How Law Enforcement and the Faith Community Can Work Together for Cities

This is a guest post by Jack Calhoun.

Throughout American history, the faith community has played a seminal role in setting our nation’s value base, informing fundamental constitutional beliefs, providing basic services — especially in the medical and educational arenas — and leading seismic social changes including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement.

Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are not only among the largest, most concentrated groups of activists and volunteers in the nation, but in potentially volatile situations, they play an important connecting role between the community and city authorities like mayors, councilmembers and police. In short, for America’s law enforcement community, FBOs can serve as an essential resource, both quantitatively (thanks to the number of volunteers) and qualitatively (as a trusted communication link).

The faith community can serve as a critical link between police and the citizens they protect and serve — and city leaders can build stronger, safer communities by taking steps to reinforce this connection.

Build a Trusted Link

Religious figures can serve as a powerful calming influence, defusing potentially volatile situations and even garnering a public show of support for the police. At the same time, they can serve as law enforcement’s most trenchant critics. And they can offer this support or criticism via the media, from the church pulpit, on the street corners, or at city hall.

But they can only do so in an effective manner if trust has been built over time, carefully, consciously, in a planned manner. If police turn to the faith community for support following an officer-involved shooting, for example, but no relationship has been built between the two entities over time, this response can be characterized as exploitation — or, at best, a barely-adhering band aid. This invites only suspicion and hostility.

Conversely, cities with embedded partnerships between the faith community and law enforcement or city officials typically do not experience citizen uprisings after officer-involved shootings. The essentials of this partnership: regularly scheduled meetings over months and years, and when an “incident” occurs, speed and full transparency.

Examples: after a recent shooting in Boston, the Reverend Jeffrey Brown noted that “within 24 hours of the shootings, they [the police] had footage of what happened, and they called the community, the clergy and NAACP representatives to look at the footage together. That is the level of transparency that builds trust.” In 2016, both Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, reported officer-involved shootings. The situation in Charlotte resulted in public outcry and heavy criticism of the police — but this didn’t occur in Tulsa. Why? The New York Times reported that the Reverend Warren Blakney, pastor of one of Tulsa’s largest black churches and president of the local NAACP, cited community trust in Mayor Dewey Bartlett. Blakney said that the mayor “has worked hard to establish ties with the black community in north Tulsa, attending Sunday services at African-American churches most weekends.”

Start with the Personal

Relationships between law enforcement and the faith community may eventually have to be formalized, but they usually begin on a personal level. Police worship in local churches or sing in local choirs, and peaceful protests in many cities actively involve the police, either as protectors or fellow marchers.

In Baltimore, clergy often ride along with police on duty, providing an ear for officers struggling with the chronic stress than can develop as a result of their daily work. In Boston, cops and clergy visit troubled students from Boston’s public schools. And in Stockton, California, Police Chief Eric Jones shifted town hall meetings to smaller settings, like living rooms, community centers and churches, in an effort to move his department closer to the community. Larger town hall meetings in Stockton had often became raucous and accusatory, but the listening process in these more personal settings confirmed and pinpointed many of the trust gaps and helped move the police force closer to some of its most disenfranchised and suspicious stakeholders.

Move to Larger Programs

Community Renewal International, a social services organization in Shreveport, Louisiana, builds large Habitat for Humanity houses in the town’s most crime-ridden areas. The houses are then staffed by people of faith who serve as mentors, tutors and directors of afterschool programs. Crime has dropped almost 50 percent in Shreveport’s target areas.

Another example: former Brooklyn, New York, District Attorney Joe Hynes launched his “Youth and Congregations in Partnership” program, which links volunteer mentors from more than 100 churches, mosques and synagogues to certain offenders coming through the courts. According to officials in the district attorney’s office, the program has cut recidivism significantly. Hynes also has a larger goal: to start the healing process for offenders and prevent “those who are hurting [from coming] back to hurt.”

Finally, members of the faith community in Portland, Oregon, intervene to stop sex trafficking in Halladay Park and help the vulnerable young women who are being trafficked. Because of the faith community’s close working relationships with the police, officers will often divert potential arrestees to the interveners as well. The group reports a 50 percent reduction in crime in the park. In gratitude, Portland officials provide the group with raincoats, vests, jackets and umbrellas for their work in the city’s rainy climate.

Incorporate the Faith Community’s Calling

In cities across America, the faith community has opened its facilities for sports, afterschool programs and restorative justice. It has mentored and tutored. Faith-based organizations can be found in the streets working with a city’s most volatile youth, connecting positive adult role models to disconnected youth, and linking community pain to city programs and policy through advisory councils to police and mayors. In this way, the faith community acts as a voice for social justice, speaking truth to power.

City leaders, and the law enforcement communities they oversee, can amplify this voice and benefit from the faith community’s calling to work for social justice and better the world around them. While they employ different strategies, and view their cities from different perspectives, both groups ultimately share the same goal: to build stronger, safer and more caring communities.

For more information on how city leaders can improve police-community relations, read “Building Trust Between Police and the Communities They Serve” and “6 Essential Tenets for Effective Community Policing.”

Jack CalhounAbout the author: John A. “Jack” Calhoun is an internationally-renowned public speaker and frequent media guest and editorial contributor. He currently serves as senior consultant to the National League of Cities and is the founder and CEO of Hope Matters. For more than 20 years, Mr. Calhoun was the founding president of the National Crime Prevention Council, prior to which he served under President Carter as the Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families. His new book, Policy Walking: Lighting Paths to Safer Communities, Stronger Families & Thriving Youth, is available now.