St. Louis Police Sgt. Donnell Walters has watched his cousin, Detective Sgt. Heather Taylor, lead the Ethical Society of Police for more than five-and-a-half years. But now, it’s his turn to take the wheel and steer the association forward as it advocates for racial and gender equality in policing.
“My vision for the Ethical Society is nothing different than what Heather has already established,” he told The St. Louis American. “I just hope to carry on and keep fighting the good fight that she started and that’s really my ultimate goal.”
ESOP was founded in 1972 and is an association of more than 300 police officers, park rangers and civilians that advocates for racial and gender equity in law enforcement.
Taylor’s term as the association’s president ran from February 2015 until October 2020, when she retired from the Metropolitan Police Department of St. Louis and ESOP.
Walters works in the department’s Community Engagement and Recruiting Unit. His experience there, he said, lends itself well to leading society because its recruitment plan is all about getting out in the community and being visible.
“I am in a position where I can honestly take 20 to 30 minutes to talk to a citizen about just any and everything,” he said. “And I know my cohorts are busy going from call to call, so they don't always have that opportunity to have a 30-minute conversation with a citizen because of this thing that's going on in the city. So since I'm in this position, I take that opportunity and being in the community, engaging and recruiting, it just allows me that opportunity to do it.”
He also wants to spread awareness and acceptance of mental health issues among first responders and the residents.
“I think as far as the mental health aspect in law enforcement, it’s just, for the most part, admitting that it exists among law enforcement,” he said. “That's the biggest thing. You know, there are officers who struggle on a day-to-day basis. When we look at the national statistics and suicides among law enforcement, that's not coincidental. That means something is mentally going on with the stresses of the job. A lot of times the public forgets that we see the worst of the worst.”
Walters was very clear to note that mental health issues should not justify inappropriate behavior on behalf of officers.
Along that line, Walters says he’s not in support of the new and widely debated slogan of defunding the police that has gained popularity this year in the wake of recent police-involved deaths of Black people.
“That is not a term that our citizens came up with,” he said. “I believe that is a term that was embedded into our citizens because defunding the police, I believe that a lot of departments across the country, they're under some sort of city control. They don't see all the funds that are allotted for their agency.”
What is “defunding the police?”
He added he’s never really understood what the phrase meant exactly.
“What exactly is defunding the police? When you speak about defunding the police, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, you're going to take money away from them?’ Wait a minute; we’ve got 100 plus empty slots that we need police officers in. So, defunding the police I think is just a term where a lot of our community and our citizens do not understand exactly what that means. If anything, defunding the police, it's not something that should be done.”
Walters, instead, is an advocate for more practical training in areas such as racial discrimination, implicit bias and de-escalation.
As far as advocating for racial and gender equity in law enforcement, Walters has his own vision for how that should happen. He said he is inspired by words from Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, who told Walters to build his own metaphorical table, instead of trying to get a seat at someone else’s. Daniels became an instantly recognizable source of comfort for protesters during the months of unrest that ensued in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014 by a Ferguson police officer.
“That stuck in my head, so at first I wanted to get a seat at the table,” he said. “Now I hope, with the members and the community, we build our own table so that people want to come sit at our table. And our table will be a table that is about fairness, a table that is about social equality, a table that we will stand as a community of people and stand together arm in arm and fight a good fight against all of the wrong that’s out here.”