Whatever Kerr’s reasons for taking his life, Hall — a member of the St. Louis County Police Department — felt she recognized much of the pain in his parting messages.
“If I had to describe what it felt like being a Black woman officer, the most appropriate word would be … heavy,” said Hall, a leader in a mostly Black law enforcement association in St. Louis called the Ethical Society of Police. “It feels like you are wearing a wet blanket just on your back every day and you can’t get it off. Everywhere you go, it’s on you.”
More than six years ago, following her police officer father, Hall said she signed up for a harrowing profession that can take a mental toll on anyone. But wearing a badge while Black has been its own burden. A reckoning over racism in policing and in the country the past year has heightened that burden for some and made it newly visible to others, as Black officers face racist abuse, anguish at the actions of others in law enforcement and intense community backlash.
“This has been a time like no other,” said Suwana Kirkland, president of the Minnesota branch of the National Black Police Association, which started connecting its members with chaplains — volunteer preachers and pastors — after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who went limp under the knee of a White Minneapolis officer. George Floyd’s death became a symbol for police brutality. Those who knew him say it was also a stark reminder of the racism they’ve faced all their lives. (Alice Li, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
Experts say Black officers face a unique pool of factors that can be detrimental to their mental health. They must also navigate their place in a work culture that values toughness and hypermasculinity with a history of being resistant to well-being, former and current officers told The Washington Post.
The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol put the pain of policing while Black under another spotlight early this year, as one Capitol officer recounted breaking down in tears at the end of a day in which rioters hurled racial slurs — an ugly story broadcast to the nation during impeachment proceedings.
“It’s hard for just any officers alone to show vulnerability,” the officer, Harry Dunn, said in an interview, “even more so in the Black community.” White colleagues “can express, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry this happened to you’ and they don’t stand for it,” he said.
“But they don’t know what it’s like.”
Kerr, the deputy in Louisiana, gave only small and cryptic signs of suffering in his last days, friends, colleagues and loved ones told The Post. Wendy Marcantel, his girlfriend, remembers Kerr smiling less. Sometimes he would give a deep sigh.
But he was military-trained like her father, she said. “They just put on that stiff chin.”
“Just dealing with people,” Marcantel, 51, remembers Kerr saying, without elaborating, when she asked him what was up. They had been together for less than two years, she said, and there was a lot she still did not know.
On Feb. 1, a Monday, Kerr woke up late, Marcantel said. It was 6:30 a.m., and he needed to rush to his job as an elementary and middle school resource officer for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. Marcantel kissed Kerr goodbye as he headed out the door, where she had hung a glittery Mardi Gras wreath, and he left poking fun at her, singing a Disney song about a crab with a bedazzled shell.
That morning, officials said, Kerr left his school for sheriff’s office headquarters and shot himself while sitting in his car outside. In his videos apparently filmed over several days and then posted just before his death, Kerr lamented all kinds of darkness in society, denouncing violence and “division.” But the last video was especially focused on the toll of his profession.
He urged regular psychological check-ins for officers and recalled a colleague’s death in the line of duty and denounced the police killings of Black Americans — Botham Jean, “Floyd,” “Breonna.”
“This is my protest against police brutality and everything else that comes along with it in this broken, wicked, worldly system that does not give a damn about people,” he said.
His death at 43 was stunning to those who knew him and remembered a lifelong “protector” — proud of his work, utterly dependable, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and always kept his cool. It had no clear explanation, they said, and some family members sent the sheriff’s office a statement saying they wish to mourn privately and accusing the media of “leveraging [Kerr’s] last posts for clickbait.”
But his videos also put a spotlight on familiar strains that Kerr shared last year, many said, amid historic scrutiny of how police use force and treat people of color.
“It obviously ate at him at a level that no one could see,” Marcantel said.
Black officers say they have long dealt with insults, discrimination and being singled out for their work, but the past year brought new pressures.
The racism on display at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was not new to Dunn, the Black Capitol Police officer who has spoken publicly. But Dunn cried in frustration at the end of the day, yelling in the Rotunda for all to hear. Rioters called him the n-word more than a dozen times, he said. The Confederate flag was carried into the building. Black officers, he said, “were fighting a different fight.”
They were “were getting attacked not just physically but verbally,” he said. “That causes pain — lingering pain.”
Dunn, 37, said he turned to his Black colleagues after the riots, coping by talking. With more White officers than Black ones, he argued, it’s just harder to open up — because there are fewer people who can understand.
Racism remains the “elephant in the room” in the postmortems of Jan. 6, said a Black Capitol Police officer who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation at work. The officer said he spoke with a department-provided counselor about the riot and a response that seemed to him rooted in racial bias.
The ease with which a mostly White crowd stormed the Capitol, after all-hands-on-deck orders and Black Hawk helicopters following Floyd’s death, has left him more disillusioned than ever with his department.
To many Black officers, he said, the reason for the stark contrasts feels obvious: “We can’t shoot White people.” But he said there is still little department discussion of the role that White privilege played in the failures behind the Capitol siege.
Some colleagues “laugh about it, but … it’s not funny. It’s a reality and it’s a damn shame.”
The Capitol Police said in a statement that it is making peer-support and counseling resources available to officers in the wake of the insurrection. The department noted that last year it sponsored its first town hall on race in policing — an opportunity to “further awareness about unconscious bias” — and said its leadership team has undergone unconscious bias training.
