Witnessing Beyond Words
“Actions speak louder than words,” is a familiar adage.
In police work, actions can mean everything when the stakes are a matter of life and death. In such a demanding world, how does an officer, clad in blue, effectively share the gospel of Christ?
This question is a daily challenge for Christian men and women who proudly wear the badge, but who encounter everything from routine traffic stops to heartbreaking high–profile shootings. In addition, recent mass protest marches for equal justice and racial equality cast emotional shadows over police and community affairs.
Speaking truth, protecting the weak
Shining a benevolent light is particularly daunting when the officers are of color. Many of them feel challenged to prove themselves loyal to their profession and to the community when addressing problems that are well above their pay grade. “When we talk about community policing, we have to talk about the whole system, which is so skewed from the highest levels of government,” says Graham Weatherspoon, who retired 20 years ago from the N.Y.P.D. and who served with the N.Y.C. Transit Police Department Detective Bureau’s Major Case Unit.
“They have been complicit with the program to disenfranchise black and Latino young men,” Weatherspoon says of the “selective enforcement” policies of many state, city, and district officials. As a born–again Christian, he is active at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and serves as an advocate for men and women of color whose cases are adjudicated unfairly and whose families are the victims of police brutality. “I will do everything in my power, locally and nationally, to help them,” he says.
Referring to the controversial “stop and frisk program,” Weatherspoon, who was certified by N.Y.P.D., New York State Police, and the F.B.I. in the areas of homicide, sex crimes, robberies, forgery, fingerprint classification, and latent prints, said, “There have been more than a million black and Latinos who were illegally stopped this way in New York.”
Weatherspoon’s passionate assertions are supported by findings in a new Pew Research Center national survey conducted by the National Police Research Platform, which reported that 60 percent of the public believe that such encounters point to a bigger problem, rather than isolated incidents.*
“Being a Christian affords me more patience in dealing with people’s problems. I am slower to anger; more understanding; more caring; more empathetic; happier; and yes, more thankful.”
— Sergeant Kathy Thompson
Another officer who is committed to making a difference is Tonzel Prince. He found Christ as a teen while attending The Salvation Army Corps in Hackensack, N.J., under the ministry of Majors John and Anita Stewart. Today, he is a Protective Service Officer (PSO) for the Department of Homeland Security in Dixon, California. Prince says that the trust gap between police and community can make talking about his faith a challenge. “Sometimes when I start speaking about it, what happens is, people tend to get offended.”
In those situations, Prince says that, as a police officer, he knows his actions speak louder than words, even actions that seem trivial. “It’s about what I do; things like, if I see that an elderly man is having trouble walking, the first thing I want to do is pull him to the front of the line and have him sit in a chair instead of making him stand. These little things get noticed. People watching say, ‘You guys are so nice to people!’ Yes, it’s about being nice, but it’s more about having real compassion for other human beings. That’s the same thing Christ said we should have and do for others.”
Crossing cultures, bridging generations
The trust gap caused by criticism of the criminal justice system in general and police officers in particular has taken its toll on many younger men and women in blue, says Dimas Salaberrios. In 2000, he was a counselor at the Salvation Army’s Wayside Home for Girls in Valley Stream, Long Island. Today he is a pastor, social activist, media personality, and writer of Street God, an autobiography. His newest project is the Academy Award–considered documentary “Chicago: America’s Hidden War,” which was released nationwide in May.
“The cops in the 90s who became officers after the Vietnam War looked at policing like it was a calling,” says Salaberrios. “Even though they were paid whatever they were given, being a cop was a big part of their identity and they were going to risk their lives.
“Gen X and Millennial cops have a different perspective on policing,” says Salaberrios. “Many of them see it as a job for now and have said to me that it’s more important for them to go home than to put themselves in harm’s way. So, they’ll see a shooting and sometimes they won’t even do a chase. They may feel that the political atmosphere is against them.”
Salaberrios’s assessment is reflected in the Pew Research survey that says 93 percent of officers have become more concerned about their safety, 76 percent are more reluctant to use force, and 72 percent are less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious.
In “Chicago: America’s Hidden War,” Salaberrios captures several moments on film when Christian officers of color pray with people, even some who have been identified and listed as street gang shooters. “We just created a clergy meeting in Chicago with police officers and members of the faith community,” he says.
“They try to represent their faith as much as they can without crossing a line and being fired. They let these shooters know that they have people who care and want to help them get out of this lifestyle,” said Salaberrios. “They have programs in Chicago where they visit shooters’ homes and let them know that they made the list. These are incredible opportunities for ministry.”
Modeling Christ, showing patience
Sergeant Kathy Thompson, a 33–year veteran of the Philadelphia Mounted Police Department and a member of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, looks to God for help in establishing personal connections with the people she serves and protects. The black woman officer told the Baptist Press, “I seek to be a very positive role model, especially for other black females who might want to enter the field of law enforcement.”
