The Future of Policing Is a ‘Little Gay Woman’ Named Terry Cherry

She has a plan to change law enforcement, one cop at a time.

Picture of Officer Terry Cherry of the Charleston Police Department
Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic

One Tuesday this past fall, Senior Police Officer Terry Cherry was struggling to connect with some 75 bleary Clemson University students doing their best to stay awake and not make eye contact with the day’s guest speaker. Cherry, who packs a lot of ebullience and authority into a short frame, was deploying nearly all of it to get their attention.

“Who here wants to be a police officer?” she asked. A few tentative hands went up. “Raise your hand if you want to be an FBI agent.” Twenty-some hands went up.

“What does the FBI do?” A long pause. “Anyone? Raise your hand.” Another pause. “Okay, I get this all the time from college students. Everyone wants to be in the FBI. You know why? Television. Not a single one of you can tell me what the FBI does.” By now, sheepish grins were cracking around the room. “You know what they don’t do? They don’t fly around and profile people that are serial killers and eat caviar and drink champagne on private jets.” (What do they do? Lots of counterterrorism and working alongside local agencies, she said with audible disdain.)

Many police departments across the United States are facing a recruiting crisis. Getting a high-resolution picture is impossible, because the U.S. has about 18,000 police agencies and no centralized data collection, but departments across the country report shedding officers, some as part of natural waves of retirement, some in response to the post–George Floyd moment. What made the indifference at Clemson especially notable was that Cherry was speaking to a criminal-justice class, which you’d expect to be full of students interested in careers in law enforcement. Even there, almost no students wanted to work patrol in a city police department. “Normally when I talk about policing, it's like, Oh, I don’t want to be just a police officer,” she said.

Cherry’s job is to change that. Or rather, it’s one of her jobs. Cherry is the recruiter for the city police department in Charleston, South Carolina. She’s charged with keeping the department’s ranks full by bringing in new officers, whether fresh recruits or transfers from other departments, and by retaining officers already on the force. Cherry's ambitions are larger than filling open positions in Charleston: She wants to change policing.

Right now, many people have ideas about how to fix American law enforcement. Many of the most prominent ideas involve shrinking the footprint of police, whether that’s full abolition (on the far left), reduced headcounts, or taking the tasks of responding to mental-health incidents, traffic offenses, and other issues out of the portfolio of police officers—all of which roughly fits under the umbrella of defunding. Even in places where civilian and police leaders want to add more officers, they are struggling to hire, in effect achieving activists’ goal of smaller forces. But rather than defund the police, Cherry wants to rebuild the force, one officer at a time. As she sees it, the best way to do that is to bring in people of all backgrounds, including those who wouldn’t otherwise become cops, producing a department that’s fairer and more representative.

To that end, she’s in constant motion, speaking with a lot of different people. I heard her compare her role to both a sales rep cornering a market and a college-football coach scouting prospects. At a job fair in Maryland, she had learned that several northeastern police departments were planning to attend Clemson’s criminal-justice job fair. Cherry is pretty confident that job fairs aren’t particularly useful for recruitment—mostly good for hobnobbing and handing out swag—but she wasn’t willing to risk out-of-staters snapping up the most promising South Carolina recruits, so she’d driven the four hours from Charleston to Clemson to sew up any prospects a couple of days before the event. After handing out a thick stack of business cards, even to students who said they weren’t interested in law enforcement, she drove home for her stepson’s high-school open house. Then she came back Thursday for the career fair. Cherry had already worked connections to request a spot at the fair close to the FBI.

Officer Terry Cherry of the Charleston Police Department meets with Deputy Chief Chito Walker about her recruiting efforts at headquarters in Charleston, SC on Feb. 22, 2023.
Officer Terry Cherry of the Charleston Police Department meets with Deputy Chief Chito Walker about her recruiting efforts at headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 22, 2023. (Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic)

Police leaders began to speak about a crisis in staffing in the late 2010s. Across the country, tens of thousands of officers were hired following the passage of the 1994 crime bill, which provided federal money to departments to put cops on the beat, but many of those officers are reaching retirement age. Not enough applicants have been coming forward to fill their roles.

