Across the country, we have seen relationships between law enforcement and residents fray, especially in communities of color. The response to unprovoked lethal force and other injustices has been marches, protests, and, in too many instances, riots. While peaceful demonstrations can be impactful, they are not on their own a solution to the problems. We can’t decry our way to equitable policing and a fair criminal justice system. A vastly different, bridge-building approach is needed.
Since 2017, the One Congregation One Precinct (OneCOP) initiative, which I founded, has worked to engage faith institutions around the country with law enforcement officers in their communities. In the aftermath of police actions that took the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and the protests that followed, my organization created even stronger partnerships with leaders of national law enforcement organizations.
These leaders are working closely with us to find solutions to help fulfill their duty to protect the communities they serve. Together, we held more than 1,000 community events across the country Oct. 9-12, for the inaugural National Faith & Blue Weekend, at which officers of the law and residents formed new bonds. In Alexandria, Va., police and community members attended a showing of “Selma,” a film depicting a key moment in the civil rights movement. The police department in Birmingham, Ala., hosted a town hall meeting with young people. In Tulsa, Okla., police and residents held a peace, justice, and prayer march. The New York Police Department hosted 75 events citywide.
The reality is that police cannot adequately protect and serve communities they do not know. Similarly, residents are resistant to policing from officers they feel don’t respect them. Our aspiration must not be to leave one side defeated or pressured to admit fault. Instead, it is in the strategic interests of all of us to build bridges through collective action and transform our seeming adversaries into allies.
We must all see and respect the humanity in one another. Community residents should recognize the values they share with law enforcement professionals, the men and women who — like all of us — shop for groceries, are struggling to educate their children remotely during this pandemic, and, more than anything else, want to come home safely to their families after work. Likewise, the police must also see residents as their neighbors, as hard-working educators, restaurant workers, students, and business owners who want to live in a safe and just environment.
I once believed that marches and protests were effective on their own because they helped the public see our commitment to achieving dignity and respect for all. I have come to understand that demonstrations alone will not do what needs to be done. To transform the criminal justice system, we must change hearts, minds, and policies by bringing people in law enforcement and in the community together. That is the objective of this work — creating a path that leads to a higher level of social justice, social cohesion, and reconciliation and resolution.
Unfortunately, the “defund the police” movement is doing more to harm community-police relations than to facilitate social justice. If the question for debate is “Should we support a more comprehensive view of public safety?” the answer is “Absolutely.” Far too many people are arrested when what they really need is mental health treatment and other important social services. All Americans of goodwill should support increased funding for alternative approaches to providing for public safety. That is distinct from inflammatory “defund the police” rhetoric.
Communities that most need effective policing are the ones that will suffer the most from decreases in funding for police. America needs more funding for law enforcement professionals so that they are better prepared, more diverse, and properly equipped. Every police officer should have a body camera and a nonlethal device for subduing suspects, such as the BolaWrap, which essentially shoots out a lasso. Officers should have (or pursue) a college education, see a personal wellness therapist or counselor, and receive de-escalation training and anti-bias certifications. Police departments should also have mental health specialists who can help handle difficult situations in lieu of having officers make unnecessary arrests.
Local police should get to know community members — not the few who commit crimes but the overwhelming majority whom the police too often overlook. Every resident should realize that most law enforcement professionals are responsible; that most care about protecting and serving our communities. I want every house of worship to get in the game. It’s not enough to just hang a sign that says “Black Lives Matter.” We must spur churches, synagogues, and mosques to lead the collaboration between law enforcement and residents.
America has never had a successful movement for social change that did not involve the faith community. With 65 million Americans attending religious services every week, the faith community is uniquely positioned to be effective facilitators among law enforcement, residents, and businesses.
In the 1990s, youth homicide rates fell in cities like Boston after group violence intervention offered opportunities as alternatives to crime. Today, the challenge is bigger than focusing just on perpetrators: Entire communities believe they are targets, just as entire police departments feel unappreciated and disrespected. The solution must include de-escalation so each side can better see and understand the other. We can accomplish that through shared experiences — discussions, cookouts, and so on — in relaxed atmospheres. I expect National Faith & Blue Weekend will be the start of a movement of ongoing engagement: long-term regular interactions between police and community members at the grass-roots level.
As the Bible teaches us, “Faith without works is dead.” We have a historic opportunity to transform policing in America, show compassion for human suffering, voice outrage at injustice, and commit to creating the country we all hope to see.
The Rev. Markel Hutchins is an Atlanta-based civil rights leader, founder of the One Congregation One Precinct initiative, and CEO of MovementForward, an organization promoting social change.