Sunny Taylor (Family photo)

Sunny Taylor (Family photo)

After cop’s suicide, Everett picked ‘money over the people,’ family says

The city argued on-the-job trauma had little to do with detective Sunny Taylor’s sudden death in 2020, to her family’s horror.

EVERETT — As far back as her family can remember, Sunny Taylor always wanted to be a cop.

At 5, she first sat in her great-uncle’s patrol car. As a teen, she joined the Civil Air Patrol and Explorers programs.

When she got a degree in anthropology at 20, her mother asked what she was going to do with it.

“I’m gonna be a police officer,” Sunny Taylor told her older sister, and no one could stop her.

At 21, she started at the Everett Police Department. In her 14 years there, she worked on patrol at night, in crime prevention and as a detective investigating sexual assaults and crimes against children.

In June 2020, Sunny Taylor died by suicide at the age of 35, the day after city officials presented her with a psychological evaluation determining she shouldn’t be allowed to work in policing due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her obituary describes her as compassionate, generous and artistic.

She was survived by her parents, four siblings, husband and two young children.

Her death was followed by almost two years of arguments over death benefits from the city.

Sunny Taylor’s family argued the stress of the job contributed to her unexpected death. But the city pushed back, arguing that had little to do with it, to the surprise, frustration and horror of the family.

“The city will not take care of you if they think there’s a way that they can get out,” her husband, Jay Taylor, an Everett police sergeant, told The Daily Herald. “That’s really the bottom line.”

The family’s attorney attributed the city’s approach to its longtime policy of self-insurance, meaning Everett bears more financial liability for workplace injuries than cities insured by the state. Experts say this can push employers to get more involved in workers’ compensation claims.

The battle resulted in a settlement in May of this year for what Jay Taylor figures was far less than his family would’ve otherwise received.

“There’s no doubt about it, they could’ve treated this family better,” his attorney, Patrick Reddy, said.

In an email, an Everett spokesperson said the city “strives to ensure all cases, including this one, are handled in the most professional and respectful manner.”

‘Pain bomb’

For years before her death, Sunny Taylor had been dealing with mental health issues, according to her family.

In that time, she transitioned from someone who easily made friends to someone who could be more guarded and distrustful.

But the trauma of the job started long before that, her husband said.

Taylor joined the Everett Police Department in early 2006. A few days before, Jay Taylor started working there after a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. It didn’t take long for him to tell his college buddies she was the one. They married June 8, 2008.

A few months later, in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2008, downtown Everett residents called 911 to report a possible burglary in progress. Sunny Taylor and a couple other officers responded.

The front door of one house reportedly showed signs of being kicked in. One of the officers knocked. Dustin Willard, 31, answered, stepping onto the front porch with a shotgun in his hands, according to police accounts. They yelled for the man to drop his gun. The man lowered the barrel of the shotgun and officers started shooting.

Willard died at the scene.

In early 2010, then-Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe determined the officers’ actions weren’t criminal. He concluded they had a right to defend themselves and each other.

The man’s father sued, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2013, again ruling the officers acted in self-defense. Sunny Taylor reported getting therapy for about a year and a half after the shooting.

Sunny Taylor’s sister argued the shooting created a baseline for post-traumatic stress that only accumulated in the rest of her time on the force.

And in the years before her death, her mental health deteriorated rapidly, records show.

At one point, she took a position investigating sex crimes.

“Please, don’t do that,” Sierra Rediger remembered telling her younger sister. “Please, don’t do that. That’s going to be so bad.”

She became increasingly stressed, as she investigated cases of child molestation while raising her own two young children, Jay Taylor said.

Rediger, 42, urged her to quit and open a coffee stand, like she always wanted. But the gruesome crimes weighed on her.

“There’s all these people who don’t have an advocate, all these kids and these cases,” Sunny Taylor told her sister.

Even when she tried to leave the unit a couple times, colleagues talked her into staying, her husband said.

In early 2019, she took a leave of absence from work due to PTSD and other mental health concerns, records show. During her time off, she was deemed to be a low risk for suicide. A psychologist noted she improved, but would be better helped at a facility designed for PTSD and other mental illnesses commonly found in first responders.

At a recovery center, Sunny Taylor got PTSD treatment. When she left, the facility noted she should continue receiving support before returning to work full-time.

When she got back to work, her behavior seemed off, to the point that the department requested a psychological evaluation to determine if she could continue working as an officer, according to medical records obtained by The Herald.

Sunny Taylor (Family photo)

Sunny Taylor (Family photo)

In an interview with a psychologist from Public Safety Psychological Services in Lynnwood, Sunny Taylor reported she didn’t feel suicidal.

“I wouldn’t say I had suicidal thoughts, but more like intrusive thoughts such as it would be easier not to exist,” she reportedly told the psychologist.

She also complained of memory issues, which she attributed to a traumatic brain injury. She reported having been in “10 or 11” car crashes that could’ve contributed to such an injury. An MRI showed no brain injury, however, according to the psychological evaluation.

