Pastors on Patrol: Local pastors and police officers team up to foster understanding

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

We’re accustomed to seeing pastors in their pulpits and police officers in their patrol cars.

But what happens when pastors and police officers pair up and both go on patrol?

That’s what organizers of the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department’s innovative new program, Pastors on Patrol (POP), are hoping to find out. POP, inspired by KPSD Assistant Chief Vernon Coakley’s desire to bring police and residents together in a way that promotes understanding, officially started this summer with six pastors who patrol Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods in patrol cars with police officers.

Bringing cops and clergy together is not new, but typically programs around the nation involve officers visiting churches or pastors working as chaplains. Putting pastors in the patrol cars is less common. Coakley, who has a passion for bridging the communication gap between the public and police, recognized there was “a disconnect in our community,” he says, so he started researching ways to heal this divide.

“We had attempted to do more of the nontraditional types of things in policing in Kalamazoo, such as getting out of cruisers and getting to know our residents and the public we serve, but it just wasn’t enough,” says Coakley. “I was looking for some new ideas, some out of the box ideas, to help bridge the gap in our community.”

POP, the first program of its kind in Southwest Michigan, unofficially started two years ago when POPs Lead Pastor Greg Jennings, Sr. of Northside’s Progressive Church of God in Christ, began patrolling with police. Building on the success of that alliance, this summer saw the addition of five other pastors from around Kalamazoo, including Northside Elder John C. Stokes of Church of God in Christ, and POPs Associate Lead Pastor Roger Ulman, also pastor of Calvary Chapel of Kalamazoo Valley and KDPS Chaplain. 

After pastors undergo safety and protocol training, they are required to serve eight hours a month. Coakley believes that POPs will open up communication between officers and the public. “The pastors are there to have compassion and empathy, and to assist officers with dialogue,” he says.

“When the officers get out of the cruiser, it’s usually contentious all by itself,” says Coakley. “When a pastor has the opportunity to promote the dialogue for the officer, they humanize our badge because sometimes people forget we are human, too.”

In light of today’s troubled relationships between the police and the public,  particularly with the African American community, the hope that is a pastor on board may diffuse the tension, especially if the pastor happens to be one who is familiar, maybe even from the same church as the person police are questioning.

With a pastor along, an officer might get the information he or she needs to do their job without an escalation that can result in a further risk of harm or crime for all parties involved.

So far, POP  has been embraced by the department, Coakley says.

“Eventually we’ll begin to bring in more pastors,” says Coakley. “The more, the merrier."

Pilot POP: Northside pastor leads the way

Jennings, a longtime Northside pastor who happens to be the father of football great Greg Jennings, became the first official Pastor on Patrol nearly two years ago. 

As a pastor, Jennings felt committed to  breaking down misunderstandings between police and the community after hearing neighbors and people in his congregation “always talk about the police and what they’re doing and not doing.” 

One afternoon, he received a call from an upset congregation member who told him that the police were in the neighborhood and “they just threw a girl down for no reason.”

Jennings was alarmed and decided to investigate. 

“I decided to approach the police officer,” says Jennings. “He was telling me there were shots fired, and that the girl that was thrown down because they said she was trying to steal some evidence.

“I got to thinking that we so often get the wrong view because we really do not see everything that is happening,” says Jennings. “We didn’t see her try to steal evidence, we only saw the officers taking her down.

“And to get a full view of what is happening in relationship with the police and the community, I wanted to ride with the police to get that other knowledge that most of us do not see on the street.”

So for the past two years, Jennings, in his official dark blue Pastors on Patrol shirt, badge and khaki pants, has served as the pilot POP, logging over eight hours each Thursday in various patrol cars with different police officers and on different sites throughout the city.

Northside Pastor's Greg Jennings, Sr., was the first KDPS Pastor on Patrol. He now serves as Lead Pastor of POPs.“When I began to ride with the police,” says Jennings. “I wanted to be a connection for the community and the police that we have so long been waiting for. We call the police when we are in dire need, but we do not relate to the police. I want us to not just call them, but relate to them, so then they, too, become a part of the community.”

Jennings says he has found his experience eye-opening. “Some of the things we take for granted are that when an officer gets out of the car, everything is OK, “ says Jennings. “But there’s a potential danger every time they get out. Their lives are on the line because people view them as the enemy until they are needed.”

At patrol stops, Jennings says he finds his presence helps calm those involved. “I’ve seen people look at the officers and look at me, and be more ready and willing to talk to me than to the officer because I’m a pastor,” he says. “I can see them thinking, ‘I know Pastor Jennings and if he trusts them, maybe I can open up just a little bit' so they can relate to what the officer is doing.’”

Jennings says he also sees how his presence helps the officers with whom he patrols.

‘They’ve been trained with a sense of combat,” says Jennings, “and it’s easy to have only that perspective. Policing alone, because I have a badge, because I have a gun, is hard. They need someone who not only bears the cross, but also understands what we are trying to accomplish—to be unified in building a better community.”

After the success of his POP experience, Jennings helped recruit other pastors from around the city. He met with some resistance, he says, but those who signed on are very enthused.

“As pastors, we are not just committed to our pulpit and the four walls of our churches,” says Jennings. “We are committed to our community and the partnership with the KDPS to really make a difference where we live.”

While the pastors are stepping out of their pulpits (which are like their offices), the police officers are sharing theirs (which are their patrol cars). That’s not always an easy thing to do, Coakley says, and he appreciates the openness with which the KDPS officers have welcomed POPs, even going so far as to request pastors to accompany them on patrol.

“I am a praying man myself,” Coakley says, “and I thank God for the opportunity to present this to Kalamazoo, and for the support of my chief to do this. In the end, we all share the same goal. What we all want is community.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.