This article was originally published in St. Louis Magazine
New Book From Former Police Officer Offers Solutions to the Racial Divide
In the seven or so months since the Michael Brown shooting, we’ve seen a little bit of change and a whole lot of “conversation.” Endless roundtables, town halls, commission meetings, symposia, panels, lectures, and classes have dissected every aspect of how race affects life in St. Louis. Residents from both sides of the divide have vented their pain, their sadness, and most of all, their anger. Police officers have given their side of the story. Protesters have cried out for “justice,” defining that word in myriad ways. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles has lodged his foot in his mouth—repeatedly. SLM has gotten in on the chatter: Our November issue was, in essence, a printed conversation about race in the region.
The danger, obviously, is that eventually, people will get sick of all the talk and tune out. You can hear the same arguments and ideas only so many times before they start to sound like lip service, which is simultaneously the easiest and least valuable type of service to provide. If you’re thinking about giving up on this discussion, I don’t blame you. But before you quit, listen to Terrell Carter. Maybe even read his new book, Walking the Blue Line. It’s short, way shorter than those interminable Ferguson Commission meetings.
Carter is worth paying particular attention to for a couple of reasons. First, he has a unique perspective. As an African-American teen, he learned about racial profiling firsthand. In his twenties, he spent five years as a city cop. He didn’t enjoy the experience, partly because of policies and procedures that he thought made it difficult to help people and partly because of knucklehead citizens who made his life more difficult. He knows, better than most, that there is plenty of blame to go around. Second, and more importantly, he offers concrete solutions.
Carter was born and raised in The Ville neighborhood of North St. Louis. He moved to Texas for high school, then came back. The day he returned, his grandparents picked him up from the airport, then he and his twin brother walked to the park to play basketball. On their way, a police officer stopped them.
“I just took you to jail,” the officer said. “Why are you out already?”
The boys tried to explain that they’d just flown in from out of state and had no idea what he was talking about. “My grandparents had to help make sure that we didn’t go to jail,” Carter says, “just because the police officer thought that we were somebody else.”
He says his grandparents raised him to respect police, so he never had any violent altercations with authorities, was never in any real trouble. But those types of interactions, he says, were just part of life as a black kid in St. Louis.
His own decision to become an officer was a simple one: His wife was pregnant, and he needed a better job. He prayed, and two days later, saw an ad for the police department. He became a police officer in 1997 and served until 2002.
Life on the Force
“Being a police officer was not fun for multiple reasons,” Carter says. “No one calls 911 when things are good, so you are almost automatically under stress for every single call.”
He thought being a city police officer would allow him to make a real difference, but instead he spent the majority of his time chasing endless radio calls. In an ideal world, Carter says, he would have been equipped and encouraged to connect families calling 911 with services that would both help solve their problems and reduce the number of future calls. But in reality, that’s not how things worked. If Carter wanted to climb the career ladder, he needed to make his superiors look good, and what his superiors cared about were statistics. “Helping a family figure out the best way to get resources, that’s not a statistic that a sergeant cares about,” he says. What his sergeant cared about was “real police work,” and that meant piling up arrests.
And in Carter’s experience, most officers knew that the easiest way to accumulate arrests was “to go after people who typically will not have the resources to fight against these things,” he says. “Poor black people, poor brown people are always going to be the easiest targets.” Because black culture is often viewed negatively by society at large, officers knew that collaring “thugs” would earn them praise in the neighborhood for “cleaning up the street,” would more often lead to convictions, and eventually would result in praise and promotions at work. Hence, racial profiling was commonplace.
Carter also thinks people in the community bring unwanted attention upon themselves. “When we try to live out certain lifestyles, the whole thug culture, we make ourselves easy targets,” he says. “If I carry myself in a particular way, then I should not be surprised when people treat me that way, including police officers.”
If someone is walking through his grandmother’s neighborhood looking suspicious, she’s going to call the police, and the police are going to respond. That’s how things are supposed to work. “It’s not just all on police officers,” he says. “I would never villainize police. We have good police officers, but we also have not so good police officers. We have very good citizens, but we also have some not every good citizens. We all have a part to play.”
Partners in Crime
Carter’s career in law enforcement was bookended by two run-ins with his partners that exposed harmful aspects of police culture—specifically, that protecting brothers in blue is seen as more important than doing the right thing.
