Black Churches Working With Law Enforcement to Improve Police-Community Interactions

Inspector General Alexander Bustamante of the Los Angeles Police Department, pictured here at the podium, began meeting with clergy and lay leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles last year. Photo courtesy of OIG Community Relations Liaison Julie Buchwald
Inspector General Alexander Bustamante of the Los Angeles Police Department, pictured here at the podium, began meeting with clergy and lay leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles last year. Photo courtesy of OIG Community Relations Liaison Julie Buchwald

Bishop Talbert W. Swan II has worked with police departments in western Massachusetts for two decades, speaking to new cadets and riding in patrol cars with officers as their chaplain.

He sometimes coordinates meetings at his church with witnesses to crimes who didn’t want to visit a police station, but says only “pockets of the religious community” have fostered that kind of regular communication with law enforcement.

“The unfortunate reality is that many predominantly black churches have thrown up their hands and decided that the police departments just are not willing to respect communities of color and so they’ve given up,” said Swan, pastor of Spring of Hope Church of God in Christ in Springfield and an adviser for social justice policy in the predominantly black denomination.

“And then there are many predominantly white churches who don’t see a problem. Therefore, they see no reason to work with the police.”

As racial tensions continue to simmer in the wake of the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white officers in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and elsewhere, churches have offered themselves up as trusted go-betweens for the police and angry residents, particularly in black communities.

Yet as the new movie “Selma” focuses on the harsh treatment that police meted out on civil rights activists 50 years ago, clergy and police say there is still much work to be done. Black pastors, especially, find themselves in the uneasy spot of giving voice to the rage in the pews while also trying to work as honest brokers with police.

“There’s tremendous similarity between what was happening in Selma and what’s happening in Ferguson,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in nearby Florissant, Mo., who joined protests against police brutality in the wake of a grand jury decision not to charge the white officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

Blackmon has seen both sides of the church-cop relationship in suburban St. Louis. Two years ago, a police officer friend helped her track down a missing 14-year-old when others told her there was nothing they could do. In December, her church joined two other predominantly black congregations to distribute toys to poor children alongside police officers and members of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

“At least from the churches’ standpoint, it’s never been an attack on all police,” she said. “This is more, for the church, about a response to a system of repression.”

After months of exacerbated racial tensions, black clergy and police officials say bridge-building between the people in uniform and those in the pews is needed now more than ever.

In South Los Angeles, LAPD Inspector General Alexander Bustamante began meeting with clergy and lay leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church last year. Soon, he hopes to meet with Catholic leaders to build inroads to Latino communities.

“The idea is to try to team up to educate their constituents and to make sure that they know that they have recourse if they believe the officers have been performing misconduct,” he said.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Adelle M. Banks

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