Since she was a little girl, Hannah Wagner’s hero has been her father.
Growing up, she remembers him walking her to her classroom in uniform, driving her around in the police car and turning on the flashing lights.
“I thought he was the coolest thing ever,” she said. “I was so proud. I would go to school, and I would just tell everyone about it. Even at a young age, I knew I wanted to be just like him.”
Now, at age 22, Hannah Wagner is following in her father’s footsteps after recently being sworn in as an officer for the Winter Garden Police Department.
Bill Wagner’s earliest memory of law enforcement involved his mother.
She served more than 20 years in various departments across the United States.
Truthfully, Bill Wagner never envisioned himself in law enforcement. He originally intended on pursuing hospitality, but that changed when he met his wife, Sherri. He wanted to follow a path that would allow him to better support his family financially.
The pair married in 1994 — the same year Bill Wagner decided to start in the police academy.
“It wasn’t necessarily my initial calling like it was for Hannah, but once I got into it, I knew it was for me,” he said.
Bill Wagner started his police career in a small town in Colorado. He was the first one out of his academy class to be hired by the local department.
The couple came in 1997 to Ocoee, and by 1998, Bill Wagner was a member of the Ocoee Police Department, where he has now served for 25 years.
He works in the traffic division and plans to retire in November.
Giving back is what has kept him invested in law enforcement for so long.
“Seeing that you can make a difference in the world — even if it’s just to one person — where you can make somebody’s world just a little bit better by making that arrest, making them whole again by caring for them and doing what the law says you can do,” he said. “It just became something that I love. It’s a cool thing to be able to enforce the law. It makes you feel good to help people out.”
Although law enforcement became a large part of Bill Wagner’s life, Hannah Wagner said no matter what, her dad always made it a point to be there for the little moments in life — just as much as the big ones.
“It didn’t matter if he was working midnights, if he worked all weekend or if he had to work off duty, he was always there,” she said. “Whether it was a school play or a cattle show — no matter how exhausted he was, he never made an excuse. He always worked hard, and we never had to go without anything. We always knew that he loved us. Even if he was working he would try and just stop by and show his face and let us know he cared.”
MOTIVATED BY SERVICE
Hannah Wagner said she knew she wanted to be a police officer before she was 5 years old.
She grew up in the Ocoee PD, participating in teen police academies, leading the prayer and invocation at conferences or award ceremonies, and completing volunteer work.
However, after graduating from Ocoee High School, she took a gap year to pursue an interest in agriculture.
Hannah Wagner moved to Gainesville, where she served as vice president with the Florida FFA Association.
For her year-long term, she traveled across the country and focused on leadership and public speaking. However, police work was always on her heart.
When the term ended, she decided to attend Valencia College.
“I would see a cop car pass by, and I would wonder what they’re doing and where they’re going,” she said. “I would see lights and sirens, and I would get excited and wish I was a part of it. I just couldn’t ignore that feeling. Clearly it was something that God wanted me to do. I realized I could do agriculture as a hobby; you can’t be a police officer as a hobby.”
As a remedy, she started taking criminal-justice classes for her elective.
“My dad knew what I was doing, because I would tell him what classes I was taking and he was like, ‘Why are you taking that class?’” she said. “I wanted to see if I really enjoyed the topic, and I did. It just confirmed even more what I wanted to do.”
Hannah Wagner earned her associate’s degree from Valencia in December 2020.
“I remember specifically, we were sitting around a campfire and I was like, ‘Dad, I want to go to the police academy,’” she said. “And he was like, ‘What?’ It was so off-topic, and he was like, ‘What do you mean?’”
Initially, Bill and Sherri Wagner did not want their daughter to go into law enforcement.
“But at the end of the day, when Hannah kept hounding us about it, we decided that No. 1, she was an adult, so she gets to make her own decisions, and No. 2, if this was something she really wanted to do, then we were going to support her through that,” he said. “We told her the reasons we didn’t want her to go into law enforcement, the changing landscape of law enforcement and then also we knew her potential was endless. She could do anything and be anything. The fact that she was OK being a street cop really showed me that she’s motivated for the right reasons. She’s motivated by service.”
