A few days ago, Chief Greg Graham of the Ocala Police Department in Florida posted an unusual letter to the department’s Facebook page. Co-signed by community development director for the Ocala/Marion County Family YMCA Narvella Haynes, the letter called for public prayer to help stop crime:
We are facing a crisis in the City of Ocala and Marion County that requires fervent prayer and your presence to show unity and help in this senseless crime spree that is affecting our communities.
I am urging you all to please support a very important “Community Prayer Vigil” that will be held this coming Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 6:30 pm to be held at our Downtown Square located in the heart of the City.
It seems almost self-defeating for a Chief of Police to say, “The best solution we have to stop crime is prayer!”
Instead of proposing actual solutions to the recent crime spree, which you’d think a police force is paid to think about, the Chief suggested that asking God to step in would be the area’s best bet. He should’ve just posted a picture of himself raising a white flag. Why not ask the community to report suspicious activity? Or call on politicians to enforce tougher gun control laws? Or ask for more government funding for the police department? Or, on a broader/long-term level, find ways to get people out of poverty so some of them don’t feel the need to resort to crime?
If prayer worked the way Graham seems to think it does, crime would’ve stopped everywhere a long time ago. And I would’ve won the lottery many times over.
To be sure, having people come together as one is a powerful way to show that they won’t stand for what’s being done in their community — we saw that in Ferguson not too long ago — but that’s not what the letter said. Hell, promoting prayer (and does anyone doubt it’s a Christian prayer?) is likely dividing the community much more than it’s bringing it together.
The American Humanist Association’s David Niose wrote a letter to the Chief yesterday, calling on him to remove the letter from their page and asking for reassurance that the police department (as a government entity) will not be participating in the event.
For a police department to say that a spree of violence “requires fervent prayer” is an endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment, as is your statement: “I am urging you all to please support the very important Community Prayer Vigil.” There are many ways the police can support a community that is experiencing a crime spree, but such religious proselytizing is not an acceptable means. A government call to “show unity” through prayer is in fact inherently divisive, as is evidenced by the numerous complaints posted beneath your letter on Facebook. Religious leaders and private citizens may organize such events, but please keep the apparatus of government out of it.
As it stands, the letter is still on the police department’s Facebook page and there’s no indication Graham plans to renege on the vigil.