Homicide Investigator David Taylor eased his Ford LTD down a dirt road deep in Florida’s Ocala National Forest. It was Saturday July 7, 1990; smack in the middle of the monsoon season. Heavy rains had fallen, and more clouds were rolling in to the sound of distant thunder.
A likely drenching notwithstanding, Taylor felt pretty good. As a boy in Upshur County, West Virginia, riveted by television’s Hawaii5-0 and Gunsmoke, he was hungry to become a cop. Now, he’d made it from prison corrections officer to beat cop to homicide detective, and was living his dream.
On this third day with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office’s Major Crimes Unit, however, a call about an unidentified, newborn baby had triggered a familiar, sinking feeling. A teenager had spotted smoke rising from a burn pile in the road.
Taylor parked, drinking in the isolation and 360 degree vista of trees. He had experience with gut-wrenching crimes involving children. Just two days earlier he’d worked the accidental drowning of a 7-year old. And his first day out of West Virginia’s State Police Academy in 1984, a young babysitter, unaware that the toddler she was caring for had followed her outside, ran over the baby’s head and shoulders. Taylor still shuddered, recalling the blood in the snow.
Now, another dead baby. “There was some anxiety,” he admitted. “It was so appalling to find a little baby just wrapped up in a sheet, soaked in blood, then stuffed in this bag and set on fire. I didn’t expect it to be that dramatic.” Not that anyone could have read his discomfort. Like all cops, he wore the unemotional mask of professionalism, and knew how to distance himself and stay objective.
At first, the wet ground had him worried, until he spotted a piece of plastic in the road. A deputy had covered the body. Good call. The rule is, you never alter a crime scene or touch evidence, but without the plastic, “Everything on the outside of the baby that was evidentiary in nature would have been washed down into the crevices of the earth.”
Louann Wagner, 17, was the ‘discovering party’. She calmly denied knowing anything about the baby or how it got there. Still, the detectives had a quick look around her home when her parents invited them inside. “Her mum and dad were appalled that anyone could do that to a baby,” Taylor recalled. Louann was pretty much eliminated as a suspect.
Evidence technicians arrived and documented the bundle in the road, then gently removed the plastic. “All you could see was the head of like a brand new baby, face up,” said Taylor. “You could still see soot around the mouth and nose, consistent with the baby being alive and inhaling smoke. Your heart just sinks to your gut. Who could do this to this little baby? Then reality sets in: Hey, you’ve got to work this case.”
Everything changed when chatty Louann told local reporters that it was a baby boy and that the police had said he was dead before the fire. “How could she know the baby was a boy?” said Taylor. “It was wrapped up all the way up to the chin. How did she know it was dead prior to the fire? We had no way of knowing that. How did she know factual details that we didn’t know?”
Confronted, Louann quickly confessed. Her stunned parents consented to a proper home search and the detectives discovered that Louann had given birth on her bed then flipped the mattress. “She’d wrapped the baby up, put it in the bag, stuffed it full of paper, walked down the road, then actually set the paper on fire,” Taylor recalled. “When you see a guy like her father cry, it’s devastating. That would have been his only grandchild.”
Louann Wagner was tried as an adult and convicted of second degree murder with a 25 year sentence (she was released in 2001.) Some 20 years later, teaching other law enforcement personnel, Taylor, 47, regularly describes her case.
“There was nothing to indicate she was in pain or that she’d just had a baby,” he said of the egg-on-the-face learning experience. “But hindsight being 20/20, if we’d moved things around as opposed to just standing in the doorway and looking. When we went back, we got on our hands and knees, looked under the bed. I was new, faced with a case like that, but you learn that you don’t take things at face value. You leave no stone unturned. And when you dig in the bottom of the hole, you dig one more foot.”
A year later, Taylor won a medal of commendation for his work as lead investigator in the death of Dick Humphreys, victim of notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos who murdered seven men in Florida.
Retired from active law enforcement and armed with a law degree, Taylor, a divorced father of three, has spent the intervening years lecturing law enforcement and criminal justice professionals around the U.S. He is now the Director of Extended Learning at West Virginia Wesleyan College and owns an online training company, the National Center for Public Safety Training which offers instructor-led training classes and over 200 online courses.