Hannah Wagner applied to the WGPD and ended up securing a sponsorship to attend the police academy, which she started in June 2021.
She was halfway through when tragedy struck.
“I got super sick with COVID and bilateral pneumonia,” she said. “They didn’t let me come back due to how sick I got. All that work, and I got the sponsorship, and I was so happy. I was making my dad proud; I was making myself proud. I worked so hard, and I was almost done, and then it was taken away from me just like that. It was heartbreaking.”
Hannah Wagner was scared she wouldn’t live through the sickness.
“I had so many effects from that,” she said. “You lose even the little things. … It takes such a toll on your body and then you have to start basically from scratch. There was so much heartache. I look back, and I wonder how I even got through it.”
When she recovered, Hannah Wagner said because she already was sponsored and had worked for the agency, the WGPD gave her the option to remain as a community service officer and earn her experience that way.
She served as a CSO for about a year, dealing with traffic crashes, misdemeanor crimes and more. She said the work only further confirmed her lifelong passion.
The department sent Hannah Wagner back to be sponsored at the academy again, and she was a member of the National Technical Honor Society before graduating December 2022.
Although the journey was difficult for the family, Bill Wagner thinks everything his daughter went through was God’s plan.
“She was young,” he said. “She was 20 years old. I think that year was exactly what she needed to just finish off that maturing. She’s always been very mature, but she also gained that experience as a CSO, and so I think that’s allowed her to even excel more now as a rookie police officer, and I think through that process, it’s going to help her be a better cop all along. It laid a foundation for her to work from that she wouldn’t have gotten if she had just finished the academy the first time.”
Hannah Wagner was officially sworn in at the Winter Garden City Commission meeting on Thursday, March 23.
“We were worried about if she was going to even live, and to see her fulfill that dream was just incredibly special,” Bill Wagner said. “She’s a natural leader, and she’s going to run an agency one day or something. I just see that in her future she’s really got a great servant’s heart. She wants to do what’s right for people and help people out of tough situations. I see that one day growing, as it did for me, into her helping to develop younger officers and programs to make the community better.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Now, Hannah Wagner is working midnight shifts and said she wonders how her father managed to balance everything when she was growing up.
To her, the Ocoee PD is family.
“I was always there,” she said. “It was just my life. There was no question that I always wanted to be a part of the environment there. I think another big thing is my perspective of being in a law-enforcement family first is something I value now being in it myself because I understand how one day my husband and my kids would feel because I was so proud of my dad, but I also worried about him. I think I can fully understand both sides of it now.”
Throughout her journey, Hannah Wagner credits faith as playing a huge role in her perseverance.
“We can both say we wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for God and His hand in our life,” she said of her and her father. “I thank God for getting me through COVID, because without Him, I don’t think I would have, and there’s no way that I would be who I am or where I am at this point in my life if it wasn’t for God and also the faith that my family has — the faith that my parents instilled in us at a young age and the importance of that faith.”
Hannah Wagner said her mother and her younger sister, Hope, 18, have also been a huge part in her and her father’s success in law enforcement.
“I know that they worry about both of us and I understand that worry, but they’ve always been so supportive,” she said. “I don’t think either of us could do it without the two of them.”
Hannah Wagner is currently working on finishing her degree with a communication conflict major at the University of Central Florida.
She said she enjoys patrol work and would like to spend some time doing that before hoping to explore the traffic division, like her father, in the future.
Bill Wagner said he is thankful for the community the family calls home.
“I don’t think either of us would feel the way we did if we didn’t have the community support that we have here,” he said. “The people that live here love their law enforcement and they make our job so much easier that way. This is a great place to be a police officer. You know the citizens have your back and they care about your wellbeing as a person, not just a cop.”