An acclaimed crime reporter leaves her newsroom for police work

Taylor Dungjen on December 6, 2017, at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio. Photograph courtesy of The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth.

ROOKIE COP TAYLOR DUNGJEN was on a routine Friday night patrol in Toledo, Ohio, last September when an alert came over the radio: Someone had been attacked in the parking lot of a nearby mini-mart. A 911 caller had reported screaming, the dispatcher said. There might be a gun.

Dungjen and her partner pulled up to the mini-mart in the dark. A man was lying motionless on the ground; the rest of the lot seemed deserted. But as she parked the police cruiser, Dungjen noticed a second man, who was retreating quietly toward a side street.

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Dungjen got out of the car and shone her flashlight in his direction. As she moved closer, she glimpsed a shiny silver object dangling from his hand. Then it dawned on her: “I might have to shoot this man.”

In her first few months as a police officer, Dungjen had unholstered her weapon only once, during an uneventful house inspection. She’d never pointed it at a person. But when she saw the glint of silver, Dungjen drew her gun and shouted at the man to drop what he was holding. She could hear her partner’s keys clanging as he ran toward her in the dark.

“I don’t even remember pulling out my gun, which they tell you during training happens — you do it and don’t realize it. Your body just does it for you,” Dungjen says. “You understand that the hostility of having to defend yourself and others with deadly force is a part of this job. But it’s not something that you want to have to do.”

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I wanted to tell someone, ‘I’m going to a bank robbery!’ That adrenaline rush, being super-pumped—I just loved it.

 

BEFORE SHE ENROLLED in the police academy in 2016, Dungjen, 29, spent her days chronicling urban crime, not fighting it. In 2011, she had come to Toledo to work as a police reporter for the local newspaper, the Toledo Blade. Two years later, she won national acclaim for a series of articles about gang violence in the city. The centerpiece of the series was a color-coded map, based on months of interviews with gang members and detectives, that showed the neighborhoods claimed by the city’s more than 40 gangs.

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“There’s no cop in the state of Ohio who’ll have better-written reports than hers,” says Kurt Franck, the executive editor of the Blade. “She was without a doubt one of the best writers we had. You could give her any kind of story, and she’d come back with a winner.”

Dungjen has curly brown hair, which she ties in a tight bun, and tattoos on both her arms. She is forceful and decisive, traits that have served her well as both journalist and police officer, even as her career decisions have left her family members concerned for her safety. A single mother, Dungjen spends her scarce free time with her son, Milan, whose father plays no role in the child’s upbringing. Dungjen’s Twitter feed is full of videos of her son’s antics: Milan dancing and clapping, Milan throwing tissues on the floor, Milan putting a toy tractor in his mouth. “He’s the most energetic 2-year-old on the planet,” she says.

Taylor Dungjen with her son, Milan, before the 63rd Toledo Police Academy graduation ceremony at Bowsher High School, Friday, May 19, 2017. Photograph courtesy of The Blade/Andy Morrison.

Dungjen comes from a family of journalists. Before she was born, her father, Steve Dungjen, worked on the sports desk of the Medina County Gazette, a small paper just outside Cleveland. A colleague at the Gazette, Jenni Laidman, introduced Steve to her sister, whom he eventually married. Two decades later, when Dungjen left her hometown, a small, mostly white suburb of Akron, for the University of Cincinnati, she planned to major in public relations. Then Aunt Jenni intervened. “Hell, no,” Laidman told her. “No one in this family is going into PR.” Dungjen switched her major to journalism before the end of her freshman year.

After she graduated, Dungjen took a job as a night cop reporter at the Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio. A lot of the time, she hated the work: “I was mostly covering the county fair,” she says. But there were moments of pure ecstasy. “The first time I covered a bank robbery was in Lorain. It came over the radio as a guy in a bank, he’s got a gun. And I’m driving there, and I’m calling everyone in my phone wishing that someone would frickin’ answer,” Dungjen says. “I wanted to tell someone, ‘I’m going to a bank robbery!’ That adrenaline rush, being super-pumped—I just loved it.”

