Terrell Carter’s latest book “Police on a Pedestal: Responsible Policing in a Culture of Worship” begins with the African proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” From there, his book outlines the idea that storytelling is the foundation for the current system of policing, especially in St. Louis.
“When I began the police academy in 1997, we were told that, as future police officers, we owned a magic pen. What that class instructor meant was that whatever we wrote in a police report about our experiences with citizens would likely be believed by prosecuting attorneys and juries,” Carter writes.
“We were in control of the narrative that was being shaped about our experiences with citizens and criminals. It was up to us to write in such a way that made us out to be the heroes and whoever we were dealing with as the villains. Even a casual observer of the relationships between police and minority citizens can see how this type of mindset can lead to trouble.”
Carter points out that this storytelling process used in law enforcement is not new. “As the territory which would eventually become known as St. Louis grew and more white settlers arrived, they lived in fear of attack from Native Americans who did not want their land or resources unjustly taken from them,” Carter writes. “Years later, the organization that would eventually become the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department was started in part to protect white settlers from the retaliatory actions of Native Americans who previously occupied the land.”
Over time, these organized efforts to protect white settlers and their interests were adopted by people who wanted to protect the interests of Southern slave owners after the end of the Civil War. Instead of protecting whites from savages in the wilderness, people banded together to protect slave owners and corporations from the overreach of the Union and its efforts to bring an end to chattel slavery.
“After slavery ended, whites, especially those in the South, were not happy that African Americans had been granted their freedom. They could not imagine a world where African Americans were considered equal to them and living under their own direction,” Carter writes.
“So, after the Civil War and into Reconstruction, whites started militia groups whose primary purposes were to hunt down freedmen and runaway slaves and return them back to their former slaveowners or sell them to corporations where they would be forced into back-breaking physical labor. Many of these militia groups served as the predecessors to our modern police departments.”
Carter outlines how the storytelling process has been supported and utilized by not only police, but also by other groups that benefit from the current system of policing: “from private corporations that make millions of dollars from building and staffing new prison facilities, to lobbyists who become rich influencing legislators to institute laws that disproportionately affect minority communities, to lawyers who make their bread and butter providing sub-standard legal counsel, and media outlets that make criminals out of entire people groups.”
Further, he writes, “These groups are not served well when someone begins to point out the inequities in our law enforcement system and they will push back against anyone who attempts to disturb the status quo.”
Carter said he tried to change the system from within when he was still a police officer, memories evoked my recent news events when the Plain View Project exposed racist comments that St. Louis officers posted on Facebook.
“In the past, I specifically wrote about one of the officers who was highlighted in those stories,” Carter says. “When I tried to expose his actions while I was an officer, I was threatened with retaliation. How many citizens could have avoided their lives being changed for the worse if people would have listened to me?”
He said this points to a culture in police departments that must change before they can be reformed.
“The current system is unfair for officers who don’t want to go along with the status quo. If you decide to do what’s right, you do it at your own peril because if you bring one person down, it’s likely that others will do anything they can to protect themselves and the system that’s currently in place,” Carter says.
“That’s why I wrote ‘Police on a Pedestal’ – to continue to bring attention to how the story of policing is told and to try to give a voice to the citizens and officers who know that what often occurs on a daily basis isn’t right and the system desperately needs to be changed.”
“Police on a Pedestal: Responsible Policing in a Culture of Worship” is currently available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other book sellers.