When the Rev. Bland Washington was shot during a recent “Cops and Clergy” training session, he didn’t die and go to heaven, but he did see the light.
Fortunately, Washington’s wounds were only of the make-believe kind, delivered by an angry man during a violent role-playing scenario, the kind Baton Rouge police officers face every day.
“A couple of people were arguing, and instead of being in the distance, I walked into the center of it, and somebody pulled a gun, and bam! I got shot,” Washington, the pastor of Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said after a reception marking the end of the six-week “Cops and Clergy” course.
The training, one of many presented by the police department to two dozen area clergy, was designed to educate the pastors about what police officers have to deal with, especially in light of controversial tragedies in other parts of the country involving police and unarmed civilians.
“It was a wonderful experience for me,” Washington said. “They certainly have my full support and prayers.”
“I think it’s a move of God to see what is happening between the police department and the people in our community,” he added. “I think together we can at least try to come to some kind of resolution to all these problems that we are having.”
The Rev. Wongchin L. Viltz, pastor of the Hollywood Street Church of Christ, characterized the class as “an eye-opener.”
“It changed my whole paradigm of the police,” Viltz said. “There is a cloud over our nation concerning the police — a negative cloud.
“So many times we criticize the police and, as we learned in the training, when you look at the news clippings for those few seconds, you draw a conclusion from that, and sometimes — most of the time — it is the wrong conclusion,” Viltz said. “I appreciate the police department so much more than I did before.”
That appreciation, the education and the building of positive relationships between police and clergy is exactly why Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., with the support of 19th Judicial District Attorney Hillar Moore III, went to Memphis, Tennessee, last year to find out about the program.
He instituted it here this summer.
“This was our first class and it went really well,” Dabadie said. “Once it was over, they had a new perspective and a new respect for what law enforcement does and how they do it. And that is the whole idea — to bring them into our world and let them see what kind of training we go through and let them see firsthand how scenarios affect you and how quickly things happen and you don’t even realize they are happening.”
Over the six sessions that coincided with the BRPD Academy, the pastors learned about “Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause,” “Search and Seizure,” “Use of Force,” “Human Factors,” “The Court System,” “Crime Stoppers Program,” “Incident Reporting” and “BRAVE Training.”
The last class in late July focused on different scenarios, requiring split-second, life-and-death decisions.
Dabadie said he has prioritized building relationships with the African-American community, especially in the high-crime ZIP codes of north Baton Rouge, home of many of the pastors.
“Our trainers and our officers built bonds with them,” Dabadie said. “One minister even had a law enforcement day at his church and invited all law enforcement to come and have Sunday worship with them. It opened doors that we may not have gotten opened before.”
The Rev. Dr. Herman O. Kelly Jr., of Bethel AME Church in the 70802 ZIP code, often has officers patrolling the church campus during services and community classes. He knows what police officers deal with because his son is on the Washington, D.C., force.
“I’m a cheerleader of the police,” Kelly said. “I told my congregation, ‘When you call 911, you don’t want me to come; you want a police officer to come who has been trained.’ We will come on the scene and assist where we can. While they are handling the scene, we can talk to the family because many of us have had training dealing with crisis situations.”
Police Sgt. Riley Harbor III heads the Cops and Clergy program and is pastor of two small churches — Rock Zion Baptist Church in St. Gabriel and Ebenezer Baptist Church on River Road.
“Pastors walk in the same shoes as police officers,” Harbor told the pastors and about 50 others gathered at the Delmont Library for the closing reception. “Police officers have universal training when it comes to the law and pastors have universal training from Almighty God.”
Harbor also described another program, “Black Lives Matter,” where officers will visit churches to educate members on how to report crimes and what to look for.
“Now it’s time to work,” Harbor told the group. “I will call on you all, and I expect you all to respond.”
Elder Eric Williams, senior pastor of Beacon Light Baptist, said he appreciated the class because “information can change everyone’s perspective.”
He pledged to spread the word, especially among the young men he knows, that police officers are there to protect the community.
The Rev. Robert Davis, pastor of Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church on Fairfields Avenue in the 70802 ZIP code, said he grew up in Washington, D.C., and as a teenager, he was cursed at by police officers for dribbling a basketball while walking down a sidewalk.
“To come to Baton Rouge to see a concerted effort to counteract that mentality of a police force and improve the relationship with the community, I am extremely encouraged,” Davis said. “I have a renewed sense of optimism.”
The Rev. James R. Barrett Sr., pastor of Greater Sixty Aid Baptist Church on Gardere Lane, brought five of his staff pastors.
“I want to call this the ‘Cops and Clergy and Community’ program because it’s going to take all of us,” Barrett said. “We have a responsibility to help cops do their jobs. We need to get some of these guys off the street.”
Kelly often wears a BRPD lapel pin, he said, because, “I love this Baton Rouge Police Department.
“We are in a special situation here in Baton Rouge. We are setting the pace. We are setting the tone. I want you to support them,” Kelly told the other pastors. “The Lord gave me a message of nonviolence. We can’t solve anything with a gun. We have got to solve it with love, understanding and relationships.”