Faith in Action: Pastors On Patrol strengthening community-police relations in Kalamazoo

Editor's Note: This story is part of our Faith in Action series of stories exploring faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating. The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.

Eight years ago, the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department partnered with local faith leaders to launch Pastors on Patrol, an innovative program that put pastors in patrol cars — especially on sensitive emergency calls. 

The original intentions of the program were to increase trust between residents and police, diffuse tense situations, and enhance safety. 

In 2023, the number of pastors involved in this ongoing partnership has almost doubled, and the area originally covered has expanded from the Northside, Eastside, and Edison neighborhoods to also include Western Michigan University. In addition, pastors are called upon to participate in other KDPS activities and weigh in on public safety issues, as well as to attend press conferences.

POP and their KDPS partners.Pastor Greg Jennings, Sr. of Progressive Deliverance Ministries Church in Kalamazoo has been involved with POP since the beginning. Jennings says the program's need has increased over the years, and that the KDPS “call on us more than what they used to call on us." 

By all accounts, POP is making strides in bridging the gap between law enforcement and marginalized communities, all while helping to ensure accountability and transparency of the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department. 

Seeing to it that KDPS takes an honest and open approach in how it deals with crime is a big priority of POP, says Jennings, adding that it benefits both officers and residents to have pastors at the scene of an altercation or crime. 

“When people are meddling in an investigation it makes it complicated,” said Pastor John Stokes of Word Harvest Ministries. A few pastors spoke of how bystanders will often try to intervene in police investigations for one reason or another, and that having POPs present “helps the integrity stay in the conversation" because a pastor is also present, says Stokes. 

Rising gun violence

At a POP monthly meeting in early June, the group was somber. Several of the attending clergy had been called to the crime scene of a shooting in Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood the day before. A 17-year-old young man had been killed by gunshot. KDPS officers and Kalamazoo clergy members present spoke of how the incident underscored the ongoing challenges faced by law enforcement in maintaining public safety and addressing increasingly violent crimes in the community, specifically those affecting minors. 

The clergy and the officers have formed very strong relationships.Having pastors at the scene of a crime can help “cushion the blows of calamity," says Stokes. Many community members involved “feel more comfortable to talk" with police when pastors are present, he says. 

With KDPS Chief David Boysen, Deputy Chief Matt Huber, and Assistant Chiefs Ryan Tibbets, Victor Green, and David Juday at the helm, Pastors On Patrol takes a proactive approach to community policing, engaging pastors in various activities that promote mutual respect between officers and citizens beyond their presence in the patrol car.

Aside from riding with officers and responding to sensitive situations, pastors also assist with the Kalamazoo Regional Citizens Academy, a two-day training session usually held in the fall that offers an insider's look at law enforcement and a chance to talk with officers about everyday issues of law and order. 

During the Academy, attendees can engage in discussions with officers about everyday issues related to law and order, and also undergo simulated emergency response situations. Pastors are also encouraged to attend KDPS press conferences. 

POPS and some of the officers they ride with frequently.Being asked to take on multiple roles by KDPS is nothing new to the POP's clergy. Pastor Roger Ulman of Calvary Chapel on Fulford Street spoke of how as pastors they are pulled in many directions, and how the POPs clergy “meets multiple needs in one position." There are times when the opinions of KDPS on how to create a safer Kalamazoo contradict what citizens think, and “the community needs are vast and different from police officers to citizens,” says Pastor Ulman. At those times, pastors can help officers understand resident's fears and concerns.

Pastors as a voice for resident concerns

One example of those differing opinions centers around Fusus, a public and private video feed program that KDPS has implemented in the City of Kalamazoo. A large portion of the June POPs meeting was dedicated to a presentation made on the project by Deputy Chief Huber and involved a lengthy discussion. This program aims to connect various city cameras — both recorded and live feeds —to a central location known as Fusus One. The goal of the program, Huber explained, is to respond effectively to address crimes that have been committed or are in progress, rather than surveilling citizens. The KDPS has also launched a volunteer resident camera program called Connect Kalamazoo.

