Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Partnering With Police Wisely

For most of us who are middle class, the police are a symbol of security and order in the community. If there is disorder, we might have a tendency to call the police immediately to make peace. We feel that their uniform itself is a symbol of authority and security and people are more apt to listen to an officer than a simple citizen.

However, a ministry in which conflict is likely is going to be a ministry among the outcast of society—gangs, the mentally ill, the homeless, immigrants and others. Among these groups, the police are those who judge and attack, who are not the defenders of security, but the creators of disorder.

Both perspectives have their points. The police, ideally, are supposed to protect all citizens, and they do well in bringing security to homogeneous communities. However, some, even if only a few, police officers have made themselves the enemies of the outcast, seeing them as not citizens but as “bad guys” and they treat them accordingly.

Unfortunately, what has happened is that the outcast and some police officers are both guilty of the same kind of stereotyping—judging a whole group for the actions of some. Ideally, in time, the police and the outcast groups would be advised to discuss each other’s differences.
In the meantime, if we are doing any ministry to an outcast group, we have to recognize that the police are usually the opposite of a safe presence. To call the police or to act like police is to betray the security of any outcast group. This is not to say that the police should never be called, but it should be done sparingly, if at all.

The police should also be called rarely because to call them for any difficult conflict is to encourage the police to see the ministry as a target for problems, and the stereotyping of the group you’re ministering to would perpetuate.

And finally, the police should rarely be called because they have a different philosophy than a church ministry. The job of the police is to keep citizens safe, in whatever way possible, and this is usually done by catching people who disrupt that safety and locking them up. This is an appropriate and fair task for civil servants. On the other hand, a church ministry that connects with the outcast is about re-appropriating the outcast and creating a place for them to experience the mercy of Christ. This is a noble task, but the police would be the first to admit, honestly, that it is not a safe task. Thus, it could be said (and it has been said by some) that the two tasks are the antithesis of each other—the police exile bad guys and the church tries to integrate them. Both tasks are essential, but it is difficult for them to work together.

If we are running a fairly large ministry for an outcast population, it might be good to communicate to the police about the ministry. The police need to know that there will be a group of those who they are concerned about on the church grounds. They also need to know that the church workers will be doing their best to create a safe place, both for the church and for the neighborhood. And that because the church itself will be providing their own security, most of the time police presence will be unnecessary. However, if there is a serious concern, then the church workers will contact the police themselves.

The police will think that our ministry and the steps for deescalating conflict puts us in unnecessary danger. Their training focuses on self-protection and stabilizing any situation. A church ministry instead focuses on offering mercy, calling toward repentance, and loving those who are our enemies. From a police perspective, this is dangerous business. And perhaps it is.

To prevent it being necessary for police to come, we will have to be proactive to prevent conflict. This might mean acting as mediators between those who are heading toward conflict. It certainly means following the steps of deescalating conflict. And it will also mean that we will, on occasion have to put ourselves in harms way to protect others.

On occasion the police will come on their own. Perhaps they will see activity that they think could be illegal. Perhaps a neighbor will call the police if they see a conflict that we will deal with ourselves. When the police come, we need to politely identify ourselves, and answer their questions truthfully. We need to encourage them to limit their contact to only those whom they are concerned with. If some folks get into a fight, it is best for them to be off the church grounds before the police arrive. This is all to help those who come to the ministry feel that they are safe without police involvement.

Finally, there are some situations in which the police might be called. If someone is continually threatening church workers or the facilities, then it may be necessary to call the police to get the person off of the church grounds. Because the ministry of the church is to be focused on mercy, not judgment, then it is best to just ask the police to have the person go off of the church grounds, but not to press charges. In this way, those who cause problems see that violence will not be tolerated, but that the church is not concerned with getting any vengeance.

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