Then came 2020, and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, which produced massive protests against police and political efforts to defund departments. At the same time that police were struggling to respond to the new scrutiny and sometimes animosity, they were grappling with the coronavirus. The pandemic posed a particular danger to officers, who couldn’t opt to work from home, yet once vaccines were available, a good number of officers hated mandates so much that they quit rather than comply. When violent crime rose across the country in the second half of 2020, many cities that had cut public-safety budgets after the protests scrambled to reverse those cuts or to fill vacancies. Even now, fewer people want those jobs.

That top-line description actually understates the challenge. Many agencies have announced initiatives to overhaul their hiring practices, though some skeptics regard much of this as window dressing. The goals include both avoiding some people who might want to join but who would make bad officers and also finding different kinds of officers. Though proponents of such initiatives mean that to include different backgrounds and mindsets and not just demographic diversity, it does include increasing the numbers of women, Black people and members of other racial minorities, and LGBTQ people in the ranks. The post-Floyd reckoning has made that task even harder, as some of the people agencies want aren’t feeling warm to careers in policing. Combine that dynamic with the wave of retirements, and you get large agencies that are actually seeing their diversity backsliding.

Last year, the chief in Durham, North Carolina, had to go on patrol to ease staffing shortages related to a 13 percent vacancy rate. Some 20 percent of jobs in the Philadelphia Police Department were empty. Chicago reported nearly 1,000 empty spots for patrol officers alone. New Orleans has lost about one-fifth of its force since 2020. After the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, some current and former officers there have blamed shoddy and hasty training by a department frantic to fill its ranks. This makes Charleston an outlier: Fewer than one-tenth of jobs are unfilled.

The Charleston Police Department has several things going for it: The city is beautiful, the climate is nice, the pay is better than in most other departments in the state, and the overall environment is friendly to law enforcement. “There’s an element of support in this part of the country, in this region, in the state, in the city, for police,” Charleston’s chief, Luther Reynolds, told me. “I talk to my counterparts in other parts of the country, and they don’t get that kind of support.”

He’s tried to use those built-in advantages to modernize his agency. “I’d rather go 100 officers short than hire somebody who does not deserve to be in this uniform.”

CPD hasn’t had to settle for major vacancy problems or accept subpar applications in large part because of Terry Cherry. She talks a lot about stereotypes—she complains that after Floyd’s murder, police officers were seen as all being like Derek Chauvin—and she herself doesn’t match the ones most people have about cops. To start, she is not a tall, clean-cut straight white man, though she does style her hair in what she calls a “man cut”: buzzed short on the sides, combed over the middle. She’s gay. She’s slowly working toward full sleeves of tattoos on both arms. She tried for a long time to hide those from her parents by wearing long sleeves until she just couldn’t bear the heat of a Charleston summer. Her father worried that the ink would keep her from moving up in the department, which cracked her up. “I was like, ‘I'm a little gay woman, like—what the hell, you think that’s gonna stop me? You’re crazy. You think tattoos are gonna be what it is?’” she told the Clemson students.

Picture of Terry Cherry working at her desk at headquarters in Charleston, SC on Feb. 22, 2023.
Cherry works at her desk at headquarters in Charleston on February 22, 2023. (Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic)
Diptych of details from Terry Cherry's office in Charleston
Left: Trophies decorate Cherry’s office at the Charleston Police Department on February 22, 2023. Right: Cherry’s office features a photo of a female police officer at CPD headquarters in Charleston. (Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic)

Cherry doesn’t come from a traditional policing background, either. She grew up in Boone, North Carolina, a hippie college town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her parents—“ultra-Democrats,” as she puts it—were professors at Appalachian State University. For college, Cherry went about as far away in distance and style as she could, studying theater at UCLA. But as she approached 30, in the middle of a recession and with her movie-star dreams fading, she decided to follow her brother, a U.S. Capitol police officer, into law enforcement. And when she couldn’t find a job with a department in California, she broke her vow to never live in the South again and moved to Charleston, where her parents were planning to retire, and joined the police department.

