Who Do Church Police Protect?

Briarwood Presbyterian church, an Alabama megachurch, has recently been granted permission by the state to create its own police force. The church, which maintains a child care center, a private k-12 school, and a seminary, made the request because, it says, out of concerns for public safety at churches, citing shootings at other churches, including one at a carnival at another church in the area recently. Currently the church, like many other houses of worship, hires off duty officers to provide security at events, but these officers serve on an as-needed basis and do not report to the church itself. In the new model, police would be associated with the actual church, giving the church “the authority of state government,” as Randall Marshall, with Alabama’s ACLU, observes.

Regardless of the constitutionality of the arrangement, the thousands of (mostly white, because this is a church that was founded in objection to desegregation and as religious enclave for whites fleeing an integrated Birmingham) people who participate in life at Briarwood each day might want to think carefully about installing a church-supported police force. Crime within the congregation—rather than crimes against the congregation—seem to me to be far more likely. When a congregational leader commits fraud or a brother in the faith sexually assaults a minor, it’s far healthier for outside investigators to lead the effort to find the truth, protect victims, and insure safety, as we know from horror stories across lines of faith—Catholic, Jewish, Amish and Mennonite, and more.

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Above, the compound at Briarwood Presbyterian church, in a suburb of Birmingham. If people within the congregation are being abused, they could tell a teacher within the Briarwood Presbyterian educational system or a police officer who reports to the church. This is a set-up for abuse. 

Moreover, a church-related police force gives considerable control to the church, control that congregants might not like if it turned against them, as members of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints community in the Hildale, Utah/Colorado City, Arizona, have learned. There, the police force was a defacto arm of the church, leading to corruption and the harassment of those who spoke against it.

If Briarwood does form its own police force, congregants may find that, rather than making them safer, it makes them more likely to be victimized.

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