By Jeff Brumley
A Virginia seminary has launched a new course exploring the relationship between law enforcement and clergy in hopes of finding ways to sustain the wellness of officers and protecting communities. Those in law enforcement say it’s a timely topic in the wake of police-involved killings in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and Cleveland.
“So many law enforcement officers really have to deal with a lot of evil things that it has a spiritual effect on them,” said Mark Olson, president of the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Va.
Left untreated, that exposure can lead officers to be a dangerous element in the communities they are charged to protect, said Sam Feemster, the minister and retired FBI agent who teaches “Spirituality and Law Enforcement Training” at Leland.
“Exposure to evil and its toxicity in every imaginable context” has a corrosive effect on officers “and if we are not grounded, then we can be overcome by the exposure,” said Feemster, who also is pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington.
Without treating officers, he added, “we have what we have been reading about and will continue to read about.”
The course aims to prevent those situations. The course description says students will “investigate the nexus between the roles of clergy and cops in our society” and “develop and recommend nontraditional interventions to sustain officer wellness and community security.”
Those who work regularly with police agree the conditions officers face require the spiritual solution the course proposes.
One expert on policing and faith said there’s no doubt clergy can do a lot to help law enforcement personnel along their journeys of faith.
Ohio pastor and veteran police chaplain Stephen Norden added that ministers at the very least should try to understand the intense pressures officers experience even in relatively stable communities.
“In terms of clergy and police, I would hope the relationship would be one of mutual respect and that the clergy would be supportive, particularly of those members in their congregations that are law enforcement professionals,” said Norden, who is the spokesman for the International Conference of Police Chaplains.
Providing spiritual guidance to law enforcement is a challenge for local ministers because police officers keep to themselves, Norden said.
It’s even a challenge for chaplains.
“The law enforcement community is a very closely knit community, very closely guarded,” he said. “Consequently, the trust between law enforcement and chaplains is built over years, not weeks or months.”
Even then it’s a challenge because police face situations which often create an exterior resistant to spiritual and emotional guidance.
“Law enforcement tends to see a side of humanity that most of us never see, and that really begins to color their perceptions of human beings, the world view,” he said. “It takes a definite emotional, spiritual and psychological toll.”
It usually takes the death of a colleague, an officer-involved shooting or other tragedy to get through to an experienced officer, Norden said.
Young officers aren’t any easier to engage.
“The challenge is that when they are new in their career they … have that idealism that can very easily erode into cynicism, sarcasm and skepticism,” he said.
The black-eye law enforcement has suffered since recent incidents have compounded that effect.
“Incalculable, incalculable,” he said of the toll on officers’ psyches since those high-profile cases generated relentless headlines and protests. “Even in communities where law enforcement officers serve a relatively stable population, what happened in Ferguson and Cleveland has increased the level of stress for” police.
What’s needed, and what the Leland Center course may suggest, is the opening of dialogue between police and local communities concerned about police-involved violence.
“How can we bring together citizens and law enforcement to have the kind of conversations that build bridges of understanding rather than building walls of suspicion?”
‘It will make you crazy’
The church’s role is to help open such channels of communication, Feemster said.
They also are situated to provide police a place where they can process the difficult situations they encounter every day, Feemster said.
“Clergy can bring to the table an understanding of how we can cultivate relationships that allow us a place to deposit our inability to understand … irrational human behavior,” he said.
“Police officers deal with irrational behavior and if you can’t understand it, it will make you crazy.”
Left untreated, Feemster said, and the result is stories like the one from North Miami Beach, Fla., where police were caught using photographs of black men for target practice, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported last month.
“Now you tell me that if you are using black faces for target practice, what color is crime?” he said.
“And when you are in your community in your [squad] car, what are you likely to shoot first?”
The Leland course is also about officer wellness, because without it communities are not safe from such developments, Feemster said.
“We should approach security as a joint responsibility, not something that is only for one segment of the population,” he said.
That is where the church’s role lies, he said.
“It is our responsibility as citizens of heaven to make sure our officers are well so that we together can make our communities secure,” Feemster said.