Local artist and former police officer Terrell Carter recently shared his life story and experiences as a St. Louis police officer with students at St. Louis Community College during a recent lecture to commemorate African-American History Month.
Carter’s experiences are the subject of his latest book, “Walking the Blue Line: A Police Officer Turned Community Activist Provides Solutions to the Racial Divide.” It is available for purchase on Kindle and through Barnes and Noble.
When Carter and his twin brother were born, his mother was just 16 years old. They were raised in the Ville neighborhood behind Sumner High School, in the home of his paternal grandparents, who took over their care after his mother was murdered when he was just 7 years old.
At 14, his father came back into his life and moved Carter and his brother to Gatesville, Tex. That move changed the course of their lives.
“During that time, we were away from the things are friends experienced in St. Louis; the gangs, the bad influences. I was an artist. My brother was a writer. The creative aspects of our lives were nurtured in high school,” said Carter.
When the Carter brothers moved back to St. Louis after high school, they found that being black teenagers in St. Louis was a much different experience than living in Texas.
“We were two totally different men than who we were when we left. We were nerds. That’s the best way to describe us: two kids who believed in God and our talents,” Carter said. “The problem was that people in St. Louis didn’t understand us. They thought they had us completely figured out. And what they thought they knew about us wasn’t who we were.”
After moving back to St. Louis, Carter studied art under the guidance of Mark Weber at STLCC-Forest Park. He later earned a bachelor’s degree, and then worked a construction job and a part-time job at Builder’s Square.
“I was trying to figure out a way to take care of my family. I was doing what I needed to do to make ends meet. And I literally prayed and asked God to open a door for me to get a [better] job, and two days later I heard a commercial for St. Louis City Police,” Carter said. “I had not had a positive experience with police before. I had one friend who had a positive experience with a police officer, and that was because his father was the police officer. I called him and asked him what he thought. He outlined some good things and not so good things. And I applied and I got into the Police Academy three months later.”
He was stationed in St. Louis’ Third District, also known as “The Bloody Third,” because of the violence there.
“Life patrolling the streets was not fun,” Carter described. “There are only so many things they can tell you or show you in the academy. You have to learn the rest of it face to face. And the things that I learned were not necessarily good things or happy things.”
Carter’s negative experiences were the result of encounters with fellow police officers and also because of bad experiences with citizens.
“When was the last time you called a police officer to thank him for being friendly?” he asked.
Life as a Cop
In the book he explores several questions. The first is “Are police heavy handed?” Carter believes they are, but that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Police officers are an extension of the law. They fulfill the requirements of the law and protect us as well. Unfortunately, I learned when doing that you have to deal with nonsense the majority of the time,” he said.
“I struggled with all the things that I faced as a police officer. I struggled with what kind of person I was becoming when I was a police officer,” said Carter.
When his four year old told his caretakers at the daycare center he attended that his father was unhappy because of his work, Carter realized the dramatic impact it was having on his life.
“The job began to weigh on me and change me and made me rethink what I was doing,” he said.
Carter used his talents and training as an artist to deal with the stress he encountered every day. After losing a fellow police officer in a shooting, he created a series of portraits of officers, including a self-portrait entitled “Atlas.”
Points to Ponder
Ultimately, Carter decided to leave the police force, and just a few months after receiving his Masters of Fine Arts degree, he began working at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park as an art instructor. He blogs on Ethics Daily, and began to write about the racial divide in St. Louis after the shooting death of Michael Brown.
In his book, Carter proposes 12 points for police and citizens to ponder. He believes that citizens should not allow the media to “spoon feed” stories that make people hate one another.
“Police officers are people. Citizens are people. Period,” he said. “As these things happen and the story unfolds, we have to remember that human beings are attached to this.”
He believes that police departments need to help police officers deal with the stress caused by their daily experiences. He also believes citizens need to learn why and when they should call 9-1-1.
“Police officers don’t need to be called because a light is out on the city block. There are other organizations that are better prepared to address those problems,” he said.
Carter also thinks people need to learn how to talk with one another.
“We need to figure out a way for people to have a clear, open dialogue with each other. Police officers and citizens, we’ve got to figure out a way to talk and get these things out,” Carter said. “And there’s a difference between talking together, and I’m not against protesting, but when you’re yelling, my question is, ‘Have you said anything?’ It doesn’t help understanding.”