Law enforcement officers and their families make great church members. Police officers are passionate volunteers, generous with their time and money when they see a need, and genuinely care about people with problems. And, what church wouldn’t want a law enforcement officer on their property committee to advise the church about security issues? Police officers have many gifts to offer local churches.
The problem is too many congregations don’t understand the law enforcement culture enough to be welcoming of this special segment of society. Officers often report they don’t feel welcome in many congregations. Small insensitivity issues are enough to keep officers away. One officer was asked to leave his gun at home, so he quit attending. Another couldn’t face the glares of a church member he had arrested for domestic violence months before. Pastors who bash the government from the pulpit drive officers away.
Sessions cannot tailor the church to fit each member, but for prospective law enforcement officer/members, sensitivity issues can be overcome with a little education and willingness for the congregation to learn about the law enforcement culture.
Church members can show interest and empathy with the law officer’s profession. Most police officers entered law enforcement because they wanted to help people. On a daily basis, they are comforting victims of crimes, arresting people who have broken the law, rescuing people in crisis, looking for lost children, and preventing accidents by enforcing traffic laws. Most of the people they encounter on any given shift are people in crisis, which makes their job stressful. Criminals don’t give up easily, which makes their job dangerous. The public tends to grumble about paying taxes, so law enforcement departments often are forced to work understaffed and under-equipped.
There are a number of ways a congregation can “connect” with prospective members working in law enforcement. One way is to offer some badly needed appreciation. Contact your local police department’s public information officer and ask how your congregation can become a supporter of the department. Celebrate law enforcement week and ask officers to come and speak about issues in your community. With approval from the department, bring cookies or sandwiches to holiday briefings so officers who work those days know they are appreciated. Encourage your church members to verbally thank officers when they encounter them in the field. Appreciation is an important first step.
Officers are much more likely to see your congregation as law enforcement friendly if they see members of your church supporting the department by their presence at department events. Encourage a handful of your members to become actively involved in the life of the department. Ask to be invited to official police events: retirement parties, cadet graduations, promotion ceremonies, police memorial services, sub-station dedications, and city council budget hearings on the police budget. Active participation in the life of the department is an important second step.
As a group, law enforcement officers are suspicious by nature. They like to think of the law enforcement community as a family. You don’t join their family. You are adopted into it. This family includes officers, families, and supporters of law enforcement. One plate of sandwiches offered to officers while they are searching for a missing child won’t get you adopted into the family, but it will be appreciated! The adoption process is sometimes long. Officers need to know they can count on your support and trust.
In the movie, “Meet the Parents,” the former law enforcement officer, played by Robert De Niro, grills his soon-to-be son-in-law, played by Ben Stiller, in some outlandish and funny ways to make sure that his new son-in-law is worthy of being in “the circle of trust.” While the movie is funny, there is a lot of insight shown in the movie about law enforcement culture. Officers will often test persons to see if they are trustworthy before allowing them to be adopted into the law enforcement family. These tests may be small things like overpaying for an item to see if you will return the change or telling you an irrelevant piece of information to see if you will share it with other people to determine if you can keep a confidence. I know officers who check new friends out on the NCIC computer to see if they have outstanding warrants. Law enforcement is suspicious of new people, but once these individuals have passed the secret test they are welcomed with enthusiasm into the law enforcement family. There isn’t a formal adoption ceremony, but you will know when you have been adopted. For me, it happened six months after I began my work as the chaplain commander for the police department. Without explanation, I was moved out of the closet I had been assigned as an office, and got an office with a window. And, I got my own parking space! That’s the day I knew I had been adopted.
Because law enforcement is a family, officers are much more likely to attend a specific congregation on the advice of someone already in the law enforcement family than they are for any other reason. A congregation that manages to get three or four members adopted into the local law enforcement community can expect to see officers start showing up at church events.
Most law enforcement departments make use of minister volunteers as law enforcement chaplains. Chaplains assist the department by making death notifications, comforting victims on fatality scenes, counseling officers with personal problems, and riding along with officers on a shift to show support. Encourage your pastor to become a volunteer law enforcement chaplain. Such support will greatly raise your church’s esteem in the eyes of officers.
