5 conversation starters for law enforcement and faith-based groups By: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.


Law enforcement and faith groups have many things in common.

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Both police and clergy rank in the top 10 most trusted professions. Both have frequent contact with the public. About 25% of the population will have an encounter with police in any given year, and about 50% of Americans will attend a house of worship at least occasionally every year.

Church leaders and police officers also have been subject to suspicion and scrutiny despite the levels of trust and positive relationships. The police are suspected of racism and brutality, and houses of faith have been tainted by reports of sexual abuse and political extremism.

Regardless of the critics of either group, common goals of equitable justice, public service and caring for their community make a powerful partnership. Faith groups have a unified purpose and hold unique bonds within their membership. Many have social programs that receive referrals from government agencies. Examples are food banks, emergency housing, space for community meetings, counseling and emergency funds. It makes for good community engagement for police officers to know these communities within their area of service.

Faith groups, especially in minority neighborhoods, have been a wellspring of voices for justice. Clergy and lay leaders should be invited to community meetings because they often have a unique perspective on the community, as well as a built-in audience for passing along information. In communities where some faith groups are composed of a population of immigrants or non-English speakers, positive law enforcement contact with clergy can be a critical bridge to minority communities. Houses of worship are considered safe spaces and can provide great opportunities for community activities in which law enforcement can play a role.

Here are five conversation starters to establish and maintain relationships between faith groups and law enforcement.

  1. Make an initial contact to establish a connection: As with any non-residential property owner or tenant, places of worship are potential targets for theft, vandalism, burglary and crimes against persons. Getting current after-hours contact information for dispatch and giving the faith leader a personal contact from within the police department during a visit can start a supportive conversation. This contact should ideally be from a ranking officer or a beat officer whose area of responsibility includes the group’s property.

  2. Ask about safety issues: Most clergy have some awareness of the risk of crimes against religious groups and properties, but some need factual information on threats and potential responses. Asking if there have been incidents of harassment, trespass, or domestic violence that threaten the safety of attendees may reveal some unreported events that can open up discussions about police response.

  3. Ask about trust issues: A frank discussion on the groups’ level of trust in local law enforcement and how faith leaders are responding can pinpoint areas of tension to be addressed through mutual education and relationship building. Suggesting partnerships before exploring relational impediments might be getting the cart before the horse.

  4. Ask about facilities: Some religious facilities are closely held with doctrinal, stewardship, liability and insurance issues sometimes prohibiting facility use for other than those strictly related to worship and religious education. Others are happy to share space as a part of their mission and ministry. Some facilities have big parking lots, a gymnasium, modern classrooms and commercial-grade kitchens. Exploring opportunities that benefit the community in alliance with the religious and law enforcement mission to serve the public is a good start. A church may feel uncomfortable being used as a police recruitment site but might be excited about an autism awareness event.

  5. Ask about established connections: Finding members of your agency who are already affiliated with a house of worship in the community is a perfect means of introduction, especially for groups that may not have wide community representation. Agencies with chaplains on board can use those connections as well. If a previous administration was more proactive with faith groups, rediscover what those connections, successes and lessons learned were and why those relationships may have faded.

Religious organizations are a unique and important aspect of a community’s vitality and identity. Partnering with faith groups toward the common goals of community engagement, public service and equal justice is an opportunity that should not be overlooked.

NEXT: How LE can help change the security culture at faith-based institutions