Ed. Note: Greg Prickett is former police officer and supervisor who went to law school, hung out a shingle, and now practices criminal defense and family law in Fort Worth, Texas. While he was a police officer, he was a police firearms instructor, and routinely taught armed tactics to other officers.
Alabama Governor, Kay Ivey, just signed legislation that will allow a megachurch to form its own police force. The Briarwood Presbyterian Church of Birmingham is a predominantly white church. Birmingham, Alabama is an overwhelmingly African-American community.[i] The police force would work under the guidance of the pastor of the church, and there would be no public accountability, other than to complain to the pastor. According to Pew Research, 17 nations have some form of religious police. The United States, thanks to Alabama, just joined that list. This is an incredibly bad idea.
First, as a private entity there is no right for the public to obtain or inspect records. If you want the police bodycam from an incident, in most states you can fill out a request and obtain a copy after jumping through whatever hoops the State requires. You can’t do that with a police force that is owned and operated by a private entity.
Second, the push for its own police force appears to have started after there were a series of drug arrests at the private high school run by the church. In 2015, a number of students at the Briarwood Christian Academy were expelled following a drug raid by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.[ii] School Superintendent Barrett Mosbacker refused to comment on the raid, other than in generalities, and the Sheriff’s Office deferred to the church. Mosbacker did eventually send a letter to the parents that included this:
This morning we held a chapel with our high school students. We shared many things with them, including life lessons to be learned from this experience. We also shared a number of biblical responses that should guide our conversations and actions. We also had a good season of prayer for those directly involved, for each other, and for our school.[iii]
Part of the chapel presentation to the students included encouragement for them not to “gossip” about the event, or to talk about it. The church wants to handle church matters within the church, and so it began to lobby for its own police force. It passed the Alabama Senate in 2017, but did not become law, so they tried again this year and succeeded.
You see, while federal law[iv] requires post-secondary educational facilities to make annual public reports about crime and campus security if they participate in the federal financial aid system, there is no comparable law for public and private elementary, middle, and high schools. Although Briarwood sponsors a seminary that purports to issue masters and doctoral degrees, that seminary is not accredited, and it does not allow students to use the federal financial aid system. It therefore doesn’t have to comply with the Clery Act. And the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which was formed in 1973,[v] has its own procedures for handling issues.
In the recent past, this has included ordering victims of domestic violence to remain with their abusive husbands, firing them from their job when they refuse, and then indicting them in a church court for speaking out about it. The senior pastor of the Briarwood church has been called out for racism[vi] and homophobia[vii] in the past, but Dr. Harry Reeder III would be the ultimate authority over the police officers employed by his church.
Look, I will be the first one to stand up and defend the right of Reeder and his followers to believe whatever they want to believe. I don’t have to agree with their position to do so, they have the same right as any other person to make stupid conclusions and advocate for those positions. What they should not have is a police force, with all of the power of the State, to enforce those views on others.
A similar situation has happened in the recent past, albeit with a few key differences. A religious group, a cult really, took over two towns on the Utah-Arizona border. All the property was owned by the church, and the town officials were only appointed with the permission of the cult leader, Warren Jeffs.[viii] The police in the towns always went to him for instructions, and they exerted the power of the State against dissidents. It took a Justice Department lawsuit to resolve the issue there, where religiously controlled peace officers made false arrests, illegally seized property, and ignored crimes committed on behalf of the cult.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said it clearly:
No individual in the United States should be treated differently by a town or its police officers because of his or her religion. No religious leaders should be permitted to use the power of sworn law enforcement officers to hide their misdeeds and enforce their decrees.
It should not happen in Alabama, either. The power of a police force is vast. It should be controlled by the government, so that the public has recourse in the event of misconduct. It should never be in the hands of a religious leader.
[i] According to the U.S. Census, as of July 1, 2018, Birmingham was estimated to be 71.6% black, 24.6% white, with the remaining 3.8% being a mix of other races.
[ii] Which was also the law enforcement agency that provides off-duty deputies to Briarwood.
[iii] See https://www.al.com/opinion/2015/05/secrecy_or_sincerity_full_text.html for the full text of the letter.
[iv] Known as the Clery Act.
[v] According to the PCA, due to the liberal tendencies of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUS), but was actually due to PCUS views on allowing blacks and whites to worship together. The PCA was formed at the Briarwood Church.
[vi] He was the keynote speaker for the 2018 Confederate Memorial Day.
[viii] Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence, plus 20 years, in Texas, for two counts of Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child.