Military and Police

New Law Gives Blessing to Alabama Megachurch’s Own Police Force

In March 2017, OpsLens published a piece regarding the framework pertaining to Alabama’s Briarwood Presbyterian Church and its organizational desire to form its own police force. It hired an attorney to scribe legalese which was in turn furnished to the Alabama state legislature. Well, it seems the church’s prayers have been answered as the state lawmakers considered the church attorney’s language, created a bill, and passed the statutory permission slip.

On May 31, 2019, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey endorsed the new law, opening the door to Alabama religious institutions (and their academic counterparts) having their own full-fledged law enforcement contingents.

As expressly stated, Alabama HB309 grants “Briarwood Presbyterian Church and its integrated auxiliary Briarwood Christian School [the authority] to appoint and employ one or more suitable persons to act as police officers to keep off intruders and prevent trespass upon and damage to the property…[and] the institute. These persons shall be charged with all the duties and invested with all the powers of police officers.”

I read the bill’s language, and there’s one big catch. The to-be-formed Briarwood Presbyterian Church Police Department (BPCPD) officers will have all the powers of any other law enforcer in the state, especially upon being trained and certified by the Alabama Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Commission (POST)…with one glaring exception: they will be armed with only less-lethal weapons. That means firearms (pretty effective visual deterrent, to say the least) are prohibited. Only less-lethal weaponry such as Tasers, ASPs (batons) and OC (pepper) spray to temporarily incapacitate would-be suspects are authorized. Yikes! Sounds more like a half-hearted deterrent than a fully-enabled traditional cop whose arsenal ranges from verbal commands up to definitive stopping power: A gun.

As is ubiquitous in the law enforcement institution, liability can be a prevalent monster with massive fangs chewing into the already-nominal agency budget. Naturally, cops are trained to minimize the taking of life, yet sometimes the suspect is selling life-threatening behavior. In that context, the worst-case scenario results, compelling police officers to take a life. Thereafter, litigious-minded sorts evolve and file against the cop, the police department, and sometimes the elected officials governing the jurisdiction as well. The legal meandering is typically colorized as wrongful death and such in the civil realm, and outright murder in the criminal sense.

We’ve mostly seen instances when the police officer shooting a life-threatening suspect is reticled for doing everything exactly right, purely by the book, and still winds up as a respondent/defendant named in a lawsuit filed by the suspect’s (decedent’s) loved ones.

From the new Alabama law’s own language spelling out weapons authority and use, we have the following: “Any person appointed to act as a [Briarwood Presbyterian Church] police officer, pursuant to subsection (a), while on duty, shall carry and be trained in the proper use of a nonlethal weapon. For the purposes of this subsection, a nonlethal weapon is a weapon that is explicitly designed and primarily employed to immediately incapacitate the targeted person while minimizing fatalities and permanent injury. A nonlethal weapon is intended to have a reversible effect on the targeted person [emphasis added].”

If you are wondering whether there is a separate section in this particular statute, one constituting governance of church-based police officers armed with firearms, there is none.

So, when a suspect of any sort is upon/in Briarwood Church property and creating evil to potentially include brandishing a firearm, any BPCPD is already at a disadvantage, possibly under-armed in the face of a malcontent who does not have the same weaponry restrictions. From the get-go, BPCPD cops are undermined.

According to The Christian Post, a “Briarwood [press statement claimed] that despite having a great relationship with local law enforcement agencies, establishing a private police force had become necessary because the state was unable to provide adequate security for the approximately 2,000 students and faculty of Briarwood Christian School located on two campuses in unincorporated Jefferson and Shelby County due to budget cuts.”

So now we have a new kid on the block when it comes to our nation’s roughly 18, 500 diverse police forces employing approximately 900,000 cops serving in varying capacities. From what I can gather, this will be the first church operating its own cop shop.

Paring it all down:  A uniformed good guy/gal with less-lethal tools is a definite mismatch against a bad guy armed with a full-fledged firearm.

What are your notions regarding a church police force?

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. 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 researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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