They don’t carry guns, don’t have a badge and can’t write tickets or make arrests. But for a year now, a half dozen local faith leaders have been on the front lines of sometimes challenging situations, often side-by-side with police in a team effort to build greater trust between law enforcement and communities of color.
The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety’s Pastors on Patrol program, launched in October 2018, pairs local ministers with public safety officers as they head out on patrol. The volunteer program is meant to ease tensions and build trust between officers and minority groups they interact with.
Currently five male pastors — four black and one white — participate in the program (Pastor Joseph Anderson of the City of Refuge Church, who died Aug. 20, was also a member of Pastors on Patrol.) The pastors go through extensive training and background checks before hitting the streets with an officer. They must volunteer at least eight hours a month to stay in the program, although many of them exceed that number.
The program was hatched in 2017 by Vernon Coakley, now assistant chief of operations for KDPS. “My own faith prompted me to ask how I could bring the church and law enforcement together. Law enforcement needed a shot of legitimacy and we couldn’t create our own,” Coakley explains. “The community we serve knows the pastors and the pastors know the community. Pastors on Patrol was a way to connect community and law enforcement together.
“Pastors on Patrol helps to mitigate the tension we sometimes see between officers and people of color in our community,” Coakley says. “When pastors are present with our officers, it doesn’t just help to calm the anxieties of residents, it also helps our officers to not react. It’s a program that helps everyone involved when police interact with the community.”
Pastors have put in over 2,100 hours of community service. These hours include
ride-alongs, block parties, community meetings, emergency neighborhood situations, death notifications, homeless outreach and counseling.
As in many diverse communities across the nation, tensions exist in Kalamazoo between some residents in mostly minority neighborhoods, like the Northside and Edison, and the police, with community members of color believing they are unfairly targeted and profiled by authorities and police insisting they are simply doing their jobs, focusing their efforts on where crimes are being committed, regardless of the neighborhood.
A yearlong racial profiling study released in 2013 concluded that black motorists were twice as likely to be pulled over by Kalamazoo police as whites behind the wheel. Additionally, although they received fewer citations than whites, black motorists were more likely to be asked to exit their vehicle and be searched as well as put in handcuffs and arrested.
Those findings ushered in a slew of reforms and training programs meant to improve relations between the department and the city’s minority communities. Pastors on Patrol is part of that effort as well, even though pastors help out on patrols across all of the city’s neighborhoods.
For authorities, one of the more frustrating aspects of the trust gap is the difficulty getting witnesses to a crime to share information integral to conducting a successful investigation. Sometimes they simply refuse to talk to the police.
Greg Jennings Sr., pastor of Progressive Deliverance Ministries Church of God in Christ, remembers such an interaction. Police were at a home looking to talk to some residents there who refused to allow the officers in and would not answer any questions.
“I said, ‘Let me go talk to them,’” Jennings says. The residents knew him, and after a while they talked to the police.
“I told them ‘the cops are not here to arrest you, they are just trying to do their jobs,’” he says.
In fact, sometimes when officers have reached a dead end with a witness who declines to talk to them due to lack of trust, a pastor will be called in to assist the officers, even when he’s not on a volunteer shift.
For Hermon Phillips, pastor of Rehoboth Church of God in Christ and a volunteer in the program, his participation has given him a renewed appreciation for the work police do day in and day out.
“You can’t imagine what these people (cops) go through,” he says. “Sometimes they’re verbally abused by guys on the streets and have to always let it go in one ear and out the other. They are on a call for domestic violence and see a woman beaten up. I was on a call where a
4-month-old had died. It’s a very sometimes heartbreaking, stressful job.
“I see my role as trying to make sure people are being treated with dignity and respect by police and that people are treating police with dignity and respect too.”
Coakley says his more than 200 sworn officers are deeply appreciative of the pastors’ efforts, with many of them developing deep personal bonds with the men, sharing their struggles and frustrations and getting sound advice in return. Many officers ask for a pastor when on patrol duty. Jennings has even officiated at the marriages of several officers.
“It’s just simply profound the work that these pastors do,” Coakley says. “They are an indispensable resource to this department.”
Toward the end of his interview with Encore, Jennings’ cell phone buzzed on the table in front of him. He picked it up, read a text message and smiled.
“It’s an officer I recently worked with,” he says. “He’s just checking in on me, making sure I’m ok.”