Sheryl Victorian

By Megan Willome

Doctor, Chief & Playwright

Waco Police Chief Sheryl Victorian signs her emails with this quote from Ken Blanchard:

“The essence of GREAT leadership is INFLUENCE, not authority.”

The words are his, but Victorian adds her own capitalization flair and renders the quote in purple, green and red. That’s the essence of the woman known as “Doctor Chief.” (The ‘doctor’ comes from the Ph.D. in administration of justice she earned from Texas Southern University in 2013.) She is passionate about leadership — “leading from the front,” she calls it. Her mind is bright with colorful ideas about how to build relationships between police officers and community members. Her influence is deep and wide, like her smile.

How did this woman become drawn to a career in law enforcement? Blame it on the TV show “Miami Vice.”

“I used to love that show!” Victorian said, “I knew early I wanted to be an officer. I saw them as having character, having integrity.”

Chief Victorian spent 28 years with the Houston Police Department and was named Rookie Officer of the Year in 1995. She advanced through the ranks from sergeant, to lieutenant, to commander, to assistant chief — serving in every facet of police work, from patrol to homicide to internal affairs to working undercover for 11 years.

She became Waco police chief in March 2021 and is the first African American and the first woman in the role.

Writer Megan Willome spoke with Victorian about how she’s building emotional capital with Waco residents, how she’s teaching police officers to consider the impact of past trauma on their interactions with Black citizens and about her joy that comes from writing plays.

WACOAN: Thanks for meeting with me today.

Sheryl Victorian: Monday is my catch-up day. I block it off, prepare for the week ahead, polish up anything from last week. There’s less stress going into the week.

WACOAN: You’ve moved up through the ranks in your career, serving as assistant chief in Houston, but this is your first time being the head chief. What have you enjoyed about having the top position?

Victorian: I’d been looking forward to the decision stopping with me, being able to have the final decision when it comes to different recommendations or policies, without having to go up through the chain, without having to go through all the levels for the final decision to be made. Law enforcement is a bureaucracy. I don’t have to ask to make decisions. I am the decision-maker. I can message things the way that I see them based on my experience, knowledge, skills and abilities.

Also just being able to build relationships with our community. I like to lead from the front. When I ask people to do something, it’s not a hard ask because I’m already out there. I’ve been working on increasing positive interactions in our community — not just for the Waco Police Department, but for professional policing in the current climate.

WACOAN: What are some of the ways you’re forming those relationships in the community?

Victorian: We have several programs. Several existed already, like our Junior Police Academy, Explorers [law enforcement career exploration for young adults ages 14-20].

What I brought to Waco was the Back to School Bash. We have it in August. We’ve done it for two years. It was so successful the first year that we partnered with Ascension Providence, with their medical services, this year. We gave away 1,600 backpacks. It was an opportunity for us to interact with kids who may have had negative interactions with police or been told negative things.

Giving backpacks, school supplies, giving haircuts — it shows we care about education and want to see you succeed. We get out our toys (what we call our toys) and our canines, our SWAT cars, our firefighter partners.

The goal is to be intentional about attracting them to the things we’re doing. We invite them on the back of the SWAT truck, and they’re seeing the gear. They get to engage with K9 officers, being able to ask questions. It’s a good program to bring here because it shows we not only care about their safety but about their success and being productive citizens.

Trunk or Treat. The idea was to make sure we were hosting events here at the police tower, where our offices are. We didn’t want it to be that the only time they come to the tower was because of something negative.

We could have something positive for them, a positive reason for coming to the police department. We want them to know this is your police station. We have great community partners, neighborhood associations, businesses. They decorated cars, they came with candy. We had lines around the corner for blocks. People were so patient. We have pictures of those kids coming through and getting candy.

Our team was like, ‘Chief, we have already outgrown our own Trunk or Treat after one year.’ So this year WISD had the space, and we had the people, so this year we partnered with them over at the athletic complex. We had more space, more parking.

I told my team, ‘We’ve already moved two events because we’ve outgrown them, so we need some new events to invite people to our home.’

WACOAN: And where was the Bash held its second year?

Victorian: At the Extraco Events Center.