Within his first six months with the department, he was partnered up with an older white officer. The sergeant of the unit called Carter into an interrogation room. “You’re going to see some things happen on the street that you may not agree with,” Carter remembers him saying. “Do as you’re told, and you will be fine.”
“That’s the golden rule for police officers,” Carter says. “You never snitch. You never get another police officer in trouble… Because then you are going to be out there by yourself when you need help.”
Shortly thereafter, Carter and his partner encountered a man who was carrying an unmarked bag of pills. The man said it was just generic allergy medicine; to Carter, it was obvious that he was telling the truth. In the man’s house, they discovered a gun, but Carter says it was an antique, rusted, more family heirloom than deadly weapon. “But this officer made it up in his mind, we are going to arrest the guy,” Carter says. “We are going to find a reason to arrest this guy.”
Carter refused to sign the report, then went to a friend in the department whom he trusted and asked for advice. That got back to his partner, who was livid. “He told me if I ever did that again, it would not be good for me,” Carter says.
Years later, Cater found himself caught in a similar situation with a different partner, Reginald Williams. They were called to a daycare, where a woman was holding drugs for a dealer. They arrested her, and she wrote a confession. When the dealer arrived to pick up the drugs, they arrested him, too. Williams had been chasing this particular dealer for a long time, so to make sure the charges stuck, he falsified the police report. Williams wrote that one guy in the truck was counting out money, while another was twirling a gun on his finger, and a third was weighing crack cocaine. “When we rolled up, they were just sitting in the truck,” Carter says. In the book, he voices remorse for his involvement in the incident, which included roughing up one of the suspects.
Eventually, as a result of this trumped-up case and several others, Williams, whom prosecutors called a “renegade cop,” spent time in federal prison. Carter testified against him. Fearing reprisals from fellow officers, Carter quit the police force.
Carter’s book offers several fixes for the broken relationship between police and certain segments of the public.
First, he’d like to see less emphasis on statistics. In this tech era, Big Data is often seen as the key to optimizing everything, but stats can have unintended consequences. They motivate officers to drive up arrest numbers, sometimes under false pretenses. “It shouldn’t be just about arresting people and taking a body to jail,” Carter says. “How do we actually get these people hooked up with resources that will help them? If we are tussling with somebody who we find out has a mental disorder, do we still need to arrest them, or do we just need to take them to a facility that will help them?”
He’d like to remind officers why they put on the uniform in the first place. In most cases, it was helping people, not chasing promotions. “Have you ever seen the show The Wire?” Carter asks. “The Wire reminds me a lot of what I remember about the police department. It’s people who are more concerned about their political careers and their pensions than about helping citizens… Departments have to figure out ways to actually empower their officers to do good.”
He supports establishing a citizen review board to police the police. “If you were already responsible, you don’t have to fear a civilian review board, because you are doing what’s right,” he says. He thinks the fact that so many officers are opposed to the idea is a symptom of the police mentality that once you put on the badge, whatever you do is right. “When I was in the academy, we were taught that it’s essentially us versus them,” he says. “It’s police against everybody else.”
When the Department of Justice investigated the Ferguson Police Department, it criticized officers for arresting people for simply disobeying their orders, which is not really a crime. “Police officers get into this habit of, what I say goes,” Carter says. He’d like to see officers use their discretion more often to resolve situations, rather than reaching first for their handcuffs or a gun. “Every time somebody doesn’t agree with you, it’s not a personal challenge to you,” Carter says. “When I first got out of the academy, I was sent to the Third District. It was called the Bloody Third, because every time somebody sassed back to the police, they got thumped.”
Carter supports residency requirements. If an officer is going to be patrolling a diverse community, he should live in a diverse community. And if an officer lives in the neighborhood, if he has to face people every day at the grocery store or the gas station, he’s going to think twice before abusing his power.
But Carter also emphasizes that he thinks most police officers are good civil servants, and he says that the public needs to do better, too. He urges parents to teach their children to show police officers respect. “I understand what it’s like to be a black man in St. Louis, where you feel like you have to fight for everything,” Carter says. “When it comes to police, instead of trying to show how tough you are, sometimes it’s as simple as going, ‘Yes, sir.’” In Carter’s experience as an officer, things turned out much better for people who treated him politely.
“They are not going to stop shooting unarmed black men. But on the flip side, unarmed black men are not going to stop fighting with police either,” Carter says. “When it becomes about how do we help to improve the lives of the citizens, I think it will make a change… But I don’t foresee that happening any time soon.”