Q&A with Terrell Carter

I'm excited and honored to feature my Q&A with friend and colleague Rev. Terrell Carter. Terrell has always worn lots of different hats. He is currently Minister of Administration at Third Baptist Church of St. Louis, MO as well as the Executive Director of the North Newstead Assocation of St. Louis. He's also a talented artist who has taught art at St. Louis Community College.

Terrell is also a former police officer. He patrolled east St. Louis for 5 years, something he calls the most stressful and dangerous job he's ever had. He says he originally saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people and communities in need, but was sometimes overwhelmed by the mental and emotional challenges. He served as associate and interim pastor at several churches while wearing the badge and, after leaving his law enforcement career, became the senior pastor of a church in his former patrol area in which the previous pastor had been shot and killed.

In the wake of recent national news stories about police, the recent shooting death of an officer in my community, and the general increase of fear and hostility in our culture, I've been wanting to get Terrell's insights. He is a quiet, humble and loving man who has been through some painful life experiences, and I'm glad he took the time to address some questions I had.1


1) How does your past work as a police officer inform the way you do ministry? And the reverse: in what ways has ministry changed your view of policing?

In general, I try to remember that all people are broken and need God’s grace. That includes me. I also try to remember that just because a person is experiencing tough times in their life does not make them a bad person. They may have made bad decisions, or someone else may have made a bad decision that has affected them, but that does not dictate what type of person they are.

In a practical way, I try to use the skills that I learned as an officer when I interact with people from the community. I call it “police radar." As an officer, I heard almost every hard luck story in the book. I had to learn how to listen to what people say and learn the clues to what was truth and what was not. When people are not being truthful, the “radar” goes off. I also learned how to recognize several signs of abuse, neglect, etc. Like any other urban community, our church has a lot of people walk in from off the street asking for assistance from the church. Most often, I use these skills to try to figure out the best way possible to help someone. It’s a tough balancing act because you want to show people unconditional love, but experience has taught me that you have to be aware of the need to protect yourself and others, even while you are trying to help.

I have always believed in God’s grace. On a personal level, I appreciate the concept of grace more than the concept of law and tried to live that out in my actions as an officer. I did not always do a good job of that, but I was always aware that just because a person did something that required law enforcement to get involved, that did not make them bad people or people below God’s love.

2) In the face of crime and violence, what is the line between prudence and fear? How can we be smart and careful without being fearful? What did this look like for you as a police officer?

The line between prudence and fear is very thin. So is the line between being careful and fearful.  As an officer, your job is to react to what someone else does. You do not show up to direct a situation from the beginning. You are there because something has happened and something needs to be done in response to that original action. Because of this, you are always on guard because you do not fully know what you are walking in to.

I wanted to see people as more than just people complaining, or people who needed to learn proper communication and parenting skills, or people who needed to learn how to handle their own life circumstances. But, as soon as I would let my guard of protection down, someone would test me and try to take advantage of me, either emotionally or physically. My most important goal was to go home every day at the end of my shift. In order to do that, I had to protect myself and my fellow officers. The challenge of working in an environment like this is you have the tendency to get jaded and see every situation as something to respond to, or you see people as things to respond to so you can move on to the next situation that needs to be fixed.

3) As a black person, do you believe that you have faced increased or unfair scrutiny from police? How did this look once you were a police officer yourself, and what would you say to white police officers who deny a racial divide or who feel they're being called racist when such concerns are raised?

I have experienced scrutiny from police officers my entire life.  I am now 40 years old, and still experience it.

Within the City Police Department, the underlying temperament is that anyone that does not wear blue (the color of the department uniform) could be the enemy. It applies more so to minorities. I regularly saw racial profiling by white and black officers. It was just a given. If you were a black male, you did not have a valid reason for being out after a certain time, driving a certain type of vehicle, wearing certain types of clothes, or being with certain people because it meant that you were up to no good. Many good, godly people have had their lives ruined because someone did not like where they were at a certain time.

It is hard for me to believe that there are officers who honestly say that there is not a racial divide. The first divide is between officers and the general public. After that, the next divide is between officers and minorities. The way certain people are treated versus others is one piece of evidence for this.

4) What would be a Christian approach to policing? You are familiar with the way officers talk among themselves about the criminals they arrest. Is it harmless cop-speak? A necessary coping strategy? Or is there a problematic dividing of humanity into good guys vs. bad guys?

I have to admit, I was no angel when it came to this. Some people that I encountered during my time with the department would have questioned my salvation. Most of the time, no one that I encountered on the street cared about that. Many times people perceived my attempts at showing compassion as a sign of weakness and they tried to take advantage of me. I then had to respond in an appropriate manner. Sometimes, that meant speaking slowly, softly, and clearly. Sometimes that meant screaming and shouting at the person who was doing the same to me to get them to understand that I was the person in control and they would follow my commands.

I think that the language and actions of some officers reflects the feeling that criminals, or anyone they interact with on the street, whether black or white, are “other." “Other” in the sense that they are less than human and not worthy of respect. One of the challenges of being an officer is not to become jaded by what you see and experience. If your only interaction with people from a particular community or background is negative, it will be hard not to see everyone like that in the same light. It will take intentional action not to lump everyone into a particular group. It will also take specific and continual training to teach officers to keep their cool and respond in professional ways that gets the job done without resorting to cursing and threats.

5) In the face of losing an officer in the line of duty, what does a healthy response look like from the other officers and the community? What is most helpful? How do officers keep their grief from morphing into unhealthy rage that could affect future encounters?

During my tenure, we had an officer killed in the line of duty. Ironically, one of my grandfathers was a witness to the killing. A healthy response for officers is the same as it would be for the general public (sorrow, disbelief, frustration, anger). A healthy response would also include acknowledging all of those feelings. Officers are taught to be emotionless (You are not a person. You are an extension of the State and its laws). Everything about them has to be controlled and measured. A healthy response would be to acknowledge the emotions and find a healthy outlet for releasing those emotions, whether that is counseling, therapy, or some type of physical outlet. It is an unfortunate reality that when some officers unleash their emotions, it’s at the expense of a citizen who does not deserve it.

6) How does someone who works with the worst of society maintain a Christian worldview that has room for grace?

This, too, is an intentional process. For me it required regularly spending time in God’s word. It also required that I open myself up to examination by other people who knew me and loved me and would tell me that they could see a negative change in my attitude and how I was relating to other people. My grandparents would spend time listening to my complaints about the job and the people I came in contact with. They would also talk to me about how I could live out my faith better while still doing the job. I also found mentors on the department who were Christians who had learned how to live out their faith while still doing the job. Ultimately, one of the reasons that I quit the department was because I felt like I was becoming someone that I did not want to be and someone that God did not want me to be.


This Q&A with Terrell Carter is an entry in the Guest Posts section of my blog. If interested in reading more or even submitting your own post, click here.

1 Terrell's responses have been edited for clarity, flow and length.