WACOAN: I heard you say in an interview that when people call the police, it’s often at the worst moments of their lives, and you want to be sensitive to that.

Victorian: When people call the police, it’s because something bad has happened. Whether they were victimized physically, or their personal space was victimized, or they were involved in an accident, or whether they witnessed something that was traumatic. They don’t call to say hello, come to our barbeque.

When we’re responding to an incident, it’s where someone’s safety was compromised or jeopardized or they were victimized. A lot of times emotions are running high when we get there because people are angry. They’re not angry at Sheryl because they don’t know Sheryl, but it’s up to me to de-escalate the situation. Hopefully by the end of the interaction, we’ve turned the interaction around. Initially it can be challenging. They may be upset, crying. We may need to call an ambulance to get them help. It’s always something tragic. We want people to see police in a positive light. To see us before they actually meet us. When we come to the scene, we want them to already realize we’re their friend. We’re there to help. We have their best interest at heart.

WACOAN: You’ve built a training around this whole idea of how to address the years or even generations of negative associations some people may have had with police.

Victorian: It’s called Building Trust from Trauma. It’s a class I co-created with a social worker from the University of Houston, Professor Aabha Brown. We created it after George Floyd, but the idea came about before that. George Floyd gave me time out to think about this.

In 2017, while I was at FBI’s National Institute of Justice, I got the opportunity to go to the [United States] Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was part of the curriculum. The purpose was to show how we as police officers could easily be influenced to do things that were inhumane, whether we believed in it or not. We’re police officers. We’re responsible for enforcing the law, so that experience is so impactful.

I started thinking how this all reminded me of slavery, reminded me of Civil Rights, reminded me of Jim Crow laws. Whether the police officers at the time agreed with the law or not, it was law. They were charged with enforcing that law. The impacts that had on African Americans, on Blacks, during that time. This dates back even to slave patrols, when slaves were running for their freedom, and it was police officers arresting them. It’s generational. It affects African American communities and other communities too. Mistrust is always a lack of trust because of historical traumas we were involved in as police officers. This is what our job was. Back then we can’t drink from the same water fountain, we can’t use the same bathroom, we can’t eat at the same lunch counter. That has stuck around with older African Americans, and they taught [that fear] to younger ones. It’s instilled generationally that we don’t trust the police.

It was an opportunity for me as an officer, when I joined in the 1990s, to bridge that gap in the community and be the change that I wanted to see. To connect a bridge between the African American community and the police so people can have a different perspective. To show that we’ve evolved and that things are different.

After that trip to the Holocaust Museum, in 2018 I did a police exchange program to go to Poland, and I had the opportunity to go to Auschwitz. It was even more powerful, being there in the concentration camp. It was very impactful. It kind of sat with me. I thought, ‘There’s gotta be a way. The things police officers did during slavery, during Civil Rights, where we can have our officers do some perspective-taking to understand why there’s so much mistrust in the community.’

Before George Floyd, when our officers would hear about a police officer who did something wrong, they would say, ‘That wasn’t me.’ No, it’s not you, it’s the institution of the police. They don’t know we’re Sunday school teachers, we’re coaches. They only know the uniform and the trauma it caused.

After George Floyd I was working with Professor Brown on a couple of projects. I asked her, I said, ‘I’d like you and your team to help us develop a course about the generational trauma of policing so our officers can do some perspective-taking.’ When they get to a crime scene and hear the rhetoric or find a lack of cooperation, they can understand the history that was there. Or even before that scene, they may come up against some challenges. Because we have to be proactive about gaining that trust because there’s a possibility that that mistrust exists. People may have been a victim of negative interactions with police. I want to provide perspective for police officers so they understand trauma and perspective-taking. We went over the history of policing, and what as an agency we’ve done to correct some of those issues.

In Houston, it was a mandatory class to attend, so when I got here we sent over a group from Waco. We cover from the national level to the state level to the local level. In Houston, we’d talk about incidents that had happened and where they happened. We’d talk about those specific incidents. We’d identify things that happened in a particular area too that may have impacted trust. We’re still developing the course for Waco. I planned to teach in spring. It got pushed back a little.

