For the police officers whose work takes them to the murky depths of Dallas lakes, a successfully completed job usually involves a horrific discovery.
In the summer of 2010 several Dallas police officers, clad in thick dry suits and heavy scuba gear, descended on the shore of a pond in the 6700 block of Northaven in Preston Hollow. Day after day for weeks on end, they took turns searching the inky water for a piece of evidence linked to a 27-year-old cold case. And while they had little luck locating clues related to that particular crime, they did turn up other items, recalls dive team commander Jack Bragg.
“In that little pond, we found six or eight motorcycles and motorcycle parts, a metal safe, several weapons including assault rifles and a handgun,” recalls Bragg. “None, by the way, were what we were looking for.”
The job of a police diver demands painstaking levels of patience. It requires a deeply rooted understanding of procedure and the critical thinking skills necessary to apply it to an infinite variety of high-stake situations, Bragg explains. Team members pride themselves on operating pragmatically even in the most outrageous situations.
“We are very methodical. We are grandmas when it comes to collecting evidence — slow and meticulous. We aren’t going to be the reason some guy gets off because evidence was mishandled.”
The Dallas Police Department Underwater Recovery team is made up of about 22 police officers who also are specially trained divers. Team commander Jack Bragg, Captain Jack to most, works full time as the coordinator of the dive team, a DPD field-service unit that falls under the SWAT department.
The rest of the divers are posted elsewhere fulltime; two work as patrol officers at the Northwest, others at Northeast, South Central, and Southwest subdivisions, respectively. Others work narcotics or Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR).
When divers are needed — typically for the recovery of evidence in a crime, a drowning victim or a submerged vehicle — Bragg rounds up available team members. Calls can happen as often as three times in one day or as infrequently as three times in as many months.
Essentially, Underwater Recovery Team members investigate and gather evidence at underwater crime scenes. They dive in 20-60 minute intervals, depending on conditions. They must be as meticulous and clean as an officer at any other crime scene, even though the environments in which they work are filthy and unforgiving.
“You want to know what it looks like under that water?” asks diver Daniel Hale. “Here you go.” He holds up a “blackout mask.” The lenses have been painted opaque black. “That’s what you see down there.”
Low-to-zero visibility, one of myriad challenges faced by underwater investigators, forces officers to feel for the targeted object.
“When you are down there, it is difficult to tell the difference between a foam seat cushion and a human body,” notes Northwest patrol officer/Senior Dive Officer Scott Harn. And there are a lot of foam seat cushions in Bachman Lake, remarks another officer.
The dive team often is called out following a drowning, after Dallas Fire and Rescue workers have exhausted live-recovery efforts.
The first dive, technically, is treated as a rescue, says Bragg, but they have never saved anyone.
“We are looking for bodies.”
When the job calls for recovering a body, Bragg says, the team also must exercise discretion and compassion for the public.
Last May, for example, a man jumped into White Rock Lake and never resurfaced. Even with the aid of side scan sonar equipment, Bragg’s team searched some 16 hours before locating the body. By that time, the drowned man’s bereft parents as well as local media were gathered at the shore.
The divers “bagged and tagged” the young man’s body at the bottom of the lake before bringing him to surface, explains Bragg. They also positioned their small boat in a way that would shield the excavation from onlookers.
It is protocol. “We have a job to do, but we are also thinking about protecting the loved ones, trying to be as respectful as possible,” Bragg says.
Success is always bittersweet, the officers concur — imagine a job in which getting your hands on a dead body or a body part means success.
For our benefit, Bragg asks the group, which also includes Lewisville divers, how many dead bodies they had touched.
“I lost track,” one says. “Too many to count,” another notes.
Logistically, training for public safety diving is formulaic and precise.
On a Wednesday morning in August dive-team members gather at a Lewisville Fire Department scuba pool for class. Lewisville is home to one of the country’s more-sophisticated dive teams, due to the proximity of Lake Lewisville, Bragg explains. Dive officers are learning to use new equipment including surface-supply air tanks, which, compared with scuba tanks, will allow longer dives, and a communication box that allows divers to speak with and hear an operator on land. Until now, communication between diver and his colleagues on the boat and shore has been conducted via a coded system of rope pulls — one pull means, “all is well” while three means, “we found the body,” for example.