Dungjen left Lorain to join the Blade in March 2011. She loved the crime beat because it put her in the middle of the action. Her childhood had been quiet; her father left journalism to work in retail, and her mother was in the jewelry business. In high school, Dungjen worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and never got into trouble. “I was just a sheltered kid from a middle-class suburb of Akron, where the biggest news that we ever had was a Walmart opening,” she says. “It was just a really sad, pathetic life. It was good, but in the grand scheme of being a cultured person, it was boring.”

Toledo was different. Dungjen’s first months at the Blade were among the most violent in the city’s history. Shootings rose 70 percent over the previous year. During a bloody 24 hours in June 2012, nine people were shot, two of them fatally. It was tragic. But it was also precisely the type of experience she was looking for.

Dungjen did most of her reporting outside the office, joining police officers on ride-alongs and knocking on doors in crime-ridden neighborhoods. She accumulated a substantial following on Twitter, where she posted updates on her personal life as well as links to her latest stories. “She’s the kind of a reporter that goes to police lines and taps up the cops for half an hour and is very friendly with them and will get text messages from them,” says Nolan Rosenkrans, a friend and former Blade colleague.

She was also “an occasional pest,” says Joe Heffernan, who served as the police spokesman during Dungjen’s tenure at the Blade. One photograph “kind of sums up what she was like as a reporter,” Heffernan says. It shows Dungjen, with a notebook balanced precariously on her lap, staring intently across a desk at Derrick Diggs, then Toledo’s police chief. In the background, Heffernan sits by the window, his arms crossed and his brow anxiously furrowed. “She was very respectful but not shy,” Heffernan says. “She would ask the hard questions, and she has guts.”

 

We would approach people and be like, ‘We’re working on a gang map.’ And even saying ‘gang map’ would get people scared.

 

SHE WAS OBSERVANT, TOO. As Dungjen covered shooting after shooting for the Blade, she started to notice that the violence was concentrated in a relatively small number of neighborhoods. “Why does this one street have so many shots? Why are so many people on this street being killed?” she wondered. A detective told her to go on YouTube and look up the Lil Heads, a Toledo street gang affiliated with the Bloods.

“I was like, ‘Holy shit,’” Dungjen says. “There are young people with massive guns, talking about killing people. What the hell is this?”

Part of the answer, the Blade had heard, could be found on a secret police department map that charted the neighborhoods controlled by each of the city’s gangs. In the summer of 2012, after a little more than a year on the crime beat, Dungjen asked the department for a copy. Publishing the map, she thought, would give readers a sense of how big the city’s gang problem was. But the police refused, arguing that the document was involved in ongoing investigations. To get the map, the Blade sued the department, invoking Ohio’s Public Records Act.

Months passed. The Blade’s publisher, John Block, was confident that the newspaper would eventually win its legal battle, but he was growing increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of the judicial process. “One day, I said, ‘I’m tired of waiting,’” Block recalls. “‘Why don’t we just go out on the street and figure out what gangs are operating where?’”

Blade editors assigned Dungjen and photographer Amy Voigt to the story. For the next three months, the Blade took the two journalists off daily assignments so they could focus all their energy on the gang-map project. The first few days were demoralizing. Voigt and Dungjen didn’t have a plan. They drove aimlessly through gang-controlled neighborhoods, asking locals for information.

“We would approach people and be like, ‘We’re working on a gang map.’ And even saying ‘gang map’ would get people scared,” Voigt says. “Plus we’re two white girls, which looks strange, like we’re undercover cops.”

When Dungjen got home that weekend, she recalls, she broke down in tears, certain she would fail. But over the next few weeks, the project started to gather steam. A Twitter follower put Dungjen in touch with Roshawn Jones, the owner of a Toledo boxing gym called Soul City that works to steer city youth away from crime. An ex-gang member, Willie Knighten, introduced the reporters to local gangbangers, some of them still on the streets, others locked behind bars. Everywhere they went, Dungjen and Voigt brought along a cardboard-mounted, 3’ x 5’ map of Toledo and a box of 54 colored pencils.