Like pretty much every officer, she started on patrol. While working that job, Cherry read One Tribe at a Time: The Paper That Changed the War in Afghanistan by Jim Gant, a former Special Forces officer, about building relationships with locals in Afghanistan, and wondered whether she could apply its lessons to policing. She persuaded her bosses to let her start a special problem-solving initiative, but her fellow cops were not impressed. “They called me ‘hippie,’ called me a ‘hug-a-thug,’” she recalled. “They called me all kinds of things.” But the initiative started helping solve crimes, and the department noticed. When Reynolds was hired as chief, he selected her as a recruiter because he was impressed by her energy and her success working with the city’s Latino population. Cherry was shocked, in part because the job usually went to a more senior officer.

“We wanted her because she has so much energy,” Reynolds told me. “Everywhere she goes, she adds value … There’s nothing magical about that. She doesn’t have a golden horseshoe or anything. That’s just from her hard work.”

Her work ethic was important, because there wasn’t much for her to take over when she started, in 2018. With Anthony Gibson, a young sergeant who is Cherry’s opposite in many respects—tall and clean-cut, soft-spoken where she is loud, aphoristic where she is voluble—she implemented a strategic plan she’d written and started building a team. Since then, she’s recruited about 40 percent of the current department while also conducting research, writing academic articles about policing, speaking at national conferences on recruiting, and pursuing a doctorate in public administration at Valdosta State University, in Georgia.

Charleston has a history of racism, from slave auctions to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War to the 2015 massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and in 2019, the department voluntarily embarked on a racial-bias assessment conducted by an outside consulting firm. The auditors found “significant progress” but also racial disparities in traffic stops, vague policies on use of force and professional standards, and poor accountability measures. CPD has adopted a progressive approach in other areas, including a focus on evidence-based policing; officers, including Cherry, participate in the Justice Department’s selective LEADS Scholars program, which trains mid-career officers in scientific research.

“The Terry Cherrys of the world need to have an environment where they can prosper and they can be free to express themselves,” Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told me. “Policing traditionally hasn’t allowed that in ways that it needs to … and not every part of policing is ready for that yet.”

Picture of Terry Cherry greeting the forensics team, who usually work at a location off-site, at headquarters in Charleston.
Cherry greets the forensics team, which usually works at a location off-site, at headquarters in Charleston on February 22, 2023. (Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic)

Jeremy Wilson, a professor at Michigan State University who studies police recruitment and retention, first encountered Cherry at a conference. She immediately struck him as someone he needed to remember. They’re now working together on a paper on police retention.

What sets Cherry aside from typical officers also makes her an asset in trying to recruit nontraditional officers. She speaks cop fluently, but she’s equally conversant in the language of Millennial social justice and casually cites the Buddha. “I’m in the LGBTQ community. I’m very proud of that,” she told me. “But I’m also a police officer. I’m also equally proud of that.” Cherry speaks, with only a hint of irony, about “fighting the man” in pushing for social change. She rolls her eyes at the cavalcade of “dead white guys” assigned in the political philosophy class she’s taking for her doctorate and analyzes power dynamics in terms of “privilege.” She introduced and teaches a training course for officers on gender identity in Charleston. Don’t call her a liberal or try to place any other political label on her, though.

“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “I love being a police officer … But that does not mean there’s not room for improvement in policing. Anyone who says that is a lunatic.”

Similarly, she said her approach to recruitment isn’t to try to find people from specific demographics to join the police. The end goal is a force that looks like society, but her method for achieving that is to cast a wide net and get the best cadets she can.

