Norfolk, Virginia is the state’s second-most populous city with an estimated population of nearly 250,000 as of 2015. Like other metro areas, Norfolk has been plagued with events that have strained the relationship between law enforcement and the city’s residents – but the faith community is intervening in a powerful way.
According to the Virginian-Pilot, a newspaper based in the area, Norfolk police have shot and killed four people in 2016, tying the city for the third most frequent place in the nation. Figures in a national database show that only Houston and Los Angeles had higher numbers of police killings that year. Not surprisingly, Norfolk also leads the state in the number of people killed from 2010 through 2016 with twice as many dying at the hands of the city’s law enforcement than others in the state.
Like other police-involved shootings, race is considered to be a factor because a disproportionate number are black, according to data gathered by the Virginian-Pilot. While law enforcement, researchers, citizen groups and residents all agree that a number of factors are involved and need to be examined in order to address this issue, one initiative is taking a proactive approach.
In 2017, the city’s police chief, Larry Boone, implemented an idea to bring the city’s police officers and those communities who tend to harbor a mistrust of law enforcement together. Chief Boone approached the pastors of churches with a proposal that could help reach residents in some of the city’s most problematic neighborhoods. As Chief Boone noted, many of the incidents of crime and police interaction were occurring in neighborhoods near churches.
He proposed the “Clergy Patrol” where law enforcement and local pastors work side-by-side in the community. The clergy members approached by Chief Boone were enthusiastic in their support for the idea. Many felt this gave them the opportunity to engage with law enforcement in a more positive manner. Instead of waiting for a crisis, local pastors could be on the ground with police, building relationships and mediating conflict in an effort to de-escalate situations.
During a police call, clergy members wait safely in the police officer’s patrol car. When it’s safe, the pastors are free to minister to those involved in any way they can. As Dr. Antipas Harris, a local pastor and an associate professor of practical theology at Regent University in nearby Virginia Beach, noted, “We’re there to support [everyone involved] as needed.”
He’s even prayed with suspects that were in handcuffs with most people welcoming the healing and uplifting power of prayer. As both a ministry and a mission, Chief Boone notes that the Clergy Patrol benefits the community, police and the church.
Dr. Leroy Briggs, who has been a chaplain with the Norfolk Police Department since 1999, noted that the clergy and law enforcement share common goals. While police officers call it a “community” and pastors call it a “congregation,” both entities serve and protect them as their goals. “Jesus sent them out there in twos so they’d have somebody to lean on…” for support, Dr. Briggs noted.
While providing a bridge between the community and law enforcement was the primary goal of the Clergy Patrol initiative, both the police and pastors involved note benefits as well. During stressful situations, the presence of a clergy member can bring a sense of calm and peace. Additionally, with clergy members present, police officers have gained credibility in some communities where they had little before.
As for the clergy members that take part in the Clergy Patrol, they’ve come to have a deeper understanding and respect for police officers. Rather than simply seeing a badge and a gun, this experience has driven home the human side of law enforcement. The daily challenges that police officers go through are evident during these patrol sessions. It highlights the fact that police officers are just like everyone else. They are human beings with families at home and people who love and depend on them.
It appears that the Clergy Patrol is working in another way to bring about change for the beleaguered city of Norfolk. Since its implementation, Norfolk has seen its violent crime rate drop to the lowest its been in 17 years. It’s proof that prayer is a powerful and important tool that can bring change to the city’s most violent communities.
~ 1776 Christian