Late last week, the Grand Rapids Police Department (in Michigan) announced a brand new program in which local religious leaders would partner with law enforcement and “participate in frequent ride-alongs.” This was part of a mission called “Clergy on Patrol (COP).”
The whole program raised a bunch of questions. How the hell was this going to help anyone? Where were they finding these religious leaders? Were they predominantly Christian? What role would these religious leaders play during a traffic stop or other crime? If they’re not proselytizing, then why was the program limited to faith leaders at all?
It led the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s attorney Christopher Line to send the department a letter expressing the group’s own concerns:
We understand this program utilizes GRPD resources, time, and funds to train clergy members who will then be riding along with police officers on a regular basis. We understand that this religious program has been promoted and endorsed on GRPD’s official Facebook page.
The Grand Rapids Police Department must immediately end this unconstitutional religious program that utilizes public funds and resources in order to promote religion and allow clergy members to proselytize and promote their religious beliefs as an official part of the GRPD.
It does no good to claim that these clergy members can meet the needs of nonbelievers and believers of all faiths. This is simply not true. If clergy members were adept at providing secular services, they would be therapists. There is no reason to think a nonbelieving citizen would be comfortable dealing with a person who provides comfort from a religious viewpoint.
Before that letter was sent, though, the department must have heard a lot of complaints online because their initial Facebook announcement has been updated with several clarifications:
—Clergy will not be participating in any law enforcement activities. They will not be armed. The training they are participating in, including the use of Tasers, is to be better informed and prepared for the police operations they will observe as they ride along with officers. Clergy may be able to assist in de-escalation if safe and appropriate for them to do so.
–They are volunteers who are giving their time and using the trust they have within their faith communities to help build bridges between GRPD [and] the neighborhoods they serve.
–The participants come from a variety of faith communities, areas of the city, genders, and races.
–This is not a new program. It is a restart of a program GRPD has had in the past. There are successful variations across the country we looked at in in the redevelopment.
–Working with local clergy is only one area GRPD is using to create relationships, listen to, and promote better outcomes within the community we serve. We are working with mental health professionals, youth organizations, neighborhood associations, and other community-based groups.
None of that makes things better.
First of all, can you imagine the reaction if a priest tases a suspect during an incident?!
But also, none of this explains why faith leaders — and not just general community leaders — are the ones involved in this program. If it’s about building trust with the community, the cops shouldn’t have to rely on outsiders to build those bridges. And there’s no reason religion has to be the tool used to build those bridges either. You could easily find teachers, coaches, local civic leaders, etc. who could serve those roles, but they’re not being asked.
Why not bring mental health professionals on ride-alongs instead? (That’s part of what the “defund the police” supporters have been asking for!) How many imams have been asked to join this club?
And honestly, if bringing a priest to the scene of a crime would help smooth things over, maybe we ought to be asking why that church didn’t do enough to prevent the criminal activity in the first place.
Even if the goal here is laudatory, the method just creates so many unnecessary problems.
Sensible religious leaders in Grand Rapids ought to speak out against this program meant to soften the police department’s image or do their dirty work for them.
By the way, a similar program existed in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana more than a decade ago. It doesn’t exist anymore and appears to have folded several years ago. It’s also not clear how that group made anything better in the community.