Taylor strongly advocates outside training for police officers and detectives, particularly in light of today’s hi-tech methods and strict judicial scrutiny of every aspect of their cases. “We have too much ‘intellectual incest’ going on today in agency in-house training circles,” he said. He believes outside training from recognized, credible sources helps avoid costly errors, and U.S. police agencies can face liability problems if they fail to train their officers properly.
Over 50% of U.S. law enforcement agencies have 10 officers or fewer. Some have never seen or worked a homicide. So outside training is a good way, Taylor explained, “to avoid old guys teaching new guys old, bad habits.”
The demand for better educated police officers is hardly surprising. 2007 was law enforcement’s deadliest year since 1989 (excluding 2001 and the September 11 terrorist attacks). Many of those who died from gunshots that year were wearing their body armor, but were shot in the head. Some believe that 2007’s high death toll has since made officers more vigilant, helping reduce fatalities. But the story doesn’t end there. Police work is often dangerous. In 2007, 59,201 officers were also assaulted while on duty. And traffic related accidents are another occupational hazard, resulting in more officer deaths than gunshots.
“I’m not an expert,” Taylor admitted, “but I wasn’t born yesterday, and there’s such a lack of respect among some youth. I don’t want to say it is open season, but I don’t think we’re too far from it.
“You always anticipate danger, you just don’t anticipate every car you stop, someone’s going to emerge with a gun, just like you don’t assume every parent’s a child abuser.” If officers continued functioning at that level of hyper-vigilance, Taylor explained, “You’d go nuts. You’d have a heart attack the first week of your career.”
He’s never had to shoot anyone and never killed anyone, but he’s been threatened, hit, sucker punched in head, and twice, he’s been shot at. Once, he was doing spot checks alone at night in a high crime area: “You hear gunfire, then you hear the bullets whizzing close to your head. Somebody’s taking a pot shot at a cop! So you say, ‘I’ll see you later!’”
Ocala, Florida K-9 officer Brian Litz, who was killed in 2004 during a routine ‘wellbeing’ check on a mentally unstable man, had attended Taylor’s homicide classes. “When Brian Litz went up to the door to check on him,” Taylor recalled, “the guy was in the middle of one of his delusions and cranked off a round through the window. Shot the deputy in the neck right above the vest. One of my best friends, deputy Bob Campbell, risked his life to try to save him, but Litz was dead in seconds.”
Firemen and police officers both handle tough, high-risk jobs. But unlike firemen, whose uniform conveys an image of heroism, a cop’s is often a thankless task with hostility from some factions of the public and anti-cop blogs on the Internet. Cases of officer misconduct, corruption or brutality represent a tiny percentage of the roughly 800,000 US law enforcement officers. Yet negative headlines can drown out public gratitude for their everyday heroics.
Very few officer-involved shootings are ever ruled unjustified which inevitably brings criticism from some quarters, but Taylor is unmoved. “You’ve got to believe in the system,” he said. “Sure there’ll be one or two slip through the cracks, but overall I think the police shootings are justified because we live in a very violent, dangerous world and I’ve seen the aftermath of it.
“Overall law enforcement is a very caring organization of people. The vast majority of cops deeply care about what goes on in your backyard. They are married, have families, they’re involved in the community. It’s sad when a good cop goes bad because the well is poisoned and it takes a while to purge that from people’s minds.”
Taylor has taught thousands of the detectives and uniformed officers for whom the ordinary can suddenly become dangerous. They face potentially life-threatening situations, make split second decisions, and handle gruesome crime scenes that would make average civilians blanch. Taylor teaches them about unpleasant things like time of death estimates and skin slippage and body leakage, and recognizing the imprint of a set of brass knuckles on a child’s head.
Knowing their world so intimately, he also understands the unique problems confronting stressed and demoralized officers. Police officers have above average rates of alcoholism, drug use, domestic abuse, depression and suicide. Robert E. Douglas Jr., the National Police Suicide Foundation’s (NPSF) executive director, is a former Baltimore City cop and longtime pastor to law enforcement.
