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Sgt. Heather Taylor On Fighting Back, Retiring From The St. Louis Police

"Our country is inundated with unfair criminal justice policies," said Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sgt. Heather Taylor, photographed at a 2018 press conference, spent 20 years with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

As president of the Ethical Society of Police, Sgt. Heather Taylor has been an outspoken advocate for change. She’s spoken out about racism in the department. She’s spoken out about misinformation from her superiors. And, this past spring, she spoke out when she felt the department’s COVID-19 policies were endangering officers.

Now she’s retired from the department after 20 years as an officer, including eight years in homicide. Her final day was Friday. And even though she’s in the process of moving to Florida, where she plans to attend graduate school or law school, she said she is not finished advocating for change within the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

In addition to helping the Black officers union transition to a new leader, Taylor said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air that she’ll use her new freedom to speak out on its behalf — “as a spokesperson to make statements they can’t make,” in her words.

In her role as union president, Taylor experienced firsthand the department’s willingness to crack down on outspoken employees. She was reprimanded for speaking to the media without prior authorization (the subject of a lawsuit she filed against the department, noting that white officers were not subject to such discipline). She also received complaints for violating the department’s social media policy. She delayed her retirement, briefly, in order to fight back against the most recent “employee misconduct complaint” filed by a superior. (She was exonerated last week.)

Taylor chafed at the city’s social media policy for years. Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards had put it in place in 2017, saying he needed a way to crack down on officers who make racist posts on their personal accounts.

Taylor said while she supported those goals, she immediately saw First Amendment concerns. “It’s no shock that I was a test dummy for it, unfortunately,” she said.

Being outside the department’s control, she suggested, will be liberating.

“When you use that policy to silence your police association president …” she said. “The problem with the police department is, they don’t separate you as the employee and the president. [As president], you have to be able to speak up. You have to praise the department. You have to condemn the department. They want you only to praise the department. And when you condemn the department, you face retaliation.”

Taylor has long seen her role as not advocating just for Black officers, but “for what’s right, regardless of the race or gender,” she said. The difference now, she said, is that she’ll reserve her time and speak out “only in circumstances that are a priority to be involved in.”

“It’ll be roughly 10% of my involvement before,” she added. “It will be very, very limited.”

Taylor credited St. Louis police Chief John Hayden for moving swiftly to discipline and even remove officers when he saw wrongdoing. For all her frustrations with systemic racism and unequal treatment within the department, she said, she sees positive change. “John Hayden isn’t perfect. I’ve had my fights and my battles with him,” she said. “But when it comes to discipline and looking to do the right thing that’s fair, I’ll give him that.”

That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect system. Taylor said she complained about a fellow officer in her last days in the office, after hearing him express to a colleague that a murder victim’s life “didn’t matter much” because he had a record.

“You have people that believe one life is more valuable than another,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Hey. You can have people who have been arrested for violent crime in the past, but does it give anyone a right to take their life?’”

Rather than acting on her complaint, she said, the person she complained to chastised her for failing to follow the chain of command.

“That detective is still in homicide,” she said. “He was talking directly to his sergeant.”

(Asked for comment, a St. Louis police spokesperson issued a statement, saying, "It is not uncommon for our Homicide Division to learn that victims and/or suspects involved in homicides have a criminal past. However, this does not affect or change the veracity in which detectives investigate these cases. Additionally, our Homicide Division has been able to successfully investigate and assist in the successful prosecution of cases in which the victims and/or suspects have a criminal history. We expect our employees to treat all citizens with the utmost dignity and respect.")

Still, Taylor said she would encourage young people to join the department, so long as they’re not just looking to punch a time clock.

"If they're looking to make a difference, absolutely,” she said. “If you're looking for a job, no."

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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