‘If I can do it, you can do it’: First Black female Waco police chief talks importance of community outreach

Sheryl Victorian is the Waco Police Department’s first female and Black police chief.. Photo courtesy of Sheryl Victorian

By Luke Lattanzi | Staff Writer

Waco Police Chief Sheryl Victorian was sworn in as the first woman and Black police chief in the city’s history on March 15, 2021. Since then, her main priority has been to build a closer relationship between police officers and the community they serve.

Victorian started her career in law enforcement with the Houston Police Department, where she served for 28 years. She worked her way up to the assistant chief position and served in that capacity for three and a half years.

She also has a master’s in criminal justice from the University of Houston and a Ph.D. in administration of justice from Texas Southern University.

Despite her extensive career, Victorian’s first impression of law enforcement was a negative one. While she said her family never had any bad interactions with police officers growing up, she was nevertheless afraid of law enforcement as a little girl.

“My mom would take me to the store just to try to get me to shake this constable’s hand,” Victorian said. “And I would fall out, and … at 4 or 5 years old, I’m [like], ‘Ahh no!’”

Victorian said the fear may have come from someone in her neighborhood warning her that police officers would take her to jail, making her believe any interaction she had with them would result in her being arrested.

However, Victorian’s impression of law enforcement changed after her father died when she was 9 years old.

“There were police officers standing there when we came out of the [funeral home],” Victorian said. “And they were compassionate. They were empathetic. And I watched them — I guess just to keep my mind off what was going on.”

However, Victorian’s biggest childhood inspiration would come from the popular TV shows “Miami Vice” and “Beverly Hills Cops.” By the time she turned 15, she knew what she wanted to do.

“I always felt like cops had character, integrity,” Victorian said. “So I walked a straight and narrow [path], because I was like, ‘You can’t do that being a police officer. I’m not going to get into the academy if I make bad decisions or hang with this group of people, right?’”

Victorian’s dreams of becoming an undercover police officer eventually came true, as she graduated from college and went straight to the academy afterward. Throughout her law enforcement career, she did undercover work for over 11 years.

Victorian’s outlook would go through yet another major change when she was offered the job as Waco’s police chief. While she already had leadership experience as assistant chief in Houston, she still needed to seek approval from those above her in order to make certain decisions in that role.

“A lot of my family and friends came down [to Waco for the swearing-in ceremony] from Houston,” Victorian said. “My old chief pinned my badge on me, and I stood up with this new air of confidence because I knew now the buck stopped with me. And this was my opportunity to be able to form a culture and to be able to lead and guide a police department into the 21st century.”

While she said the Waco Police Department was already a great organization before her tenure as police chief, Victorian wanted to push the envelope even further and foster a stronger trust between police and the broader Waco community. She said this effort was especially important at the time, as the killing of George Floyd had sparked nationwide outrage and protests against police brutality in 2020.

That outreach would come in the form of “back-to-school bashes,” where the Waco Police Department worked closely with the community to give out free backpacks to children. After the first back-to-school bash in August 2021, Victorian said she was shocked by the department’s incredible effort as well as the community’s receptiveness.

“I had tears in my eyes because I was like, ‘Oh my God, [the department and the community] went above and beyond what I expected, and we gave away so many backpacks,’” Victorian said. “The kids had an opportunity to see our SWAT, our canine guys, our community partners. The McLennan County Sheriff’s Office helped out, [as well as the] neighborhood association. It was a fantastic response.”

Victorian said the event was a great way to humanize police officers, especially at a time when faith in them had been challenged by nationwide conversations about police brutality.

“We care about your future,” Victorian said. “That thing that somebody may have told me a long time ago about, ‘They’re going to put you in jail’ — no, we don’t want to have to put you in jail. We want to make sure that you’re successful in school.”

Last year’s back-to-school bash was held at Richland Mall, where about 1,500 backpacks were given away. That outreach has expanded over the years to include other events, such as the Waco Police Department’s annual Halloween “Trunk or Treat.”

Victorian said that while she wants the police department to have officers who can handle themselves in dangerous situations, she also looks for officers whose character lines up with this mission.

“We want people who are compassionate, people who are empathetic, people who can do some perspective-taking,” Victorian said. “Yeah, we still need people who can handle themselves in difficult situations and critical incidents. But we need people who love people. If you don’t love people, then you really shouldn’t do this job.”

In addition, Victorian said it is important to make the law enforcement profession more accessible to women. According to the 30×30 Initiative — an organization devoted to having women make up 30% of all police recruits by 2030 — women account for just 13% of all police officers in the U.S., while they make up just 3% of police leadership.

“There are a couple of schools … where I’ve had one young lady who stopped me and said, ‘I didn’t know girls could be the police,’” Victorian said. “And I go, ‘Yes, you can. If I can be the police, you can be the police.'”

Victorian said young women who have law enforcement aspirations should find female mentors in the profession. She said a great way to get involved is at the Women in Public Safety Symposium, which will be on March 11. This event will provide networking opportunities for women interested in policing as well as medical support services and firefighting.

“Last night, we had a Citizens Police Academy going on, and there were three young ladies in there, and all of them mentioned that at some point they wanted to be police officers,” Victorian said. “And I was like, ‘Come talk to me. Come sit down and talk to me, and ask me those questions and those things that may concern you. We can talk about it, and we can get over it, because if I can do it, you can do it.’”