Before applying to Dallas’ dive team, an officer must be, at minimum, an International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD)-certified rescue diver. Police divers-in-training then follow a strict curriculum of schooling and certification that is in line with national standards.
Every dive-team member learns every position.
“Everyone knows every step of every operation,” Bragg says, “and it has to happen the exact same way as it will in the field.”
The team formed less than 10 years ago and operates on a limited budget. “We are not a dedicated unit so we get about $5,000-$7,000 of the SWAT budget and beg for grants and money,” Bragg says. Over the years, usually through grants or donations, they have acquired advanced equipment, but they cannot dive with new gear until they are properly trained and certified to use it. So they continually are brushing up on their skills and learning new practices.
“The dark side of why we have to do all this training is that [police departments nationwide] have killed so many divers,” Bragg says. “The last thing I want to do as a dive team commander is send a live person after an inanimate or lifeless object and lose him. Guys have been hurt. One of our dive captains had a lung embolism that ended his diving career. We do everything we can [to narrow every chance of injury], even though sometimes you can do everything right and still have something go wrong.”
Bragg lifts his pant leg to reveal a severe burn-like scar, the result of a cut that became infected in contaminated water.
The psychological demands of police diving, one could argue, are as grueling as the physical requirements.
Senior diver John Boucher is smoking a cigar. He says he finally quit smoking cigarettes, but he still likes the occasional cigar, and sometimes a drink or two, to help quiet his mind, especially after a tough underwater search.
“The worst, for me, was the first body I personally found. It was a few years ago at Lake Ray Hubbard. Party Cove. The guy jumped off a boat and never came up. I was the second diver and I found the body. When I touched it, at first I thought it felt like a roll of carpet. Then I realized it was the kid. There was an initial rush of anxiety but then the training kicks in and you go right into action.”
Sometimes, due to the darkness, divers experience what they call “mind monsters” — that is, the anxiety and dread that threatens rational thinking, Boucher says. Only a large dose of mental toughness can slay these beasts.
Usually, because of their high levels of skill, experience and training, divers like Boucher are able to launch into action even in the face of horrific circumstance — this Dallas dive team has located a murdered baby, drowned children and a bucket containing a human head, to name a few particularly disturbing cases, and all of these operations were handled perspicaciously and by- the-book, Bragg says.
Sitting at home, alone with his thoughts after long hours in dark waters looking for a body or a murder weapon, however, Boucher sometimes feels haunted.
“I’ll tell you, it messed with my head,” he says recalling the drowned man at Lake Ray Hubbard.
Like war buddies, divers often turn to one another for support.
“There are always two divers that bring up a body,” Boucher says. “That night we texted each other back and forth.” It doesn’t take much, he says, because each understands what the other is feeling.
Captain Jack’s worst day has to be the day, last May, when the dive team got the call about former assistant police chief Greg Holliday.
“Greg was a friend,” Bragg says. “I worked with him for 35 years. That’s about as close as you can get to having to look for your own family.”
Holliday, 63, had been missing for days. Police, in a Critical Missing Person alert stated that Holliday was possibly suicidal.
Bragg’s men, along with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department divers, found Holliday’s body, with a self-inflicted gunshot to his head, in a shallow creek near the Preston Trails Golf Club.
“Of course every guy out here has a different worst day, but I’ve gone through some of our police photos from that day, and you can see the stress on our guys’ faces. That day was hard.”
“The police department has psych [-ological counseling services], but this work is not typical,” Bragg says. “Regular patrol officers, they don’t really understand exactly what our guys go through.”
Several members of the team concur that the bonds they share among themselves are therapeutic.
“We are all friends. They have to be comfortable with and trust the other guys they are down there with,” Bragg says.
“Body recovery is stressful,” Boucher says, “and you get home and try to talk to your girlfriend about it, she doesn’t want to hear it. So you text the guy who was [on the job] with you. That’s sometimes how you get through the night.”
Private donations Captain Jack Bragg says he works hard to secure grants and donations and that the team frequently borrows necessary equipment from Dallas Fire-Rescue or from other nearby departments such as Lewisville. He says private donations — which go directly toward purchasing equipment and training that makes public-safety diving more effective and less dangerous — are always welcome. For more information, email email@example.com.
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