The Fusus project raised opposition from some Kalamazoo citizens due to concerns about how this technology would affect the community's most vulnerable residents; homeless folks and People of Color. The absence of facial recognition software and the voluntary participation of businesses helped calm some fears, but the initial push for the project failed. On August 29th, 2023, however, the Fusus program went live in Kalamazoo after receiving a majority yes vote from the city commission.

A view from inside the KDPS and POP meeting in early June. Pastors and KDPS officers alike both spoke of the upsides and downsides of the new technology. The pastors spoke of understanding the community's concerns of how something can be developed for good and then used for other purposes. Multiple members of the POP's clergy asked police how the KDPS planned to keep the program accountable.

Chief Boyson says that his “main goal is to get the tech up and running at liquor stores" to help protect the businesses. Most of Kalamazoo City’s violent or property crime takes place within 500 feet of these businesses. Fusus supporters say that it is not an attempt to surveil citizens but to respond to crimes that are being or have been committed. 

At an August 29 press conference with the KDPS, Pastor Jennings expressed concerns residents were having about violating privacy. “When you bring something like this into those communities, one of the first things they are saying is you just want to get into their business and find out what’s going on with them," Jennings says. “They do not trust (police). How can we change that narrative and let them know this is something that can benefit them?” 

Breaking down barriers between residents and police

Transparency as a means of building trust is something that residents convey their desire to pastors. POP's newest member, Pastor James Harris of Trenches Community Church on Kalamzoo’s Eastside, says he joined POP because of “the relationship building” between public safety and citizens. Harris says he wants to “be a voice to change the narrative about law enforcement, and also help law enforcement change their narrative.

Pastor Greg Jennings was the first to volunteer to get into the drivers seat of the patrol car.“Not all police officers are abusing their authority," says Harris. "Not all African Americans are out committing crimes.

At the start of the June POP meeting, the group enjoyed Chick-fil-A before stepping outside the KDPS building for a drone training session. A police officer who had undergone pilot training demonstrated three different types of drones, showcasing their capabilities. Members of the group shielded their eyes from the sun as a medium-sized drone soared 200 feet above the building, hovering silently.

After the meeting attendees headed back indoors, Shawna Smith, the founder of Outreach Matters, a community-driven program that bakes goods for the KDPS, took the floor. The seven police officers and six pastors in attendance listened as Smith shared how she was mistreated by police during a routine traffic stop, and how it made her search for healing. Smith stressed that for her, forgiveness and seeking out a way to form a relationship with the police was her way of healing from the incident. 

Pastoring the City

What started as a way to bring cops and clergy together in a nontraditional approach to policing has grown over the years to a program that provides mutual input with the goal of creating trusting relationships between police and residents and a safer community. 

A view from inside the KDPS and POP meeting in early June. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic caused a temporary slowdown of the program, POP persevered and has now even extended its reach. Police departments in other parts of Southwest Michigan have implemented the program, including Van Buren County. Grand Rapids has adopted a similar approach with its Clergy on Patrol started in 2022. The POP clergy in Kalamazoo would like to see more leaders from different denominations of Christianity, and representing different faiths, as well as the inclusion of female pastors. So far, the pastors involved are all men.

Clergy participating in Pastor's On Patrol shared that their participation in the program has not only helped the community they serve become safer, it has also reshaped their perspective on pastoring. “This really helps me to broaden the way that I pastor, how I view pastoring," says Pastor Ron Coleman of Emmanuel Church of God in Christ. Pastor Coleman said POPs have helped solidify the mindset that members of his congregation are real people going through real life. 

Harris iterated the sentiment, stating that the POP program has helped him grow as a leader, and affirmed that the POP clergy are truly, "pastoring the city, too."

Pastor Greg Jennings was the first to volunteer to get into the drivers seat of the patrol car.
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Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.