Why this former cop left the force: 'Policing is not about helping'

Why this former cop left the force: 'Policing is not about helping'

At the dinner table, in Congress, and on the force, police reform is a major discussion today. Carter's story is the first part of a series on Reimagining Public Safety.

Terrell Carter never wanted to be a police officer. But then he learned he'd be a father and his life turned inside-out.

Decades ago, when he was 23, his wife told him she was pregnant. "I needed a steady, well-paying job with benefits," Carter said in an interview with Insider.

At the time, he worked in construction, doing maintenance work on a downtown St. Louis, Missouri, building. After his wife delivered the news, he walked into another room and prayed he'd find a different job to support his growing family.

 

The next day, he heard a radio ad while driving that invited listeners to join the police force. He called up his best friend's father, an officer of several years, for advice.

"I'm about to be a dad, and I know that your life circumstances were similar to mine when you were my age: young husband, young father," Carter recalled telling the man. "What do you think about me applying to the police department as well?"

The two spoke on the phone for about half an hour. The conversation reassured him, helping Carter learn that his family would get a "really nice lump sum of money" if something were to happen to him on the job, an idea that comforted him. "At least my family would be taken care of," he said.

Carter applied and got into the police academy, where he spent eight hours a day in a classroom.

The hardest part was "wrapping my mind around what it meant to carry a badge and a gun," he told Insider. The thought of dying constantly loomed over him at each training, during which officers spoke freely about the dangers of the job.

The only thing keeping him going, he said, was the prospect of security, money, and support for his family.

His partner on the force had planted drugs on three civilians in 2002, and Carter testified against him in court.

Nearly two decades later, the incident plays out in his memory like a movie.

After receiving a tip of a drug sale at a nearby daycare, Carter and his partner, accompanied by a detective, detained a woman who confessed to possession a "golf ball-size rock of crack."

She claimed to have been holding it for her boyfriend, who paged her to say he'd show up at the daycare shortly to retrieve it.

Intercepting the meetup, Carter and his partner found and subdued three men in a truck. One of the men had a gun, and Carter tussled with him to avoid getting shot.

Carter insists they searched for drugs in the truck "multiple times" but couldn't find any. That's when his partner, coming around an area that they had already searched, pulled out the crack they had retrieved off the young woman, making it seem like he found it in the truck.

"This guy was a drug dealer that my partner had been searching for for years and could never catch, and this was his opportunity to get this guy and finally arrest him," Carter said. Back at the station, his partner wrote up a report of the day's incident.

Weeks later, Carter received a notice from federal prosecutors asking him to attend a probation revocation hearing to discuss an arrest.

One of the three men arrested that day had a hearing to determine whether to revoke him of probation and place him in jail for the crack Carter's partner said he found in the truck. Carter learned about the contents of the report for the first time at this hearing.

Terrell Carter

"He wrote that there was a baseball size of crack, not a golfball size of crack," Carter said. "He wrote in the report that when we found him at the daycare, they were cutting crack and weighing it on scales outside the truck. That the guy who I found had a gun - I didn't find the gun on him in the vehicle, I found it on him later. But he said that guy was in the backseat twirling the gun on his fingers like a cowboy."

The first claim was inaccurate, and the second and third simply did not happen. But his partner still testified under oath, repeating the exaggerated and fabricated claims he wrote in the initial report.

Carter, however, went against him, telling the room that "what was in the report is not what I remember about the incident."

"I'm not saying that they were good people, not saying that they hadn't done bad things in the past or whatever," Carter said. "But you don't have to lie in order to send someone to prison."

The FBI stepped in and interviewed the three men arrested. Their stories matched up with Carter's, and his partner went to prison.

The ordeal compelled Carter to restart his life - this time as a community organizer and spiritual leader who seeks to educate people about the role of policing.

 

Over recent years, investigations have revealed that police officers nationwide abide by quotas that require them to hit specific numbers of arrests, which exacerbates the chance that they'll stop people of color because of unchecked racial bias.

That's what Carter says policing is all about: doing a job in a particularly punitive way to maintain status as an officer.

In the NYPD, the largest police department in the US, one former officer testified under oath that superiors would take away overtime or promotion possibilities from officers who did not meet the quotas. "Collars for dollars" - making arrests at the end of the shift in the hopes of getting overtime pay - is a common practice among police.

Officers wait until the end of the day to fulfill their quotas and make their arrests, leading to extra hours after work spent putting together reports - a tactic used to gain significant overtime hours and pay.

In 2014, four officers collectively made $1,400 in overtime pay for an extra 20 hours of overtime. And June 2020, the NYPD made over $115 million in overtime in overtime pay within just two weeks at the height of the protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd.

Carter says these kinds of incentives are protected and encouraged by the current system of policing.

"You don't get rewarded as a police officer for doing good," he said. "You get rewarded for doing what the system requires of you."

It's also about making arrests to advance the department itself, he added.

In the best-selling book, "The New Jim Crow," civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander said police departments nationwide have for years been financially incentivized to conduct mass minor drug arrests, leading to the often-years-long imprisonment of millions of Black Americans.

"Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority," Alexander wrote. There are other benefits given to police departments that center this, such as free training and support from agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Such incentives are part of the backwards and unethical logic behind the system of policing as we know it, Carter suggested.

While Carter believes a policing system is necessary because there will always be violence and a need to protect the public, he argued police need better training - particularly when it comes to racial biases, critical race theory, and mental health.And it's not just white officers who should study these things. Carter's partner was a Black man who, "on top of everything else, was doing this to other Black people."

Officers of color are often perpetuating a broken system against other people of color. People who don't believe the system of policing is racist commonly cite this as an argument to support their claim.

But Alexander's explained that minority officers are complicit in mass incarceration and often feel like they can't go against the status quo. Even departments that are led by officers who are Black or brown have issues like the ones outlined by Carter.

"People of color are often reluctant to challenge institutions led by people who look like them, as they feel a personal stake in the individual's success," Alexander wrote. "After centuries of being denied access to leadership positions in key social institutions, people of color quite understandably are hesitant to create circumstances that could trigger the downfall of 'one of their own.'"

At the same time, police don't have to respond to everything, Carter said.

He doesn't think police should respond to calls unrelated to criminal actions or violations. Mental health professionals, for example, should be dispatched to resolve and de-escalate mental health challenges. Animal control should respond to animal-related calls.

"Send out the people who are best trained, best qualified to handle the diversity of things that occur on any given night in a given community," he said.

These days, Carter wears many hats and works to transform the St. Louis community and to better the relationship between police and people of color, serving as the vice chair of the St. Louis Mental Health Board.

He's also the executive director of Rise Community Development, a nonprofit focused on advocating for and developing sustainable and affordable housing in the St. Louis area. He's also written numerous books on policing, including "Police on a Pedestal" and "Walking the Blue Line: A Police Officer Turned Community Activist."

Though no longer involved with the police as an officer, he still has ties to the St. Louis law enforcement community.

Carter's view is not popular among the police in St. Louis. But multiple officers who've quit or retired from the force have previously told him they wish they had stood up for the right thing like he did.