Life Lessons: CMPD's Vicki Foster
As she approaches retirement, police second-in-command discusses community, tactics, and rising through the ranks as a black woman
VICKI FOSTER AND I meet in her third-floor office on a Friday morning in January, roughly 36 hours after a local TV station aired a story about her 50th birthday plans. Foster, one of two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department assistant chiefs, had set up a party at the AvidXchange Music Factory for Saturday, February 16, which coincided with NBA All-Star weekend in Charlotte. The department, with a few exceptions, prohibited its rank-and-file officers from taking days off that weekend, an order that didn’t extend to command staff. The station aired a story that said some officers considered Foster’s party evidence of a double standard—even though she had planned the party before Charlotte was awarded the All-Star Game, and, as Chief Kerr Putney pointed out when a reporter asked about it at a news conference, “People’s time off is their time off … I don’t see where someone’s birthday party is newsworthy for me to address.”
Foster, a 28-year CMPD veteran and the highest-ranking black woman in department history, tells me she knows why the non-story ended up on local TV news. “It’s because I’m a black female. This would not have occurred with anyone else,” she says. “If this had been (Assistant Chief Doug) Gallant, if this had been (Deputy Chief) Katrina (Graue), you wouldn’t have heard a word about it.” Gallant and Graue, like more than 70 percent of the department’s employees, are white.
Foster says she’s endured that kind of discrimination even as—and in large part, she says, because—she’s risen through the ranks. She was promoted to assistant chief, the second-in-command position behind chief of police, in 2017; she plans to retire early next year. The Yanceyville native discusses what led her into police work; how that work has changed since she joined what was then the Charlotte Police Department in 1991; her experiences as a black woman in a profession dominated by white men; and what lies ahead for CMPD and policing in general. Her words are edited for clarity and space.
My undergraduate degree (at UNC Charlotte) was in psychology. I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but when I got out of school, I realized I had to go four more years. So I decided to look on the criminal justice side.
A friend from college and I were both looking for jobs in the criminal justice field. She dared me, like, ‘I bet you won’t be a police officer. I bet you won’t try that.’ I’m like, ‘I bet you I will.’ So we both put in, and the first day, I rode with her. You’re supposed to be in decent shape when you get there—supposed to be. The commandant at the time, long story short, made us do all these push-ups, and we had to run and do all this stuff. Well, she could not do the push-ups she was supposed to do. So he had her stand in the middle, and all of us around her had to get on the ground and do her push-ups that she could not do—and this was after everybody was exhausted. It’s the first day, we don’t know what’s going on. We can’t do this. And she’s standing in the middle, tears just running down her face. And everybody’s staring at her, everybody’s mad.
So we go back to the locker room and get showered up, and everybody goes back to class, and I’m looking around. She’s gone. She quit. I had no ride home. So, needless to say, I won the bet. Got real close to my classmates at that point, ’cause I needed a ride home.
This one time around the mid-’90s, when I was still just a young officer, we were serving a search warrant. It was a known drug house right behind the CVS on South Boulevard—those houses up in there. We go in, there’s a lot of people in the house, and this woman was in a chair. I can’t remember if she had an oxygen tank beside her, but she was definitely an elderly lady, kind of frail, African-American. She was trying to get up out of the chair when we came flying in the door.
And this officer, who was a white male, immediately grabbed her and slammed her down, and something just went all over me … I don’t know what I said. Then I started going toward him. I was going to get to him if I could. I don’t know who grabbed me, but I do know the sergeant took me away. I was put in the back of a patrol car. I’m in uniform. And I was taken away from the scene.
The sergeant’s no longer here, by the way. The officer’s not, either.
Then I get called to the chief’s office. (Then-Chief Dennis Nowicki) says, ‘I heard what happened.’ I tell him my version. He says, ‘Let me ask you a question. What do you think should happen?’ I said, ‘I think we need to teach these white boys how to treat people.’ Yeah, I’m probably lucky to still be working.
He was a little taken aback, and he said, ‘OK. So you think we need training.’ I said, ‘Yeah. We need something.’ And that was when we started all these classes—I taught a couple at the academy—our, quote-unquote, diversity-type training.
I’ve dealt with (racism) my entire career, so I can’t pinpoint exactly where it’s coming from. You pick it up and you move on.
Actually, when I say my entire career, maybe that’s not totally fair to say. But definitely from the time when Chief (Rodney) Monroe, our first African-American chief, I can definitely say from that point to now. That’s about 11 years.
(Before Monroe was hired in 2008, then-City Manager Curt Walton asked Foster, then a major, if CMPD was ready for a black police chief.)
I said, ‘Yes and no.’ We had a very long conversation. Our organization, as most police agencies are, they are predominantly white males. I won’t go into everything we talked about, but being asked to give my opinion, I felt really, really good about that. I’m gonna always tell you the truth as I see it. So that’s what I gave him.
Have all of the racial issues improved? Actually, some of it is getting a little more challenging, because everybody thinks now that using the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and using city complaints and lawsuits is their way to solve any conflict or problem they have. We use the rule of five: If a white male gets skipped and a black person gets promoted, you can rest assured that they’re getting ready to file whatever the hell is out there available to be filed. You can rest assured. And it doesn’t matter if the other four people who were promoted are white—which is always the case. Doesn’t matter.
Most people are not built for this. You have to be built for what you’re going to endure in this job. Most people don’t want to stand up for anything right if they feel like it’s going to impact their career. You will never become a great leader if the only thing you’re concerned about is, ‘If I stand up for this, I might not get promoted.’ I was told when I was a captain—a major took me to lunch and said to me, ‘Your name was tossed around a lot, but you know what they said?’ I guess it was his job to take me to lunch and break it to me. They said, ‘She’d be great, but her mouth …’ And I said to him, ‘Well, I appreciate the feedback, but you go back and tell them, if I have to change my mouth, I’ll be a captain forever. Because you’re not going to silence me.’ You’ll never make it in this job if you’re silenced. Never.
I’m gonna tell you, most police departments are divided right now. You have the supporters of certain political things … so when he came (she gestures toward a wall-mounted photo of her with President Obama), a lot of people felt like we went so far left or we’re being soft on criminals. So then, when you get the new president, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re back, so lock everybody up, and yeah, everybody supports the police.’ It doesn’t have any relation to reality. But internally, a lot of agencies are very torn right now, and it’s sad, because we’ve worked so hard on the community policing focus over the last 20-plus years, and when people want to go back to militarizing things … It’s a struggle right now inside (law enforcement) agencies to keep a balance.
People want to run, jump, shoot. In this era of policing, you have got to be able to help with the root cause, even if you’re nothing but the referral source. Departments have to recognize that your role is not just to incarcerate people. You’ve got to learn how to do diversion. You’ve got to learn that youth are our future, and how do we keep them out of the system?
I am probably going to try to do some consulting. I feel like, leaving the police world, I’m fine with that. But I’m not fine with knowing what goes on inside these organizations. They come to you and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a whole unit with no African-Americans, but we can’t find anybody who’s qualified.’ I don’t know exactly what it’ll look like yet. But I want it to be something impactful. I don’t just want a job.