In the evaluation, dated May 22, 2020, the doctor diagnosed Sunny Taylor with PTSD. In making that determination, the doctor noted Taylor had dealt with stressful experiences in her career, including the 2008 shooting and working in the sex crimes unit.

The psychologist concluded Taylor “does not appear capable of returning to work without additional psychological intervention.”

“At minimum, it is suggested that she participate in treatment for a period of 10-12 weeks before being reassessed regarding her fitness to return to duty,” the psychologist added.

On June 8, 2020, her wedding anniversary, the city’s Human Resources Department presented Sunny Taylor with the report’s findings, said city spokesperson Julio Cortes in an email. The president of the Everett police officers union also attended the meeting.

“So they gave her this report and they basically sent her home,” Jay Taylor told The Herald.

Immediately, she started looking for a psychologist. She called a bunch of different clinics, to no avail, according to the husband. She found a doctor who could help. The doctor asked for her claim number with the Department of Labor and Industries to get coverage. But city officials never gave her one, even though she believed they were helping file the claim, her husband said.

Cortes said the HR meeting included the same information the city would provide to any employee about workers’ compensation and how to file a claim. The city does not file L&I claims on behalf of employees.

“In my opinion, it’s complete mishandling,” Jay Taylor said. “They treated it almost the same as someone whose knee is hurt. But somebody who’s having mental health difficulties, you can’t do that.”

Kandy Bartlett, the HR director for the city of Everett, told the Herald “resources were in place when we met with Sunny that day.” Resources currently available for Everett officers include unlimited telehealth visits, peer support, annual mental health visits covered by the city, and coverage for outpatient and inpatient treatment.

“Our city team values our first responders, and the City takes the wellbeing of all our employees very seriously,” Cortes said in an email. “As a City, we are committed to focusing resources on employee safety and wellness.”

After the meeting, Sunny Taylor told Jay she’d get fired if she didn’t get treatment.

“I think she thought she was in such a big hole that she wouldn’t be able to get out of it,” Rediger said.

Sunny Taylor died by suicide early the next day.

Jay Taylor, now 43, said his wife made friends everywhere. In her closet at home, she kept cards she gathered in case people ever needed them.

Rediger called her sister’s death a “pain bomb.”

“Everybody took some of it,” she said, tearing up. “We all got the shrapnel.”

‘Protect their funds’

At Sunny Taylor’s funeral, people showed up in droves. Everyone from the coffee stand she went to was there. People she attended a class with once drove for hours to pay their respects.

A pastor read from “Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann’s 1927 poem:

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Weeks after his wife’s death, Jay Taylor filed a claim for benefits with L&I.

When it comes to workers’ compensation, employers, essentially, have two options for insuring themselves. The more common is the state insurance fund. The state Department of Labor and Industries manages these claims. Employers pay into the fund through premiums. The other option is self-insurance, a form usually taken on by large companies.

Either way, the worker or their family files a claim for benefits with L&I. The department accepts or denies the claim. Each side can appeal the decision to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. From there, it can get escalated through the court system.

In Washington, self-insurance has been around for about 50 years, said Kris Tefft, executive director of the Washington Self-Insurers Association. It was a way for employers to exert more control over workers’ compensation claims.

Self-insurance gives employers “the opportunity to hopefully drive outcomes that work for the employer and the worker at a cost that may be more attractive than what the state fund may be charging by way of the state-run insurance premiums,” he said.

But if a claim is successful, the employer could face much more financial liability, because they haven’t been paying scheduled premiums. That means the employer tends to be more invested in outcomes, Tefft said.

Bill Hochberg, a workers’ compensation lawyer based in Edmonds, calls it the “profit motive.”

Andrew Dimmock, an Everett-based attorney, says self-insured employers can get “fired up.” In fact, Dimmock figured he makes more in attorney fees in these cases because the self-insurer will fight even without a great argument.

“Self-insured employers, they just want to protect their funds,” said Patrick Reddy, attorney for Jay Taylor.

But statistics show they don’t prevail more often. In 2021, for example, L&I accepted 87% of self-insurance claims, department records show. State fund claims were accepted 84% of the time. Those figures were similar for the preceding three years.

Tefft estimates about 350 employers in Washington are self-insured. The city of Everett has been one of those employers since 1978. Other self-insured cities include Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Olympia and about a dozen others.

Everett is the only one in Snohomish County, according to state data. They often have third-parties administering their claims. For Everett, that third party is CorVel, a corporation with offices across the country.

Cortes said the city’s “decision to be self-insured, and continuing to maintain self-insured status, is complex and based on a multitude of factors.”

He declined to elaborate.

When Jay Taylor came to L&I claiming his wife’s work caused her PTSD and her death, the city fought.

‘Money over the people’

In December 2020, the department denied the claim, since several important documents were missing. For one, the records didn’t include a doctor’s certification of Sunny Taylor’s PTSD.