It’s important for officers to know about previous incidents from an officer safety standpoint, that there’s some history at this location or this specific block. To know what issues they could run into, potentially, responding to a call in the area.

WACOAN: One of the phrases I’ve heard you use that describes what you’re talking about is ‘emotional capital.’ Can you define that?

Victorian: My former chief at Houston, Art Acevedo, he brought in the tenants of relational policing. It’s an acronym: TREEAT. That stands for Transparency, Respect, Engagement, Emotional capital, Accountability, and Trust. All those build trust.

He talked about this concept, and one day I went up to him and said, ‘That’s a very simple principle that can help us. Do you mind if I brand it?’ I got with one of the talented persons at HPD. I said, ‘We need to start putting up posters, put this message throughout the department, so everyone understands what this is.’ This just started happening when I was transitioning to Waco. I said to Chief Acevedo, ‘I am adopting relational policing in Waco.’ He said, ‘It’s for everybody.’ So I started promoting relational policing here.

To build trust in our communities, we need to be transparent. In every interaction, we need to be respectful. Every interaction counts. Engagement, like we’ve been talking about with those events we host, like Trunk or Treat. Or whether we’re going to schools or attending other community events. It’s being genuine in our interactions. It’s humanizing who we are, humanizing the badge. It’s that engagement that builds emotional capital in our communities. We’re making positive interactions, then something will happen, whether it’s local or nationally that impacts people’s perceptions of the police. So, we’re building that capital any way we can. Then accountability. We hold ourselves and our community accountable. If we make mistakes, we need to own them and try to rectify those mistakes, whether we need to make a change in policy or hold an individual accountable. All that builds that last T, which is trust. All those others together build trust.

Internally, in our Waco Police Department, I feel the same way. I took this concept of relational policing and made it relational leadership. I don’t care what industry you’re in — it’s key to building trust within your organization. Always be respectful. Always be engaging with our team internally. It’s the concept of procedural justice. We’re making sure the outcome of our interactions is more appreciated from following procedure.

As an example, it’s been found that people care more about process than the outcome. If the process was fair — if they get a ticket, but they were treated respectfully and fairly, well then they’ll think, ‘Maybe I earned this ticket.’ We have to make sure our processes are fair. With that, for our officers, our internal procedural justice is just as important as our external. If we treat our employees right inside, then they demonstrate that when they interact with the community. If we beat them up in roll call, then we can’t expect them to treat the community out there respectfully.

When I teach relational policing, people say,’ This is so simple. Why didn’t we think about this before?’ People are always engaged when we talk about this, when we put all this together for them.

WACOAN: You’re the first Black police chief in Waco and the first female. Isn’t that unique, not only here but also across the country?

Victorian: I always believe if you see it, you can be it. If you desire to do it, you can do it. I’m hoping to use my influence and my position to show other young women that no matter what color, no matter what race, you can accomplish a feat such as this.

Women already only represent 12% of law enforcement officers and 3% of police chiefs. We have 18,000 police agencies across this country.

I’m hoping seeing me in my position, it’s an opportunity for young ladies to see if you work hard to achieve success, you can. Any opportunity I have to engage with them, to talk about opportunities before them, the discipline needed to accomplish goals, decisions they need to make to be successful. The failures they’ll face and getting back up and staying on the move. It’ll get you where you want to go.

WACOAN: What’s your pitch to young women? Why should they consider a career in law enforcement?

Victorian: Being an officer gives you an opportunity to have a positive impact in communities. It’s an opportunity to have a career where you have different growth opportunities in many different areas — working undercover (I loved working undercover!). Whether it’s assisting families (I worked in child sexual abuse). Whether it’s promoting through the organization, meeting others in these different areas. There’s so much we can do.

Females in law enforcement, we are better communicators. We use force less. The community trusts us as women. There is a place for us in law enforcement.

There are so many options once you join the police department — investigations, SWAT. You can teach at the academy. Once the door is open you can change jobs without changing jobs. You can still be in the profession. There are so many opportunities to work in different areas and become an expert in different areas of policing. It allows you to grow and prepare for sergeant, lieutenant, commander, assistant chief and chief.

WACOAN: What did you love about working undercover? You did it for a long time.

