investigators venture into the vast expanse of the open, deep, and dark web, they encounter a multitude of content, ranging from legally dubious conversations to outright criminal activities like fraud, drug trafficking, and cybercrime.

"Rest is a part of training. Your body needs time to recover and build strength." - Carl Lewis

Like athletes pushing through injuries for their team, investigators face tough challenges every day. But, just as physical injuries can hurt an athlete's performance, the mental strain and exposure to disturbing content can affect their psychological health, professional performance, and overall career trajectory.

In this series, we delve into the insights shared by seasoned veterans in these fields, shedding light on effective strategies to mitigate exposure to toxic content while sustaining longevity in the relentless fight against some of the most infamous actors on the open and dark web.

Our latest interviewee is David Schilling, a Correctional Intelligence Officer specializing in white supremacist prison gangs. He offers invaluable insights, providing essential guidance on preserving mental wellness while navigating extremist ideologies.

Know thyself

In the work David does, he has to spend a lot of time around and interact with prisoners who believe in violent and racist ideologies, which can impact you if you're not careful.

David: “Don't go in there with such an open mind that you become a sponge and all of a sudden you're adapted to it and that's what you are. That's very, very easy to do, especially when people start saying, 'Hey, read this book. Check it out.'"

He suggests being self-aware and intentional about your beliefs to ensure you don't get influenced by this.

David: "You have to compartmentalize stuff. Humans are tribal creatures, essentially. They tend to follow along with whatever group they're in over time. So if you're constantly exposed to something and you don't actively mitigate that, it'll come back to bite you."

David: “The most important thing is you have to know yourself. I have a really big drive to go after this stuff. I don't like that my heritage was ripped off and appropriated and used for evil, so that's how I deal with it, but I think everybody's a little bit different. Not everybody was a nerdy kid who sat around reading all the time about runes and Vikings."

Know when to turn it off

David said you may become hyper-aware over time, but that doesn't always help your well-being.

David: “Over time, you can develop a kind of hyper-awareness. You notice all these little things, and sometimes the hardest part is shutting some of that out so you don't notice every tiny thing."

David: “It’s kind of a zen state of observance. That can be a very peaceful thing, but at the same time, the water still reflects absolutely everything around you, and it doesn't matter where you are or if you're in public. You'll noticing something's going on."

He spoke about what happens when you get over-exposed to this kind of work, and why you should take breaks.

David: “You start to isolate a little bit. You find yourself becoming angry all the time, feeling frustration. It's hard to shut it off, and hard to get out of that space, hard to get out of your own head... you wake up thinking about it, and your mind doesn't ever give you a break."

David: "People are an unknown quantity. You can develop into a bit of a misanthrope over time where you decide, ‘I don't really like people,’ and that becomes a natural thing if you don't consciously look at that and decide, ‘Hey, that's not cool,' and, 'I have to stop that.’"

To combat these thoughts, he suggests learning how to turn it off through mindfulness.

David: “It's nice to go into your comfort zone where you can say, ‘OK. I'm safe. Everything's safe around me.' It's nice just being able to pull that bubble in a little bit to where you don't see everything all the time."

Establish boundaries

At the same time, he doesn't think you have to be unfriendly to the people you come across when working. You just need to establish boundaries.

David: “The whole thing I teach to people is to be friendly but don't make friends. You have to be very careful not to cross that line because, all of a sudden, you find yourself agreeing with your new friends, and that's where the real danger lies. The next thing you know, you find yourself saying, ‘That black guy just caught me off in traffic,’ and it's like, 'Wait a minute. Where is that coming from?'"

One way to protect your private and family from being influenced by your work is through adding rituals and ceremonies to your life.

David: “Look at church services, Buddhist temples, people who practice Odinism and also true modern day witchcraft: every belief system or everything like that has a so-called introductory ritual. That brings you into the ritual mindset, where you can make that transformation. And for God's sake, don't take it home and let it go on the kids and start screaming at them."

Arming yourself for the battle ahead

David Schilling's approach to staying fit for the fight highlights mindfulness, self-awareness, and ritualistic practices in navigating the challenging terrain of extremist ideologies. By prioritizing mental health, investigators can stay in the fight against online crimes without sacrificing their mental health.

About David Schilling

Since 2006, David J. Schilling, M.S., has been a dedicated professional in the Criminal Justice Field, serving as a Correctional Officer, Security Threat Group specialist, and gang instructor. With expertise in street gangs, white supremacist groups, jail intelligence process implementation, and other occult and extremist group topics, David actively consults and shares information with various local, state, and Federal agencies, prosecutors, training associations, and agencies overseas.

Interested in learning more about David and his expertise? Check out these resources: