Using Christianity to Fight Crime

Alabama cops hope religion can help curb their city's skyrocketing murder rate.
Unidentified Montgomery, Alabama police officers (Flickr/Peter Durand)

Billy Irvin, a popular Christian radio preacher, took the pulpit at Montgomery's City Hall on August 29 to address the city's murder rate. He talked about a documentary he had recently seen about young, wild elephants running amok who were tamed by an older elephant.

“Once the older elephant was introduced to the pack, the younger elephants had somebody to look up to,” Irvin told the crowd. “They had someone to guide them. And that's what our youth needs: someone to guide them. Without that, how will they know about moral structure?”

Irvin was speaking at the graduation ceremony for Operation Good Shepherd, a publicly funded Christian outreach ministry started by the Montgomery Police Department that puts Christian pastors on crime scenes to counsel and pray with victims and witnesses. Police claim the program is a way to regain trust in the community, but there's another motive, which they aren't at all coy about: evangelism—they believe a stronger sense of Christianity will reduce crime.

So far this year, 39 people people have been murdered in Montgomery, Alabama, the vast majority of them black. With a population of only 200,000, those numbers make Montgomery among the most violent cities per capita in the country. If the pace keeps up, 2013 will be the city’s most violent year in four decades. And if numbers specifically by race are taken into account, this could be one of the most violent years for Montgomery's black population since slavery ended.

Nobody can pinpoint why the violence has increased. But in a city like Montgomery, there are a few common sense explanations: a weak economy; high unemployment rates in concentrated parts of the city (exacerbated by weak or absent public transportation); the third-highest incarceration rate in the country, which routinely makes it difficult on kids who have a parent in prison, thereby enabling them to repeat the cycle; severe cuts to the state's rehab and mental health clinics, which makes getting help with drug and alcohol addiction nearly impossible to obtain; the list goes on.

But these weren't talked about during the Good Shepherd ceremony. Rather, Billy Irvin's wild elephant analogy was treated as both a diagnosis and a cure. If the police and pastors could be the wise elephants, crime would go down.

“What we're seeing today, those seeds were sown a long time ago. I truly believe there has been a breakdown in the family. We have young people not being guided,” said Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy.

And Murphy's police department is intent on providing that guidance via a cop-led, Christian outreach program.

“What we want to do is combine the religious community and the Montgomery Police Department and we want to unite those as one,” said Corp. David Hicks during an interview on Irvin's Christian radio program.

Moreover, the department is frank about the evangelistic aspect of the program.

“Anytime you find a group of people whose lives have been adversely affected – it could be a major fire in an apartment complex, it could be trouble in a given community, it can be a storm or a disaster –  this gives us an opportunity to meet people and show them the kind of love and compassion that all human beings need,” said E. Baxter Morris, the MPD's official chaplain. “There is an evangelistic advantage. That is, that once I float to your comfort zone, and we become one in our crisis, I determine what your spiritual needs may or may not be, and I may be able to share with you a word from Christ.”

It’s easy to see the appeal for the 37 pastors who graduated from the summer-long program and who will eventually be called to crime scenes. After all, their job is to preach, and they're being given a chance to reach individuals in extreme distress.

But it’s not entirely clear that the program is legal, from the constitutional perspective. At the very least, Operation Good Shepherd, and the language around it, might understandably make First Amendment advocates nervous. The “outreach ministry” is entirely funded by taxpayers. Although the pastors are all volunteers who are not compensated by the city, police officers get paid their regular wages to train them and the program incurs administrative costs, including ID cards for pastors to get access to crime scenes.

“Even without paying the ministers, using ministers as a formal part of the police department— as an outreach ministry — I think violates the Establishment Clause,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the School of Law at University of California in Irvine. “The government cannot take actions that appear to endorse religion. Using ministers in this way does exactly that.”

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Ray Downs is a writer based in Montgomery, Alabama.

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