A final way to move your congregation toward being law enforcement friendly is to provide education on sensitivity issues important to officers. Being sensitive to their issues can make the difference between officers feeling welcome in a congregation or never coming back.
A gun is a tool of the trade for a police officer sworn to protect the public. All police officers carry weapons even when they are off duty. They carry them when they go to the grocery store. They carry them jogging. They carry them at their family’s picnic, and they will carry them to church. Even when they are off duty, officers tend to be hyper-vigilant, always ready to jump into action to protect the public. While military personnel will leave weapons at home when they attend worship, law enforcement officers will not. Asking police officers to leave their guns at home is like asking preachers not to carry a Bible.
Officers speak bluntly and are brutally honest. In the field, officers need to be succinct and authoritarian when on the job. “Put down the knife!”
“Pull your hands out of your pocket palms up where I can see them.”
“License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.” Officers tend to be blunt out of uniform as well. They will tell you what they think if you ask them. They don’t mean to be rude. They just get straight to the point. They also expect others to be honest with them. If they catch someone in a lie, however well meaning, they will cut that person off from friendship. Honesty is extremely important to officers, both on the job and otherwise.
Law enforcement tends to be conservative politically. The Fraternal Order of Police overwhelmingly endorsed George Bush for president in 2004. Not all officers are Republican, nor do all support every item on the Republican agenda. But, politics can be a divisive issue with law enforcement officers just as it is with other groups of people. Most of the time officers don’t insist that a congregation or pastor believe the same way they do. It’s okay to hold differing viewpoints than they have as long as conversation about the differences are done respectfully. In a nutshell, respect is a key issue with law enforcement. The political issues law enforcement officers find most appalling are a lack of respect for symbols, offices, and personnel. Flag burning, disrespect of an elected official whether present or not, or disrespect of patriotic events are particularly inflammatory to them.
Law enforcement tends to be pro-military. It’s not that law enforcement officers are warmongers. Rather, they see military service (like law enforcement) as a legitimate form of public service that protects citizens. They may not like the particular political reasons a certain war or conflict is chosen, but they find it inexcusable that the soldiers chosen to go into that conflict be without the support of the public. Law enforcement understands the chain of command. They understand that politicians in suits will always order around soldiers/officers with guns. Therefore, officers make a distinction between the cause and the soldiers ordered to defend that cause. Those who disrespect the soldier along with the politician’s decision are anathema to law enforcement. This may sound harsh, but nothing will make a police officer madder, faster than disrespect. As long as a congregation can make a distinction between support of the policy and support of the personnel, law enforcement officers will find that acceptable.
Law enforcement tends to favor the death penalty. They see creeps all day long and are frustrated with repeat offenders. In any discussions about this issue, let them share their perspectives.
Law enforcement officers see some truly horrible things in their profession, and deal with evildoers on a personal level. Consequently, law enforcement has a higher than average rate of alcoholism and suicide than do other professions. Some of these problems can be attributed to the inability of officers to cleanse themselves from the evil they encounter. Without a regular spiritual cleansing from that contact with evil, officers tend to become hardened, discouraged, and disenchanted with life. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide follow if they don’t find healthy ways to deal with the stress and evil. Congregations that are able to be law enforcement friendly can provide places where officers can be healed from the tragedies and evil they have experienced. Worship can be a place where they can reconnect with the divine and find healing.
Being law enforcement friendly is about developing relationships with officers and their families. Trust takes time to build but is worth the effort. Appreciation for the job they do and respect for the sacrifices they make is just one of the responsibilities every citizen and congregation should have for the freedoms we enjoy in this country. Congregations that are able to be law enforcement friendly will experience the joys of working with some of the finest people they will ever meet.
Steven Voris is a Presbyterian minister, currently serving in the United States Navy Chaplain Corps. He formerly served as the chaplain commander of the Albuquerque (N.M.) Police Department and is a member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains. He is the author of the recently released Devotions and Prayers for Police Officers.