Cops Under Fire

Homicide investigator David Taylor eased his Ford LTD down a dirt road somewhere in Florida's Ocala National Forest. It was July 7, 1990 - the middle of the rainy season. Fresh clouds were rolling in, and thunder crashed in the distance. Taylor knew he was about to become drenched.

He had a grim job to do, and he felt confident in his ability to get it done. Growing up in Upshur County, W.Va., riveted by "Hawaii Five-0" and "Gunsmoke," he'd hungered to be where he was at this moment: a cop working a possible murder. He'd gone from corrections officer to beat cop to homicide detective. He was living his dream.

The Florida sky filled with rain as Taylor pulled up to the crime scene. A newborn baby had apparently been burned to death. The rain-soaked ground had Taylor worried until he saw that a deputy had covered the tiny body with plastic. A good call. Without the plastic, Taylor said, "everything on the outside of the baby that was evidentiary in nature would have been washed down into the crevices of the earth."

The teenager who called in the crime, Louann Wagner, 17, was calm. She said she knew nothing about the baby other than her discovery of the body. But the case turned when Louann told local reporters the baby was a boy, and that he was already dead before someone lit the fire. "How could she know the baby was a boy?" Taylor recalls. "It was wrapped up all the way 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. After her stunned parents consented to a home search, the detectives discovered that the teenager 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 recalls. The teenager was tried as an adult and convicted of second-degree murder.

Seventeen years later, Taylor cites the Wagner case when teaching classes to law-enforcement personnel. David Taylor is one former cop among many who works in a growing support industry for police officers; about 60,000 are assaulted per year, and one is killed every 57 hours in the line of duty. Beyond physical safety, mental health is also risked by those who investigate, day in and day out, the unexpected horrors of crimes no one can explain.

Police officers are under siege in America, facing a dramatic rise in shootings and other attacks. In 2007, 69 officers died from gunshots. Altogether, 188 officers were killed last year, up from 145 in 2006.

Fifty-five percent of U.S. law-enforcement agencies have 10 officers or fewer, and many never see or work a homicide case. But they all have to be trained and prepared for such an event. Because police agencies face serious liability problems if they fail to train their officers properly, demand for outside training services is high.

Taylor, retired from law enforcement but now armed with a law degree, teaches for the Public Agency Training Council, a private police- and fire-service training firm. He also has his own online training company, the National Center for Public Safety Training. Outside training, he says, is essential for successful police work and therapeutic for those who face the sometimes-gruesome realities of the job.

"I don't want to say it's open season, but I don't think we're too far from it," Taylor says. "You always anticipate danger. You just don't anticipate every car you stop, someone's going to emerge with a gun." Taylor says he's never had to shoot anyone, but he's been threatened, hit, sucker-punched in the head, and shot at twice.

Brian Litz, a K-9 officer for the Ocala police, was killed in 2004 during a well-being check on a mentally unstable man. Litz had attended Taylor's homicide classes. "When Brian went up to the door to check on him," Taylor says, "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."

A cop's work is often a thankless task. Cases of police-officer misconduct, corruption or brutality represent a tiny percentage of the roughly 800,000 officers nationwide. When those issues arise, they make headlines, often drowning out public gratitude for the work they do.

"Sure, there'll be one or two (who) slip through the cracks," Taylor says. "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's homicide and death-investigation classes are filled with detectives and uniformed officers who often face potentially life-threatening situations, make split-second decisions and handle horrific crime scenes. Taylor teaches them numerous unpleasant facts: time-of-death estimates, skin slippage, body leakage, recognizing a brass-knuckle imprint on a child's head.

The strains can be immense. Police officers have higher-than-average rates of alcoholism, drug use, domestic abuse, depression and suicide. Former cops such as Taylor have taken up that issue, too. One of them is the Rev. Robert E. Douglas, Jr., executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation (NPSF), a former Baltimore police officer and longtime pastor to law enforcement. Discussing medical treatment, Douglas draws a parallel between police officers and combat troops.

"We're not taking care of our soldiers coming back from Iraq, and we're not taking care of our police officers," he says, pointing out that more officers take their own lives than die on the job. According to NPSF statistics, a police officer commits suicide about every 19 hours in the United States.

"I've been doing this 18 years now, and every time I give a lecture, at least one or two in the room are fantasizing about suicide," Douglas says. "They will leave me notes or call me in my room." They are officers with a story to tell, a nightmare to share, images they cannot shake - traumatized without knowing where to turn for treatment.

"We're the forgotten soldiers," Douglas says. "These officers are wonderful men and women, but they are in some deep stuff, more than any average citizen can possibly comprehend."

The public, meanwhile, expects police officers to be invincible, and they try to live up to that expectation. "They sometimes have that mind set of no one else is going to understand what they're going through," Douglas says. "You've got to be police to understand."

Infidelity is a frequent manifestation of depression, he says, and it's common among police officers, who can be stubborn about seeking help. "These young men and women did not come into this profession with this kind of attitude or disposition, or anxiety," Douglas says. "It is something that we do as we train them. We turn them into warriors."

Although nearly 95 percent of the 1,300 officer suicides over the past three years were attributed to relationship issues, Douglas believes those issues are generally connected to job pressure. He supports family seminars as a tool to ease officer transition from work to home.

Douglas also estimates that about 20 percent of U.S. law-enforcement officers are suffering from PTSD. "The remaining 80 percent have cumulative career trauma stress, or CCTS," he says. "That's the everyday stresses: alarms going off, shoplifting, fighting, being jumped, whatever the case may be."

Such job conditions take a toll on recruitment and retention.

"People say, ‘I don't want to do it,'" acknowledges retired Sgt. Jeffrey Church, a former police sergeant and U.S. Air Force Reserve officer who now owns and operates Diversity Recruiting Specialists. "They say, ‘You get sued, you get beat up, you get shot, you get killed.' 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," Church says. "Others don't. We're seeing more and more rifles and long guns, more and more disrespect for the police. (Criminals) know they're not going to be punished, and jail seems to be a revolving door, so we are seeing people who just aren't afraid of the police any more."

So desperate is the need for new blood that recruiters in California, Texas and Florida, for example, scout in one another's states. Police officers sometimes get referral fees for putting forward candidates, and new recruits sometimes get signing bonuses. Pay varies widely among locations.

Ultimately, recruitment and retention may hinge more on marketing than money. "South Dakota can't compete with the wages in San Jose, so they don't even try," he says. "What you sell there is a sense of family, clean air and cheap houses. There's a lot more to it than money."

Like service in the U.S. Armed Forces, domestic law enforcement is a duty only a few are capable of fulfilling - often with great sacrifice - to protect others. Today, as more police officers are falling in the line of duty, the question arises: who will protect the protectors? Former cops such as David Taylor, Robert E. Douglas Jr., and Jeffrey Church are doing what they can to help answer that question.

Sue Russell is a freelance writer living in California.

 

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