“We’d ask them what territory they claimed, and they would pretty much color it in for us. Anytime we’d add a new gang, we’d tape a Post-it note to the colored pencil so we wouldn’t get our colors confused,” Dungjen says. “It was the frickin’ dead of winter when we were doing this too, and it was windy, and the thing would try to blow away.”

The project occasionally put Dungjen and Voigt in harm’s way. After a riot broke out at a high school basketball game they were covering, one spectator took a swing at Voigt, knocking a hat off her head. Another time, the pair had to beat a quick retreat when a meet-up with the Lil Heads was interrupted by an out-of-town gang member in an expensive car. The Blade’s editors had ordered Dungjen and Voigt to buy pepper spray, but they never actually brought it along. “People can sense when you’re nervous around them,” Dungjen said. “Had we tried to put up barriers or be overly protective of ourselves, we wouldn’t have been successful.”

As she reported the series, Dungjen became deeply invested in the people she was interviewing: children growing up without fathers, parents desperate to keep their sons off the streets, teenage boys who said they didn’t expect to live past 25. One of her articles focused on a member of the Manor Boyz, a gang based in a Toledo housing project called Moody Manor, who had been initiated when he was 8 years old.

“I just couldn’t help but feel for him. I’m such a sucker for kids,” Dungjen said. “When you think about when you were 8 years old, the incredible difference in how our lives panned out, different opportunities—it’s frankly pretty fucking depressing.”

The Blade’s gang series was published in April 2013, nearly four months after Dungjen and Voigt began hauling their cardboard map around the city. Block, the publisher, compared the completed map to a diagram of medieval Europe: a sprawling landscape of city-states and fiefdoms, bitter rivalries and tenuous alliances. Some of the smaller gangs, like the Prospect Boys and the Junction Street Gangsters, controlled only a block or two. Others dominated entire neighborhoods. According to the Blade map, the Lil Heads, whose violent YouTube videos had started Dungjen on her gang investigations, controlled more than 30 square blocks of Toledo, stretching from a major avenue to a highway running through the center of town.

I plunked down the gang map and said, ‘There it is.’ And Taylor’s immediate response was something like ‘It’s not nearly as good as ours.’

The map’s publication drew a furious reaction from Toledo’s mayor, Mike Bell, who accused the Blade of “irresponsible journalism” that would jeopardize efforts to attract investment. Although Diggs, the police chief, acknowledged at the time that Toledo had a gang problem, he still resents the publication of the Blade’s series.

“When that story went out, there was a lot of criminal damage that basically was done by folks because of inaccurate information that was published that really identified areas as under control of gangs that weren’t,” says Diggs, now the police chief in Fort Myers, Florida. “A lot of people had their homes damaged and marked up.”

Beyond city hall and the police department, however, the Blade’s gang project was hailed as a triumph for local journalism. Dungjen received a glowing write-up on the Poynter Institute’s website, and she and Voigt won a fistful of awards from local and national journalism organizations. The series also raised awareness about gang violence in Toledo: Readers flooded Soul City with donations, which the boxing gym used to establish a tutoring program that continues to this day. “She made us really known,” said Jones, Soul City’s owner. “A lot more kids feel safer coming here.”

A few days after the Blade published its gang series, executive editor Franck received an unexpected phone call: One of his neighbors had obtained the police department’s map, passed along by a retired cop who lived nearby. Franck summoned Dungjen, Blade Managing Editor Dave Murray and the paper’s city editor to his office to examine the long-awaited document, which turned out to include information on just half the city’s gangs. “I plunked down the gang map and said, ‘There it is,’” Franck recalls. “And Taylor’s immediate response was something like ‘It’s not nearly as good as ours.’”

As she returned to daily reporting, Dungjen started receiving job offers from newspapers in higher-profile cities, like Detroit and Memphis. “They were very enticing,” she says. But Dungjen was happy in Ohio. She had a circle of close friends, and her family lived nearby. And most of all, she says, “I still had work to do in Toledo.”