“We’re not taking care of our soldiers coming back from Iraq, and we’re not taking care of our police officers,” said Douglas, noting that more officers take their own lives than die on the job. Law enforcement suicide rates are slippery. NPSF has claimed that a cop commits suicide in the U.S. every 17–21 hours. Some put the tally lower. Others, like Douglas, believe that there is actually considerable under-reporting. And historically, many suicides were ruled accidental deaths because of the shame factor, and to spare officers’ families.
“I’ve been doing this 18 years now and every time I give a lecture,” said Rev. Douglas, “at least one or two in the room are fantasizing about suicide. They will leave me notes, call me in my room.” They’re officers with a story to tell, a nightmare to share, images that they cannot shake, traumatized without treatment.
“We’re the forgotten soldiers,” he said. “I get emotional just thinking about it. “These officers are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful men and women, but they are in some deep stuff, more than any average citizen can possibly comprehend.”
Douglas recalled an Oklahoma state trooper confiding his difficulty with his first accident investigation six years earlier.
“He said, ‘I rolled up on this Interstate and a mother was running around the median strip with her headless child. I had to run after her, and I had to bring her down with the body of her child, and then I had to go get the head.’ He said, ‘You know something? I’ve never been able to get over that.’ Now, see, that’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And he’s still suffering from that PTSD.”
It doesn’t help that cops are expected—and expect themselves—to be invincible. Said Douglas, “They sometimes have that mindset of no one else is going to understand what they’re going through; you’ve got to be police to understand.”
Stressors range from an obvious critical incident like the trooper’s to feeling lack of support from management, alcohol and substance abuse, and relationship problems at home. A 1999 study put alcohol abuse among U.S. police officers at roughly twice the rate for the general population. “In police work our divorce ratio is, I would say, the highest of all professions,” said Douglas. “Our domestic violence ratio is double the general population’s.” Again, incidents are downplayed. A domestic violence conviction ends a U.S. officer’s career because they’re banned from carrying a gun. In Douglas’s experience, infidelity is a frequent manifestation of depression, which is common. However, officers see asking for help as weakness.
“These young men and women did not come into this profession with this kind of attitude or disposition or anxiety,” said Douglas. “It is something that we do as we train them. We turn them into warriors.”
Even though over 94% of the 1,300 officer suicides the NPSF reported in a recent three year period were attributed to relationship issues, in Douglas’s opinion, it all still comes back to the job: “The inability to communicate with our wives, our husbands, our children. And the breakdown of the most important part of a law enforcement family is the family, not so much the fellow officers. We are finding that when (male officers) lose their wife, either through domestic violence, divorce or separation, then they cannot continue on.”
Douglas hopes to see family involvement seminars set up to ease the officers’ transitions from work to home. He believes that about 20% of U.S. law enforcement officers are probably suffering from acute PTSD. “The remaining 80% have CCTS,” he said, “Cumulative Career Trauma Stress. That’s the everyday stresses—alarms going off, shoplifting, fighting, being jumped, whatever the case may be.”
Against this somber backdrop, recruitment and retention problems—which were especially dire prior to the increase in job-hunters resulting from the recession—are hardly surprising. While there was no shortage of would-be firefighters, police recruiters were grappling with (and will likely grapple with again) a nationwide crisis. Rotating shifts, low pay, the worst of humanity, and humanity at its worst, can be a hard sell.
“People say, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” acknowledged Sgt. Jeffrey Church (Ret.), a former police sergeant who owns Diversity Recruiting Specialists. “They say, ‘You get sued, you get beat up, you get shot, you get killed.’ They just don’t want to do it. It is dangerous. It might not be as dangerous as people think, but it is dangerous.
“Some people have that adventure gene where they’re willing to take the risk. Others don’t. We’re seeing more and more rifles and long guns, more and more disrespect for the police. They know they’re not going to be punished and jail seems to be a revolving door, so we are seeing more violent people and people that just aren’t afraid of the police anymore.” And as the field of law enforcement struggles to regain its balance, David Taylor insisted, education can only help.
American Legion magazine (published abbreviated version)