Law enforcement, dominated by a White culture, may leave Black officers more critical of their role, said Wizdom Powell, director of the UConn Health Disparities Institute and an associate professor of psychiatry.
Powell said the clash between expectations, reality and values can be incredibly disheartening for officers who believe in social justice and want their work to be an extension of their principles.
“Can you imagine the disappointment?” she said. “That’s an incredibly conflicting place for Black, Indigenous and other law enforcement officers.”
Black officers may also experience “vicarious” trauma, and the accompanying feelings of hopelessness and despair, as images of police violence toward Black people are shared online, experts said.
The weight of Black skin and blue uniforms can cause more self-isolation when emotional or professional help is needed most, said David Thomas, a police counseling professional with 20 years of policing under his belt.
“They’re afraid that the mental health clinicians will pull their standard or take their gun away from them,” he said. “That’s a huge fear.”
For some agency leaders, the past year has brought new knowledge of what their Black members are up against. The White head of the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, where Kerr worked, said he spoke one-on-one with about 20 Black deputies, some tearful, after Floyd’s death. He had emailed employees offering to “spend time with anyone who wants to just talk or vent.”
The sheriff, Mark Garber, recounted surprise at how often his Black deputies’ were targeted out in the community with slurs and insults such as “Uncle Tom.” He said they were criticized by bystanders, victims, suspects and their own families “for being a peace officer.”
“It was something that I was aware of, but I wasn’t aware of the extent of it,” Garber said. “I was aware of the possibility of it and just little hints of it here or there.”
Floyd’s death last May weighed on Kerr, according to his social media posts. So did the backlash toward police that followed, friends said. Two said Kerr talked about resigning.
Jermaine Salmon said Kerr confided in him one night at a sports bar last June that he had started changing out of his uniform before driving home. Kerr had stopped to visit his old Army buddy on a cross-country drive to Arizona.
“He just told me how difficult it was at the time,” said Salmon, who is Black. “Not just being a cop but being a Black cop. … He’d be driving home in his uniform and he noticed people give him dirty looks.”
Streaming live on Facebook for more than 40 minutes on the last day of May, as protests following Floyd’s death erupted around the country, Kerr said he was losing sleep and struggled to explain the killing to his 13-year-old son. Kerr asked what would happen if his son ran into an officer like the one who knelt on Floyd’s neck.
He had spent his life in hard jobs but found himself “more mentally and emotionally drained over the course of this last week than I think I have ever felt,” he said.
Kip Judice, the chief of a small police department that overlaps with Lafayette Parish, recalls Kerr posing hypotheticals about the fatal police shooting of a Black man in Lafayette last August. He and many others remembered Kerr as an asker of hard questions, a thoughtful guy who could quote scripture and used to read the Bible while stuck in his military compound.
Kerr seemed to reserve judgment on the local shooting, Judice said, but told him to imagine the man was his cousin.
“Do you shoot him to protect other people in the store?” Kerr asked, according to Judice, who is White. “Because he’s your cousin, do you change the way you interact?”
The strain of being a Black officer and the complicated internal and external conflicts that accompany that position are nothing new, said Tracie L. Keesee, senior vice president and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity.
“What is really becoming aware to a lot of folks is extra added pressure of being in a culture or environment that is not supportive of or is counter to your views,” she said.
Edwin Debiew said he has dealt with hostility within and outside of his department during his time as a law enforcement official at state and federal agencies. He recalled White citizens who refused to cooperate with him, not believing he was truly in the service, and also a White co-worker telling him that “it’s always your people.”
For Debiew, feelings of injustice and dismay are as loud in police departments as they are for the civilian. The 50-year old, who is now with the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives but says he is speaking for himself, said that when the public talks about officer conduct following high-profile cases, that can seed doubt in Black officers — in a line of work where trust may be a matter of life and death.
“We have the thought process of how many of my co-workers and colleagues who vowed to protect people like myself will excuse those same qualities,” Debiew said. “You get a feeling of not knowing who to trust and when to trust them.”
Hall, the St. Louis County officer, said her first “smack in the face” came when a White colleague told others she did not belong on the police force because she has “thugs” in her family. But she also described a slow buildup of dismay, a layering of pressures under which even an innocuous comment can trigger despair.
Despite all the efforts at reform in the wake of Floyd’s death and the massive racial justice movement that followed, Hall says the past year has done more to damage her faith in the profession than repair it.
She did not join the police force thinking she would have to fight her co-workers. “And so when you’re smacked with it, it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard.”
A spokeswoman for the St. Louis County Police, Tracy Panus, detailed steps she said the department has taken to address the concerns of Black officers. She cited a program to promote “active bystandership” and prevent misconduct; an ongoing partnership with the Center for Policing Equity; recruiting efforts aimed at minorities; and an outside review of the department that details the “racial divide” in its ranks, among other efforts.
This year, Hall said, a White commander was preaching change, saying he wanted more job applications from African Americans, Hispanics and women. Hall thought of all the Google search results from just the last several months that could make a recruit think twice.
“This place is so depressing,” Hall recalled telling the commander, with an expletive, this year.
“You’re depressed?” Hall says the commander replied.
No, Hall said, “y’all are depressing. This department is depressing.”
She said she didn’t want to talk, then went into a side office at headquarters, closed the door and started to cry.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.