 

I wanted to do more to build a community of safety and thought I could do more on the front line than as a reporter.

 

FRANCK RANKS THE GANG MAP alongside two of the Blade’s proudest journalistic accomplishments: its Pulitzer Prize–winning 2004 stories on war crimes in Vietnam, and a series about local corruption that was a finalist for the public-service Pulitzer in 2006. But in the years since those triumphs, the paper has been ravaged by the same economic forces—declining ad revenue and print circulation—that have bedeviled newsrooms large and small across the country. Over the past decade, the newspaper’s staff has endured a series of wage reductions, as well as cuts to sick time and retirement compensation.

As a young reporter, Dungjen was acutely aware of the economic challenges facing local newspapers. Her father had left journalism because of the low pay, and that was at a time when the industry was doing relatively well. In the mid-2000s, when Dungjen told him that she planned to pursue journalism, he replied, “You’re going to be broke forever.”

Those financial considerations didn’t trouble Dungjen at the beginning of her career. “To me, anything worth doing is just worth doing,” she says. “I’ve never been afraid to go after something. There’s just not enough time to be scared of anything …  If I waste time worrying about consequences, nothing gets done.” But after the gang project, Dungjen started to get antsy. She felt chained to her desk and missed “being in the mayhem of it all.” From time to time, police officials had jokingly asked her when she planned to take the police exam and become a cop. “She had an eye for angles,” Heffernan says. “That’s what makes you a good reporter, and it’s also what makes you a good cop. People lie to us all the time. We have to constantly try to peel off those layers to get to the truth.”

It’s not that unusual for police officers to leave law enforcement and become reporters. Mike Sheehan spent 25 years in the New York Police Department before he started covering crime for Fox 5. The longtime New York Daily News police reporter John Marzulli is a former officer. But reporters becoming police officers is far less common. In 1994, John Miller left a reporting job at WNBC to join the New York City police, but as a spokesman, not a cop. (Miller now works as the police department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counter-terrorism.)

She just became such a believer that cops were doing the right thing.

At first, Dungjen laughed off the idea of leaving the Blade to become a police officer. But soon the prospect of a career in law enforcement began to seem more appealing. After the gang series came out, she started boxing at Soul City to improve her fitness. (In the wake of his war of words with the Blade, Dungjen took to Twitter to claim she could beat Mayor Bell in a bout.) She also learned she could make more money as a cop—even as a police academy trainee—than as a reporter at the Blade. “Those pay and benefit issues have hurt the Blade and a lot of newspapers,” says Rosenkranz, Dungjen’s friend, who is president of the local chapter of the Newspaper Guild. “When you get disillusioned with the institutional goals or the job’s idiosyncrasies, it makes it difficult to have people punching the clock when you’re not making a good salary.”

Dungjen’s decision to leave journalism was not just about the money. She had other, less pragmatic reasons—a bundle of idealistic ambitions and festering frustrations that she still struggles to articulate. Before she started covering crime in Lorain, Dungjen knew virtually nothing about cops. No one in her family had ever worked in law enforcement, and she had never interacted with the police while growing up. “Everyone has a basic understanding of what a police officer is and what they do,” she says. “But I didn’t really grasp the totality of what officers do.” After five years as a cop reporter, she recognized the social value of police work and wanted to try her hand.

“The longer I was in Toledo, the more important the city became to me,” she says. “People were always talking about how they want to leave Toledo because they didn’t feel safe, and that was frustrating. I wanted to do more to build a community of safety and thought I could do more on the front line than as a reporter.”

In the spring of 2014, on a slow day in the Blade office, Dungjen signed up to take the police test. “The first thing I told her was ‘Don’t tell anyone,’” says Heffernan, the former police spokesman. “I didn’t want anyone trying to dissuade her.” Dungjen planned to keep her decision secret until she passed the test and earned a spot in the police academy. But in an office full of reporters, word leaked out. Dungjen was immediately reassigned to the business desk.

