When a School and Church Need Police Protection

New security measures are a priority for one local Alabama community, for its own members' safety and well being

The times indeed are “a-changing.” How does Briarwood Presbyterian Church Police Department sound to you? Ready to usher in a church police department?

Despite the unorthodox, unheard of, and untested notion of a church police agency, a Birmingham, Alabama, house of worship has petitioned state authorities, seeking authorization to give birth to its own police force.

In a nutshell, the Briarwood Presbyterian Church and its academic component, the Briarwood Christian School, had an attorney author a bill that received the blessing from the Alabama House of Representatives and now awaits the signature of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley. The church’s bill outlines its operational intent on hiring one police officer who will have an official police vehicle and responsibility for church and school security, with full powers of arrest.

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Like many churches across the nation, Briarwood customarily hired off-duty cops to work security on their church and school grounds. However, they ran into occasions when police officers were unavailable for hire. The next step was to consider having their own cop shop to avoid instances when police service was needed yet unattainable. It appears the Briarwood Presbyterian Church Police Department (BPPD) will come to fruition, the first church police department in America.

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What Briarwood is seeking to initiate is synonymous to the School Resource Officer (SRO) concept, which is what most schools across the country currently utilize. SROs are sworn law enforcement officers employed by a city or county police entity who are assigned full-time to a school in its jurisdiction. Some school districts compensate the officer’s department for the service while some split the cost. Other agencies assign a cop to school grounds full-time, similar to patrolling the streets (tax dollars) except relegated to school property and whatever enforcement actions are necessary. SROs are also viable mentors and quasi-teachers while on campus, a win-win concept.

Despite the sanctity of a church, and a cop keeping it peaceful, evil lurks and is often mobile. One hell-bent lunatic walking into the church will be the challenge for the chosen Briarwood cop. For example, only recently did we learn that Dylann Roof, the shooter who walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church and killed nine congregants in 2015, departed before police arrival. Using GPS records, police tracked Roof’s movements and determined he’d gone to a second church. According to investigators, Roof claimed he was too tired to carry out any further havoc in the second church.

A lone cop may have his or her hands full in such a predicament, but when back-up is needed (and it likely will be), the police agency in the surrounding jurisdiction is your best friend. When a cop is in trouble, the cavalry is unfailingly going to respond. Could a lone cop prevent a Dylann Roof-type massacre from occurring? Perhaps. Off-duty cops in civilian attire, in attendance worshiping, have been in similar positions to thwart wickedness. But the distinction between them and a uniformed, fully-marked police officer and cruiser parked out front translates to preempting a rampage by mere presence.

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Since it already achieved most of its goal (shy of the governor’s approval), I assume someone somewhere along the way has indoctrinated the Briarwood church folks about the logistics of operating a police department, its inherent costs, and the ubiquity of liability. Costs for a functional police force operating under a church steeple can be steep. Estimates vary but the general cost to finance one police position and all the requisite equipment is considered astronomical. A police cruiser and its markings, its telecommunications and emergency lighting systems, a cop’s uniforms and duty belt adorned with all the necessary gadgetry, and a litany of not-so-ancillary things add up — fast. An expose by illustrates the point quite well. Assuming Briarwood is healthy in terms of economic accounting, affording one officer may be plausible, but that is just the start of the logistics to consider.

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Telecommunications is a staple feature of an effective police entity. Is a police radio useless if there is no one on the receiving end? I assume the sole church officer will be patched into the nearest larger police agency’s communications center, where 9-1-1 calls originating from the church and school properties will be processed and dispatched.

The big L-word in policing — liability — is another contention. Despite the holy grounds and peaceful community, one misstep can result in a litigant filing suit against Briarwood church and its cop. That is the unfortunate nature of conducting business in any capacity, especially in police work. The fusion of church and police will draw unique perspectives in all dimensions, liability included.

Finally, since a church with not a grain of police-processing experience is seeking to generate a cop shop, how will it endure the police hiring process (application evaluations, written test, polygraphs, oral boards, physical agility testing, background investigations, home interviews) and all inherent nuances and cues with the finesse of a seasoned police detective?

It speaks volumes that a church has enough insight and consideration to bless its congregants’ and students’ safety by incorporating its own police force.

My suggestion? Pay the Birmingham PD or county sheriff’s department to conduct the entire process. They have a large pool of future potential cops and can incorporate one more to their existing group of tentative police candidates. It is the most practical, seasoned, economical, and feasible way.

‘Separation of Church and State’
An historical constitutional doctrine provided in the First Amendment, the separation of church and state holds that a metaphorical wall to prevent government intrusion upon religious freedoms and matters is necessary. In the case we are discussing here, the wall is lowered so that a warrior upholding government principles while securing religious freedoms can be emplaced.

It differs not at all between hiring off-duty cops to secure these freedoms and a church and school’s rights via Alabama code 16-22-1 to employ its own full-time police faction, likening it to numerous college campus cops and respective police authority. As to educational realms, Briarwood also has owns and operates a seminary school on its property.

With momentum and Alabama law upholding their right to do so, it speaks volumes that a church has enough insight and consideration to bless its congregants’ and students’ safety by incorporating its own police force. Amen to that and the spirit of policing.

Will this be a trendsetter?

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.

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meet the author

Stephen Owsinski is a LifeZette contributing editor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is also a columnist for the National Police Association.

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