But the family protested the decision and provided more paperwork. The department reversed course. State law presumes PTSD in police officers is an occupational disease. The benefits claim was allowed. This meant the city would pay about $1 million into state reserves to pay the pension for the Taylor family, who would get thousands in monthly payments in place of what would’ve been Sunny Taylor’s wages.

“I’m like, ‘OK, cool, everything’s done,” Jay Taylor remembered thinking. “The end.”

But it was not the end. Not even close.

Through its attorney, the city of Everett protested the revised decision.

“Because of the investigation and the information that we had learned, there were questions about the merits, at least, of the death benefit claim,” the city’s attorney, Jannine Myers, told The Herald.

When Rediger heard the city’s move, she went for a walk. It made her want to kick rocks along the way. She called it “absolutely horrifying.”

“I would consider that you hire people to do this job that you know ruins them over time, potentially,” Jay Taylor said of his employer. “And then when it does, you just try and figure out a way to get out of taking care of them. That doesn’t say much for you as an employer.”

What followed was another year of legal battles as attorneys quarreled over what caused Sunny Taylor’s suicide.

In subsequent legal filings, the city argued her history of depression, other mental health issues and marital problems led to her death, not work-related PTSD. Myers, of Holmes, Weddle and Barcott, noted in records that even if Sunny Taylor had PTSD, it dated back to the 2008 shooting, long before the presumption statute in state law went into effect in 2018.

The city also argued Sunny Taylor’s death “was the result of an intentional and deliberate act to end her own life and it occurred at a private residence while she was not working,” so benefits shouldn’t be awarded.

Cortes, the city spokesperson, said decisions to make such arguments are a group effort.

“In complicated cases like this, multiple entities including internal and external Legal counsel, administration and HR are involved in the decision making and evaluation of the law as it applies to the individual facts of a claim,” he wrote in an email.

In a statement, Police Chief Dan Templeman wrote that “Sunny’s tragic passing had a significant impact on her family, our department and community as a whole.”

“I understand that these matters can be sensitive and complex and often difficult to navigate, but I believe the City strives to ensure all cases, including this one, are handled in the most respectful manner,” he added. “While I do not have direct involvement in workers comp claims, my primary focus has, and will continue to be, on the overall well-being of Sunny’s family, our department, and implementing progressive and innovative wellness protocols that support all our employees.”

On the other side, the family claimed investigating sex crimes at the same time as raising her own kids caused Sunny Taylor’s “symptomatic and disabling” PTSD.

But the family’s chances seemed grim after the state Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals approved the city’s motion to pause benefits during the proceedings. To make such a move, the board must determine the employer is “more likely than not to prevail” based on the available facts.

After a while, Jay Taylor made a calculation. He could keep fighting, wracking up legal fees in the process, only to lose and end up with nothing. Or he could settle, ending that stress and ensuring the family at least got something.

So in May, he and the city settled for a lump sum of $500,000, half of what the city’s liability would’ve been if the claim was accepted, he said. About a third of the sum goes to his attorney. The settlement specifically states PTSD did not cause his wife’s death.

The experience changed the way Jay Taylor thinks about his employer.

“They will pick money over the people and that’s what they did in this instance,” he said.

Myers, the city’s attorney, noted “no one forced him to settle anything.”

After two years of battling, Jay Taylor feels defeated.

The way he looks at it, pushing for benefits was his way of making sure his wife could provide for her family even though she’s gone.

“It feels like I let her down at some level,” he said.

He figures the money is enough for college for the kids, now 6 and 4. But in a better world, he would’ve stopped working at the department he feels caused his wife’s death.

Instead, the sergeant in the downtown bike unit feels he has to keep working, while his kids are in daycare or with family.

And now, Jay Taylor says, if he knew his employer was self-insured, he never would’ve worked at the Everett Police Department.

If he had friends asking if they should apply, “I would encourage them not to work at Everett just because I have seen the way that they are going to respond if they think they can get out of taking care of somebody.”

He lives in Granite Falls in the same home he lived in with his wife, where her office remains untouched more than two years after her death.

These days, there are a couple phrases that ring in Rediger’s mind. One is “insult to injury.”

“She’s gone and can’t defend herself, and there’s two little kids that are never going to know their mom and now a single dad who has to work at the same place that contributed to his wife’s death, in his mind,” Rediger said.

The other is “50 percent.” Half of the family gone. No settlement could heal that.

“Money can’t buy you happiness, right?” she said. “I think there’s songs about that.”

Herald writer Rachel Riley contributed to this report.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

Help is available

There are free and confidential resources for people in crisis or who know someone in crisis.

If there is an immediate danger, call 911.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: dial 988, or 988lifeline.org.

Care Crisis Chat: imhurting.org (chat); 800-584-3578 (call).

The Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQ Youth: thetrevorproject.org, 866-488-7386.

Mental Health First Aid courses: mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Compass Health’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team may be contacted at anytime by calling the Volunteers of America crisis line: 1-800-584-3578.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org/get-help.

The Snohomish Health District has a list of other local resources: snohd.org/200/Suicide-Prevention.

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