One weekend in early April, newly sworn-in Waco Police Chief Sheryl Victorian decided to put on her uniform, polish her badge and attend the eighth birthday party for a little girl who dreamed of becoming the first female police chief in Waco.
“Although she won't be the first female, we will still welcome her onto the team,” Victorian said.
The little girl told Victorian her new goal is to one day work for her.
Now almost a month after being sworn in and making history as the first woman and African American to hold the position of chief for the Waco Police Department, Victorian continues to set her sights on prioritizing the concept that led her to that birthday party: relational policing and building “emotional capital” to help the department bridge the gap between the badge and the community it serves.
“My main focus, first of all, is public safety and making sure that the public feels safe and that we are performing our job to the best of our abilities,” Victorian said.
For that to be achieved, it is important to establish a relationship with community, she said.
“Making sure that we are getting out in the community and connecting with them, building that trust and legitimacy that we talk about in policing, I like to do that through relational policing,” Victorian said. “It is not a secret.
“It involves being transparent and honest with one another, being respectful and engaging in the community.”
Assistant City Manager Ryan Holt said that focus was one of the reasons Victorian’s application stood out from the other candidates.
“We all desire to have that kind of relationship between the police department and our community, and the fact that it was a priority to her was great,” Holt said.
He stepped down as chief in 2019 to take the assistant city manager job, and department veteran Frank Gentsch served as interim chief until Victorian’s hire. She previously was part of the Houston Police Department for 28 years.
Hewitt Police Chief James Devlin, who also was involved in the chief selection process for Waco, said he was looking for somebody who “had a firm grasp on the current state of policing,” and that involves community relationships.
“For me, it was going to be somebody that could prove and demonstrate their ability for strong community policing and balancing that with taking care of their employees,” Devlin said. “I think Chief Victorian does an excellent job in demonstrating how she has impacted the community of Houston.”
Victorian does not shy away from showing her work, often posting about her engagement on her personal Twitter page. From spending time with the Waco Police Department Explorers youth program to meeting people around the community, #relationalpolicing shows up numerous times in her feed.
“In order to have trust, you typically have a relationship with that person to feel like they have earned that trust,” Victorian said.
The department needs to strengthen existing outreach and work with organizers of community events to invite officers to participate and engage with their groups, she said.
Waco NAACP President Peaches Henry said “relational policing” is a relatively new term and a new take on “community policing,” but the end point is the same.
“At the bottom of all policing is an understanding on the part of law enforcement that they are to protect and serve,” Henry said.
Victorian is set to meet with a group of pastors in the coming weeks with the goal of starting to establish that trust and “build that emotional capital,” she said.
That type of trust would be important if the department is in a position where an officer’s actions are being publicly questioned.
“It’s for people to be like ‘you know what, Waco PD appears to have, on the surface, it looks like they have messed up. Let’s give them a chance to either come out and be honest about what happened or to correct whatever mistake it seems that they have made’ and let us improve the relationship that we may have broken,” Victorian said.
Just in the past few weeks, police departments in the country have landed in those types of situations as police shootings of Black residents have led to protests and unrest.
The responsibility does not solely belong to community members, Victorian said.
“We can always use ongoing de-escalation training, always,” she said.
It is important to remind officers why ethics training is crucial and to point out, as can be seen from incidents across the country, that sometimes officers’ actions “tarnish the badge,” she said.
Henry said the tone officers receive in training is set by the leader.
“They need to see all citizens as citizens who need to be protected and served,” Henry said. “You have to see an individual as a human being worthy of respect in order to think about de-escalating the situation and, therefore, relational policing will help us to that.”
By establishing a strong sense of relational policing, Victorian hopes to introduce communities of color to the positive side of policing in order to attract more minorities to serve, which would also serve to break down negative stereotypes of law enforcement.
Henry said the first interaction young people have with law enforcement should not be in high-intensity situations.
“Instead they should begin to develop a positive relationship with young people at a very early age,” Henry said. “To me, that means officers are intentionally interacting with young people in school settings, extracurricular activities and volunteer work … so they can see each other as individuals.”
Victorian said she hopes to get officers into local schools to talk to students about the rewarding side of police work, while also acknowledging the negative, which should help students see the human side to officers and the “good that can be brought by this profession.”
Developing a diverse police force is important for the department and has been for years, Holt said.
“The more you can represent the community that you are serving, again, the more trust that is created there. … If communities see police officers that look like them they are more willing to believe that their view is being heard and represented,” Holt said.
Victorian also hopes to encourage leaders in the department to be able to identify officers who can handle leadership roles and encourage them to aim higher, stressing that it is important for others to see them in those roles.
Many members of the community already see Victorian’s hire as one that encourages women and people of color to become police officers.