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Sergeant Heather Taylor On Ethics And Inequality In Policing

A protester confronts Boston Police with hands in the air in front of Forest Hills Station in Jamaica Plain. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A protester confronts Boston Police with hands in the air in front of Forest Hills Station in Jamaica Plain. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Det. Sgt. Heather Taylor joins us to talk about being a Black woman in law enforcement, the violence she’s experienced in her own life, and how that’s shaped her views and hopes for her career and country.


Det. Sgt. Heather Taylorpresident of the Ethical Society of Police, which represents many Black officers in the St. Louis region. Night watch homicide sergeant with the St. Louis Metro Police Department. (@HthrTylr)

Interview Highlights

On how law enforcement has changed over the past two decades

“I think that it’s changed a lot. But kind of stayed the same, as well. I remember first starting off and just being very, very naive, even though I came from the inner city. I’ve seen violence. I was kind of shielded a little bit from it. And coming into it with this belief that I was going to save the world and bring people together. And … [wanting] to be a police officer is not a popular opinion.

“Because I wanted to protect victims of violence. I wanted to arrest people that were predatory and preyed on children, preyed on elderly and murdered people. That’s why I wanted to become a police officer. And I also wanted to become a police officer because my aunt was murdered by law enforcement. And you have these different things. And I came into it with this belief that I was going to be able to fix some things, and it was very naive.”

On her experience growing up

“I grew up in North St. Louis. And it’s predominantly African American. And we encountered law enforcement often growing up, some good and some not so good. And my experiences with law enforcement kind of started there. My brother — I’m the youngest of five — and my next sibling, my brother, he was always in trouble, no matter what we did. He was just in trouble. And he was really my only friend growing up. He really was. And he got into trouble.

“And so the police would show up. Sometimes they were nice. Other times they weren’t so nice. But, you know, one of my experiences with law enforcement was my [brother]. My brother was charged as a juvenile for an adult crime — murder. He did it. He was guilty. My brother literally was my first experience with, kind of, law enforcement. And why you have to be accountable as a citizen. Why law enforcement has to be accountable. And I think I was 14, 15.

“My brother was 15. He was ultimately certified, I believe, at 16 years old, to stand trial for murder. My brother was guilty of it. And I know that’s something that most people don’t like to say about their family members, that hard reality. But my mother literally cornered my brother and told him, ‘You’re going to have to go to jail for this. You murdered someone. That person has a family.’

“And just being devastated by it all. Because this is my brother we’re talking about. We’re talking about my brother and my only friend. And he had to be held accountable for murder and placed in a system that my mother didn’t trust. We didn’t trust the criminal justice system. We had experiences where they were mostly negative. There were some positive points in there with law enforcement. So, you know, growing up in North St. Louis, we ran sometimes from law enforcement. That’s just kind of how it was.”

On the murder of her aunt

“Our aunt, who was probably hands down the protector of everyone in our family, and one of the strongest women that I’ve been lucky enough to know. We share blood. … Her life was cut short. She was shot and killed by a law enforcement officer, a deputy marshal. I was a freshman in college. And I remember getting the call, the coach walking up. We were in practice and them telling me what happened. And my cousin — her daughter — was a police officer as well. She was a police officer at the time. So we have this person who is the fighter and the protector of everyone, this beautiful woman, who is murdered. And it broke our family. Broke our hearts.”

On becoming a law enforcement officer

“I became a police officer because I wanted to stand up for children who were victims of violence, to adults who were victims of domestic violence and gun violence, no matter who it is. Violence is not the right way, whether it’s an officer or a citizen, unless you’re defending your life. And those experiences pushed me into law enforcement. And it’s something I always wanted to do. And once here, it’s been difficult at times because it’s finding that balance. And also seeing things that in complaining and reporting things over and over and over and over again with the same people that I have to go to work with.

“Some of them, I think are murderers. Some of them, I think are the greatest people you could ever imagine. Some of them are hardworking, they’re fair. They’re of all races, all genders. But there are some within this field that I have strong beliefs about, that they’ve gotten away with murder. That they are racist, that they are homophobic. And balancing that with my ideals of, Hey, anybody that commits a violent crime has to be held accountable for it no matter who they are. Even me. There’s no one that’s above the law. And trying to find that balance, and having to go to work sometimes with people who I don’t feel comfortable turning my back on.”

Have you been concerned about your own personal safety in the 20 years you’ve been in the department?

“My husband is 6 feet 4 inches, 265 pounds, so, I have him there, which is a force in itself. He’s former military and my safety is important to him. But we set up cameras around our house. I have a camera in my car. He has a camera in his car. You know, I am extremely proficient with firearms for the job. And for the job, for lack of a better word there. And you just survive. For me, it’s how I address it.

“Sometimes you’ll hear me chuckle a little bit. And it’s because it’s a survival instinct. This is how we grew up. You cope with trauma. In a lot of times in the African American community, we cope with trauma through laughter. Through things that would be extreme to someone else. For us, this trauma is normalized, unfortunately. Even now, as a law enforcement officer, you just deal with it. And not everybody wishes that I would bleed out. I have a lot of people that really support me in this community and really support me as officers. I have a lot of backing.”

On systemic racism in policing

“I think about it often, it’s a part of what the Ethical Society of Police was founded for in 1972. To fight institutional racism, systemic racism within our police department, in our community. So you think about it often and it becomes just a daily routine. There have been times we’ve literally reported the same officer for racism seven, eight times and they’re still employed. You know, it’s a part of it. And being in this field and fighting it, it’s difficult. Yes, it is difficult. I wish there were more people of all races doing it.”

On being a police officer

“I believe I’ve helped a lot of people and I am proud of what I’ve done and standing up and fighting for people who wouldn’t have a voice. In being the unexpected, because I don’t think a lot of people would expect law enforcement to do that. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of helping and serving in my community and helping victims of violence, helping people who have faced police corruption and helped to expose it in testifying for law enforcement, and testifying against law enforcement. And it’s been worth it.”

On her retirement

“I grew up around trauma. And the trauma with being a law enforcement officer, from seeing the trauma that we’ve committed as law enforcement, in reporting it. And the trauma committed against us. I have friends who have been murdered in the line of duty. So that trauma goes both ways. But it is time. It is time because it will wear you out. Any time you show up on a homicide scene investigation, it’s trauma. Any time you report some officer for their level of ignorance and violence and racism, that’s another form of trauma.”

On her next steps

“I’m studying for the LSAT, and hopefully I’ll get a good score and I will be accepted in a local law school in this area, St. Louis or Illinois area. And that’s my plan. To come back in and work from the inside.”

From The Reading List

Washington Post: “The duty and burden of the black police officer” — “David J. Thomas grew up in Detroit in the 1960s, two blocks from the headquarters of the 10th Precinct.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Krewson reviews St. Louis police ‘use of force’ practices, Reed proposes new ordinance” — “Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis police officials are reviewing use-of-force practices in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, which has spurred protests here and across the nation.”

Wall Street Journal: “Black Officers Say Discrimination Abounds, Complicating Reform Efforts” — “Detective Luther Hall was working undercover during protests that gripped St. Louis in 2017 following the police shooting of a black man, when several officers in riot gear rushed up to him.”

St. Louis Public Radio: “Black Police Union Wants St. Louis County To Address Systemic Racism In The Police Force” — “Members of the Ethical Society of Police expressed frustration with St. Louis County on Monday for its lack of urgency to acknowledge the police union and the racial discrimination its Black officers face.”

CBS This Morning: “St. Louis sergeant: There are white supremacists on the police force” — “A growing number of police departments in America’s largest cities told CBS News that they’ve added implicit bias training.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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