“People are attracted to the person selling the product. I’m not going to say it’s all my magnetic personality, but being nice to people makes the difference,” she told me. That basic kindness also happens to be what she’s looking for when she meets a prospective officer.

Diptych of Terry Cherry getting ready to go to a recruiting event in Charleston
Left: Cherry changes into her “outdoor uniform” at headquarters in Charleston. Police officers are required to wear this uniform whenever out in public on duty. Cherry is preparing to go to a recruiting fair at the nearby Citadel. Right: An enlarged badge hangs on the walls at CPD headquarters in Charleston. (Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic)
Picture of officer Terry Cherry of the Charleston Police Department standing at her recruiting table at the Citadel in Charleston, SC on Feb. 22, 2023.
Cherry stands at her recruiting table at the Citadel in Charleston on February 22, 2023. (Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic)

But none of that soft stuff was her main focus at Clemson. Her problem was not fixing policing in the long term; it was getting a room full of tired, maybe bored undergraduates to see law enforcement as an enticing career path. One typical way to do this is to emphasize the traditional advantages of civil service: good benefits, early retirement, strong pensions, and public respect. The problem is that these are things of the past. The pay isn’t always high enough to entice the groups that departments want to attract now, especially when recruits know the job doesn’t come with the same public respect that the profession commanded in earlier times. What’s more, everyone knows that. So Cherry leaned into it.

“We’re the generation of being liked. Are we not?” She revved into full theater-kid mode, roaming across the front of the classroom in a CPD polo, cargo pants, and duty belt, throwing exaggerated shrugs and facial expressions at the class. But she told the students that if they wanted to see more social justice in law enforcement, the change would have to come from inside. So, she asked: Who wants to be a cop?

“If you won’t do the work, and you won’t do the work, and you won’t do the work, why should I do the work?” she said. “I shouldn’t. That’s what you think. Okay. Well, you know how long it takes me to quit? Two weeks. Today, I put in my leave slip. I say, ‘I’m done with policing.’ And I quit. Two weeks. You know how long it takes to train someone to do policing? A year. Or more, for them to be good.”

And then what happens? She pointed to places where wealthy residents have started their own private police forces, many with cops moonlighting, leaving poorer citizens to fend for themselves: “I’m sorry; did you think the rich wouldn’t get their security?”

Many law-enforcement advocates argue that defunding the police is a bad idea, because it doesn’t actually produce more justice. This is Cherry’s way of bringing that point down from the broad scope of policy to the personal level of career choice. Cherry returned to a point that I’ve heard reform-minded cops make many times: You can’t make policing pretty, but you can and should make it a lot fairer. She wants to convince people to accept the former in order to achieve the latter. Even the best policing sometimes requires using force. “It looks awful. It’s violence,” she said. “Everybody thinks they can do our job now. But no one wants to do it.”

This pep talk cum guilt trip might seem like a tough sell. But when the class was over, many more than the two timid hand-raisers approached Cherry to talk with her, ask for tips, or collect a business card. Almost all of them were women.

Picture of Terry Cherry leaving the headquarters with her recruiting table kit in Charleston, SC on Feb. 22, 2023.
Cherry leaves headquarters with her recruiting table kit in Charleston. (Phyllis B. Dooney for The Atlantic)

Getting recruits to apply is the first step. You still have to get them onto the force and keep them there. Early one morning last fall, Cherry was holding a clipboard on the side of a track at The Citadel, the venerable military college in Charleston. It wasn’t hot yet, but even at that hour, the humidity wafting off the Ashley River was oppressive. Specifically, it was oppressing two aspiring Charleston police officers.

At most police departments, applicants have to pass a physical abilities test, or PAT. In Charleston, that includes a bench press (indexed to percentage of body weight), sit-ups, then a 300-meter run, push-ups, and finally a 1.5-mile run.

These tests are a subject of debate in the profession, especially with so many agencies facing staffing challenges. Pretty much everyone agrees that cops should have some sort of fitness standard, because the job often requires physical movement. But as with so many aspects of policing today, a divide has opened between older-school cops who favor keeping things the way they’ve always been and reformers who find the specific requirements to be less important than a recruit’s holistic potential.

