In early January, I received an email from my Mayor, the Honorable Teresa Tomlinson. This is not unusual – she reaches out often to clergy in my community, Columbus, Georgia. The message read,
Dear Pastors, as we watch communities around the country be torn apart by a lack of understanding between law enforcement officers and the citizens they serve, we in Columbus know we can do better. She went on to invite pastors to a program designed by pastors and the police department – a Pastor’s Police Academy. It is our hope, she wrote, that by sharing the training experiences of our law enforcement officers there can be a broad understanding of how Columbus selects, prepares, and oversees these brave public servants, while at the same time offering a venue for frank discussion and perspective sharing from our faith-based community leaders.
Of course I signed up. Years ago, I was part of another training program for pastors in Indiana – Wabash Pastoral Leadership fellows. This program was developed by Lilly Endowment to help clergy connect with community leaders in the state. For two years, a group of 18 pastors met together in retreat every other month.We were invited to reflect theologically on the church’s role in public life – education, health care, immigration, economic development, community organizing, and, yes, law enforcement and criminal justice.
Most clergy get specialized training in how to respond to a health crisis, but we don’t get training in how to respond to legal or criminal crisis. After the session with law enforcement in Indiana, I realized how little I knew about how that system worked, so I asked a judge in my church at that time to let me shadow her for a day, just to get an idea about what happens in court. I signed up for the Pastors’ Police Academy for the same reason. Law Enforcement is a part of life that touches us all, and I need to know about it.
The Academy meets in five sessions. I’ve completed four plus a ride along with an officer in my neighborhood. So far, I’ve learned a lot of good news for Columbus.
- Our department is both nationally accredited and state certified. Accreditation is voluntary, not required by law, so very few police departments go to the trouble. This is impressive, and the department is rightly proud.
- Out of 200,349 police calls in 2015, only 71 resulted in use of force beyond verbal commands and soft,empty hands. Deadly force was used in only 2 encounters. We watched the dash cam video of these encounters. In both cases, the suspects aimed a gun at the officers, so, though everyone was sad the incidents happened, investigation concluded the officers acted appropriately.
- When a member of the public is injured in a police encounter, our police chief automatically requests an external investigation in addition to an internal investigation.
- Overall, crime in our city is down, for example 1000 fewer burglaries in 2015 than 2014. However, police report many recent arrests of juveniles for drug crimes, many of whom possessed guns, so we remain vigilant.
- We do have some gang activity in our city, both national gangs and neighborhood gangs. They estimate about 250 kids are involved.
- We have a shortage of police officers, in part because hiring standards are high. Automatic disqualifiers include a felony conviction, dishonorable discharge from the military, history of sale of illegal substances, recent use of drugs. Recruits have to pass a physical test, a state entrance exam, a psychological exam, and a background investigation including credit scores and references from previous employers. Starting salary for officers with a High School diploma or GED is $36,892.
- 74% of officers are Caucasian, 24% African American, 3% Hispanic, 84% male, 16% female. The population of Columbus (around 200,000) is 46% Caucasian and 46% African American, so the department would like to hire more African American officers. We don’t have a good track record of recruiting people from other places. When they move here, sadly, they don’t stay.
- The Office of Professional Standards investigates complaints – even anonymous ones when they can.
It is obvious to me that the police department in my community operates according to strict professional standards and seeks continuous improvement. We are blessed by their service.
It is also abundantly clear to me the strain police everywhere feel. The department here is doing a good job and trying to be fair and vigilant, but they clearly feel the strain of scrutiny from other places. I’ve tried to ask about that. I’ve asked about the training officers receive to help them become more aware of the unconscious racial bias most white people carry with us. My church requires all clergy to go through this training, and it has helped me become a little more aware of the inherent racism from which I want to be delivered. Fortunately, officers here do go through similar training. I’ve asked about some of the tough cases in the news from other places – where from the outside it looks like officers may have abused their power. How do they explain those situations? They won’t comment on other departments in other places, but they did ask for benefit of the doubt. The vast majority of officers everywhere are trying to do the right thing. They are trained to deescalate a situation when they can. They are trained to respond to what the individual is doing, not what the person looks like.
Here’s a note I posted on Facebook after my ride along with Corporal Lou.
We had five calls in about five hours, three for mental health crises. She pointed out poverty and struggle in our community I rarely see. We drove on code (meaning fast) when there was concern an officer might be in trouble, something they worry about every day. She said the hardest part of the job is returning to the same addresses over and over for the same issues – mental health, domestic violence, drugs, etc. She usually does not have time for lunch. She didn’t say this but it is clear to me that we ask police to be social workers, medical providers, and community care givers. When services for the vulnerable fall short, they have to pick up the slack, and every day they encounter trauma that would crush the rest of us. We don’t pay them enough. Say thanks, everyone.
We asked police how pastors could help them. They said –
- If citizens feel they have not been treated well by the police, encourage them to file a complaint so the incident can be investigated.
- Allow time for an investigation before rushing to judgment.
- Ask questions. Find out how police are trained and prepared for this work.
- Encourage good candidates to apply to become police officers. We need them.
- Help kids grow up to be people who won’t commit crimes.They acknowledged that we’re all in this together – churches, schools, families, neighborhoods are all working to create safe, productive, vibrant communities for all God’s people.
- Say thank you. Support the people who are doing this hard work.
In this current climate, as we watch communities around the country be torn apart by a lack of understanding between law enforcement officers and the citizens they serve (as my mayor wrote), the kind of conversation happening at Columbus Pastors’ Police Academy is important and helpful. Major Wanna Barker-Wright of the Bureau of Administrative Services said she would be happy to provide information to other communities interested in setting up a similar program. I’m grateful to her for this opportunity.