The lover of horses also uses a soft touch with young adults. “I take the time to talk with teens who are interested in the work I do,” she said, “all the while encouraging them to follow their dreams. I also, without a doubt, let them know that none of what I do and none of what I have would be possible without Christ in my life.
“Being a Christian affords me more patience in dealing with people’s problems,” Thompson noted. “I am slower to anger; more understanding; more caring; more empathetic; happier; and yes, more thankful.
“I see being a Christian, in addition to being a black female police officer in today’s society, as a bonus. All these things wrapped up in me are blessings all day long, no matter how I look at it.”
Wearing blue, being human
Rev. Andy Rubin, an associate pastor at The Bronx Bethany Church of the Nazarene in New York, says the work of all officers has been complicated by the COVID–19 pandemic. “Since it started, it’s been the number–one killer of police officers,” he says. Dying and being stricken by the virus has necessitated frequent redeployments to fill the void. In other instances, changes in management have affected the consistency of community outreach, Rubin says.
As a field operator at the New York State Chaplain Task Force, Rubin points to the work of the 47th Precinct in the Bronx as a case in point. “There has been several changes in leadership there,” he says. “In 2017, Inspector Ruel R. Stephenson, an officer of color and precinct commander, was promoted away to become a deputy chief. Then another officer took command. But then they had another officer replace him, who is also not there any longer. So, the change in leadership has definitely affected how they operate.”
In Stephenson’s two years as commander, he made community policing a top priority. He frequently told media reporters that he saw the strategy as a way to keep crime low. For example, during the holidays, his officers made an unprecedented move; they transformed the precinct building into a gingerbread house and winter wonderland for the kids. Officers, dressed as Santa’s elves, hung tinsel and sorted toys.
That year, long lines of parents and kids braved the cold for some Christmas cheer. Then the children made their way inside the warm precinct to receive an array of exciting gifts from Santa. “It’s extremely important for kids to know that policing goes beyond locking people up,” said Stephenson. “It’s relationship building, it’s trust, it’s a long–term way of healing the divide and building a bridge between the community and the police department.” Stephenson believes such bridges will continue to keep crime low.
Stephenson also established an annual basketball tournament between neighborhood youth and officers. “I want us to see each other as people and not just us occupying the streets and being a force,” he said. Officers of the 47th traded their uniforms for jerseys and used the basketball court to help keep young men out of criminal court.
“Since we’ve been doing this tournament, we have not seen any violence during those hours so, we know it’s working. Now, kids have a chance to get to know us better. Basketball brings people together; it gives the kids something to do, it gives them the idea that they can go further in school and in life,” said Stephenson.
During his tenure, Stephenson also helped launch the People’s Police Academy. Concerned citizens, who included many local pastors such as Rev. Rubin, graduated from the pilot program. Community Affairs Officer Varnisha N. Hyman, who is a welcomed presence in the northeast Bronx, was excited as she witnessed some of the program’s first 50 graduates receive certificates.
“I’ve always tried to find a common ground,” Hyman said to news reporters. “The program helped them find a common ground with us. It’s not just a uniform anymore, we became humans that day.”
An open door, time to pray
Being a certified NYPD chaplain has opened a door for Rubin to nurture relationships with officers, church parishioners, and community members. “I am able to pray for them and be a sense of support because they are human beings too. Therefore, they need to be seen as individuals, rather than as police officers,” says Rubin. “They need the same kind of encouragement and support as anybody else. We also need to see them as partners in our communities.”
Rubin says that when it comes to talking about God, most Christian officers he’s met would rather show than tell. “I have not come across officers who have openly expressed their faith, but they express Christian values in terms of how they deal with people,” he said.
“For them, it is about living out their faith. For example, I can’t remember hearing Inspector Stephenson talk a lot about his own faith, but he definitely lived it. I noticed that as he changed the culture of the precinct. He expressed a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving.” Rubin also said that Stephenson motivated him to engage the community on a deeper level. “It was because of him that I became a citizen police officer.”
“There were times when we prayed with him and he would embrace and welcome it. So, when there was a situation that he was faced with, he would call me or another pastor. He allowed us to give spiritual support to him. So, in doing that and in taking those initiatives, I think it was an indication of his commitment to Christ.”
Stephenson had brought the relationship between the police and the community a long way since the shooting of 18–year–old Ramarley Graham in 2012. His heartbreaking death at the hands of 47th precinct officers in his grandmother’s house, over a marijuana possession charge, caused a city–wide uproar and protest marches.
Detective Weatherspoon, who has in the past wept openly when describing some of the horrific police encounters gone wrong, shares a sobering reminder of why Stephenson’s living witness is so vital. “The ministry is not in the church building,” Weatherspoon said. “Jesus served the Father in the streets, where the people are.”
by Warren L. Maye
*This wide–ranging survey, one of the largest ever conducted with a nationally representative sample of police, draws on the attitudes and experiences of nearly 8,000 policemen and women from departments with at least 100 officers.