Cherry is an evangelist for fitness, warning the aspiring officers that cops who don’t exercise struggle to deal with stress and can end up divorced and with drinking problems. But she also bristles at accusations that changes to entrance requirements designed to attract nontraditional officers represents “lowering standards,” noting that as a short, gay, tattooed woman, she would have been excluded from many departments until recently. “I don’t wanna be a token,” Cherry said, but she believes that different life experiences make for innovation and creativity in the profession. And discrete skills are easy enough to impart. “I can teach you how to shoot. I can teach you how to drive. I can’t teach you to be a nice person.”

Before anyone could teach these two recruits, though, they would have to get past the PAT, and things weren’t looking good. The first, a young former bartender, breezed through every step until he hit the push-ups and got overheated; he eventually bowed out of the test. The second, a veteran, had passed a similar test in the military but said she was a little out of shape. She lagged behind her comrade through most of the tests but outlasted him on the push-ups. By then, however, she was too worn out to complete the longer run in enough time to qualify. Cherry, running in place alongside, half coaxed and half harangued her to at least finish the distance walking.

Cherry was encouraging in the moment, giving disappointed-coach vibes. She reminded the applicants to train before retaking the test, gave them some tips, and even offered to run with them if it’d help. In a recruiting study the department conducted in 2021, recruits said that one reason they decided to apply was that they felt Cherry and others took a personal interest in them and their families. Back at her desk later on, however, Cherry was frustrated that they didn’t prepare better for a simple test with transparent standards.

But she didn’t have time to dwell on it. She had an inbox of emails to answer from recruits, some of whom she wanted to take on ride-alongs. She had more recruiting trips to make, she was teaching her gender-identity curriculum to another department, and she was participating in a police-centered social-justice fellowship. Cherry also had a full schedule of presentations in Las Vegas, San Diego, Dallas, and two in Washington, D.C., including one at the Department of Justice—plus another on Zoom, because she couldn’t find funding to travel to Iceland. Somewhere she had to squeeze in her doctoral studies.

Is it sustainable? Cherry probably can’t maintain her current pace, and in any case, she doesn’t want to. Going into recruitment was not her career plan. She still has aspirations to work on the department’s drug task force and apply for promotion to sergeant. Someday, she hopes to lead an agency of her own, something her colleagues see as certain.

“I told her, ‘I have no doubt that you’re going to be chief one day,’” Wilson told me. “I have no doubt she will accomplish anything she sets her mind to.”

Sometime soon, she’ll rotate to a new job. Gibson plans to change roles around the same time, giving the whole recruitment-and-retention team new leadership. Transitions like this are hard at any organization, but especially for one fronted by a charismatic individual. If Cherry is the one-of-a-kind officer who so many people who’ve met her say she is, then Charleston can’t expect to find another one of her waiting in the ranks of the department, regardless of how well she’s done her job. As I followed her, I wondered whether her success was just about her being the right person. No matter how many evidence-based studies and strategies an agency follows, someone has to implement them. I wondered whether Charleston will just revert to the national mean, struggling to fill its ranks once Cherry moves on.

She and her bosses are aware of this challenge. Cherry told me that she intended to leave her successor a strong foundation, but that whoever took the role next would have to find a way to make it work for them. Reynolds told me the test of the Charleston Police Department as an organization will be whether it has effectively built structures that can survive a change in personnel. That’s the challenge for policing more broadly too: To provide safe streets and just law enforcement, the profession will need to learn lessons from places like Charleston about how to build sustainable systems for hiring and retaining good officers.

For now, though, Cherry is still on the beat. Two days after speaking to the Clemson class, she was back at the university for its job fair, where a long line of students wanted to talk with her about her work and the department. Even more satisfyingly, she reported, “I was more popular than the FBI.” Not bad for just a police officer.