Executive Editor Franck says he was unsurprised that Dungjen decided to join the police force. “She just became such a believer that cops were doing the right thing,” he says. But when Voigt, Dungjen’s partner on the gang series, heard the news, she was shocked.

“You’re going to have to carry a gun. Can you carry a gun?” Voigt remembers asking her. “You carry a pen—you don’t carry a gun.”

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Voigt says she was “sad to see someone with such talent and creativity and such goodness leave the journalism world.” She was also perplexed by Dungjen’s choice. “To me, it’s like just changing teams,” she says. “It’s going from being completely unbiased, covering all sides of the story and being an educator to being law enforcement. It’s like night and day.”

 

If someone wants to say police officers are bad, my feelings are not going to get hurt. Being in journalism, they say, ‘Don’t read the comments.’ You just apply that to life in general.

 

THAT NIGHT AT THE MINI-MART, Dungjen never had to pull the trigger. Her partner, Dave Bright, tasered the fleeing suspect, who fell to the ground, next to a box cutter and a blood-spattered hammer. Dungjen tucked away her gun and pinned the man to the ground, while Bright checked on the victim lying in the parking lot.

On Friday, September 15th, Officer Dave Bright and Officer Taylor Dungjen (pictured) responded to the 1000 block of N….

Posted by Toledo Police Department on Monday, September 18, 2017

Dungjen is a white police officer in a city that is nearly 30-percent black. Although she acknowledges that racial bias is a problem in policing, she does not dwell on the national debate over the police’s treatment of black people, or bristle at criticism of police officers from politicians and activists. “If someone wants to say police officers are bad, my feelings are not going to get hurt,” Dungjen says. “Being in journalism, they say, ‘Don’t read the comments.’ You just apply that to life in general.”

Weeks after the mini-mart episode, a Toledo police detective was shot in the face during a middle-of-the-night drug raid. Although the detective recovered, the episode jolted Dungjen. “It makes you confront your own mortality,” she says. It also made her fear for Milan, her 2-year-old. “I could be in a fatal crash, I could be assaulted fatally, I could get seriously hurt and get hospitalized,” Dungjen says. “Who’s going to know where Milan’s at? I had to text a bunch of my friends and say, ‘Hey, if anything ever happens to me, here’s the address for weekday daycare, this is the address for weekend day care.’”

When I arrived in Toledo for a ride-along with Dungjen in November, she greeted me at the police station with a shotgun propped against her shoulder. Dungjen eventually stowed the gun in her police cruiser, and the afternoon passed without incident. As we drove around a quiet stretch of the city, Dungjen apologized repeatedly for the lack of excitement, apparently disappointed the local criminals had taken the day off. Earlier that afternoon, police had responded to a shooting in a parking lot on Spencer Street, outside the boundaries of Dungjen’s patrol area. Every time she ran into another officer, Dungjen seemed to slip back into reporter mode, requesting updates on the day’s developments. “Is anything exciting happening?” she asked one cop. “Did the person die from the shooting? Did you hear anything about the victim?”

Dungjen only recently began patrolling on her own, after a four-month training period during which a more experienced officer oversaw her work. (At the beginning of her training, she assured the senior officer, “I’m not a Blade plant. I’m not writing a book.”) Her patrol area covers a relatively safe chunk of South Toledo. This month, however, Dungjen began work in “six sector”—a poor, inner-city area with a high crime rate. A colleague told her that what she’ll see in that neighborhood might shock her. But Dungjen thinks the experience will make her a better cop.

The new assignment may yield more drama than she saw in South Toledo. After a routine house inspection at the end of our November ride-along—the alarm had gone off, but a quick circuit around the property showed nothing amiss—Dungjen got back into her police cruiser and contemplated the next stop on her shift.

“I’m gonna get out of here,” she said, “and try to find something fun to do.”

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David Yaffe-Bellany is a junior at Yale and serves as managing editor of the Yale Daily News. His work has appeared in the New Haven Independent, the Toledo Blade and the soccer magazine Howler. Follow him on Twitter @yaffebellany.