Victorian: I did it for 11 years. I became a police officer to work undercover. As a kid, I was afraid of the police, then it wasn’t until that show, ‘Miami Vice’ came out. I used to love that show! I said, ‘I’m gonna work undercover!’

What I liked most about working undercover was I got to pretend to be somebody that I wasn’t. I had the opportunity at the same time to catch some people doing some bad things and hold them accountable for whatever crime they were committing. It was a lot of fun, sometimes scary, very rewarding.

WACOAN: You say that as a kid you were afraid of the police. Where did that come from?

Victorian: I have no idea. I was 4 or 5 years old, and there was a constable at our neighborhood grocery store — a big guy big with a big cowboy hat. My mother would try to get me to shake his hand, and I’d fall on the ground, crying. A couple years later, where I lived, Houston Police Department helicopters would pass over our house to get to Hobby Airport. A mischievous neighbor told me, ‘A helicopter landed on our street, and they were looking for you. They asked about Sheryl. They said, She’s a Taurus, isn’t she?’ Of course, I was too young to know that the police don’t ask about your [astrological] sign. So every time I heard the helicopter blades, I’d hide behind trees and bushes.

It wasn’t until I turned 9 and my dad had a massive heart attack and passed away. After his service (it was at a local funeral home) the police department escorted us out of town. I remember the compassion and empathy the officers showed my family. I remember seeing all those officers, and things started changing, my perceptions started changing.

Then when ‘Miami Vice’ came out a couple years later, I was sold. I knew early I wanted to be an officer. I saw them as having character, having integrity. I stayed the course, went to college, got a degree, then went to policing. In the first year and a half I got to work undercover for over a year. I earned a permanent position in 1996.

WACOAN: And you went on to earn your master’s and Ph.D.

Victorian: After being an officer for a couple years, you learn the promotional process is very, very competitive. Police get incentive pay for additional degrees. An educated police officer is the best kind because it helps us with writing skills, communication skills.

And when we go through the testing process, after they score the test, we get points added onto each score for our education. For a bachelor’s we get 1 point, for a master’s we get 2, for a Ph.D. we get 3. When it’s within tenths of a point for your ranking on a promotional exam, it makes a difference.

When I realized everyone had a bachelor’s, I said, ‘I’m gonna get a master’s’. Then when everyone got a master’s, then I went for my Ph.D. But I knew back in undergrad I wanted to earn my Ph.D. and teach in criminal justice. My professors at the time had academic knowledge and theory, but no practical experience. So it was kind of boring. I knew when I graduated, I said to myself, ‘I’ll come back to the classroom and teach.’ It took five years going to school part time, a couple years writing my dissertation. I earned it in 2013.

WACOAN: And you’re doing some teaching now, correct?

Victorian: I teach online at Southern New Hampshire University. I’m not teaching this term. This last time I was teaching a capstone project. I’ve taught contemporary issues, I’ve taught ethics — all in the master’s program.

I also started teaching at Baylor University as an adjunct professor in criminal justice. I have stories I can bring and have practical experience.

WACOAN: I’ve also read that you’re a playwright.

Victorian: I haven’t written in a while. I’m a Christian playwright. I’ve written several plays that have been performed.

In 2007, I did one that premiered at Wortham Theater Center [in Houston]. It was called ‘Left Back.’ I did church plays, ‘The Wisdom of God’s Women.’ It was monologues and dialogues of different women of the Bible. They’d tell their stories, and there was application for women of today, lessons we could learn from the lives they lived. I’ve written several Christmas plays, Easter plays, women’s plays, plays for events. It’s something I started doing as a kid. Word got around as I grew up — ‘Sheryl writes plays!’

At church, as an adult, every time they needed a skit or a play, they’d come to me, like when my pastor’s wife wanted someone to rewrite this Christmas play. She said, ‘I want to make it relevant for us. I need you to take a stab at this,’ and I did. That was years ago. I’m not sure what I titled it, maybe ‘Christmas with the Joneses’?

WACOAN: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Victorian: I love being a Wacoan. I love this city. We’re doing amazing things as a police department, partnering with our community. I think we’re gonna be a model city for policing and relationships between police and the community. We’re headed in the right direction.