It used to be that when Isaac Fincher Jr. would see multiple squad cars at a traffic stop on the south side, he would wonder whether the police do the same thing in all Fort Wayne neighborhoods.
Fincher, a pastor at All Because of Christ Church, has learned the answer is yes: Police officers back each other up, regardless of the ZIP code.
They want to make sure they’re able to go home that evening, so they have to do things to protect themselves, he said.
This new perspective, along with a better understanding of law enforcement in general, came to him through a police academy for local clergy hosted by the Fort Wayne Police Department. Fincher and about 25 other religious leaders graduated Monday from the two-month program at the Public Safety Academy.
The class was a reincarnation of an idea realized more than a decade ago by Chief Rusty York and the Rev. Ternae Jordan as a way to help mend strained relations between police and the city’s black community. Between 2001 and 2003, five academies for clergy produced about 150 graduates, York said.
The program received recognition from the Department of Justice as a best practice and was adopted by other cities, Jordan said.
The decision to hold the academy again came out of talks that police officials had last year with local pastors who wanted to become involved in the fight against violence, especially the killing of young people, York said.
Jordan, who left Fort Wayne nine years ago to serve as a pastor in Chattanooga, Tenn., came back to help launch the academy in February.
A group of black, white and Hispanic pastors of various denominations met weekly to hear from law enforcement officials about matters such as hostage negotiation, narcotics investigations and firing a gun in a high-pressure situation. Each participant also spent time with an officer patrolling the streets.
Bringing pastors up to speed on the police department’s policies and procedures is one goal of the academy, but another aim is explaining the limitations of police work. For instance, officers can arrest a murderer, but they cannot address the root causes of violence, York said.
That’s where the faith-based community comes in, he said. They have more power to affect some of the social issues that lead to crime.
Pastors are in a position to influence the values and morals of their flocks, and as community leaders, Jordan said, Pastors speak to more people per week than probably any other individual there is.
By educating church leaders, who often receive questions and complaints about police, they can pass their knowledge to parishioners.
Jordan offered a poignant example: If a kid is shot, and you’ve got a crowd of people standing around, and that kid lays in the middle of the street for six hours, and you’ve got mothers standing around. They want to know why their baby is laying in the street.
Through the academy, pastors learn that investigators must leave a body where it was found until evidence at the scene has been gathered.
Mario Vaides, pastor of Elim Church, said one of the reasons he enrolled in the academy was because members of his Spanish-speaking congregation, some of whom are not in the country legally, regularly ask about the police.
They don’t want to call police if there are problems, he said. They are scared.
The pastor said the academy has made him see the police on a personal level, Chief York in particular.
We need to pray for him, Vaides said.
A key goal of the academy is overcoming geographic, racial and denominational boundaries so pastors and police can work together to make the city safer.
Because we are a community, what happens in one side of town impacts and affects the whole community, Jordan said.
On Monday, before the academy class received graduation certificates, York told the story of how police made the difficult decision to kill a man holding a 3-year-old boy hostage last month. The chief also briefed them on his department’s investigations into three shootings over Easter weekend; and he discussed a partnership with federal agents to crack down on gangs. At the end of this talk, he gave the class his cellphone number.
I just want you to promise me that if you’ve got a concern or a question, that you call me, York told the group. I’ve got this phone with me 24 hours a day, and I guarantee I’ll respond.
This gesture underscored what police hope will be an outcome of the academy: open lines of communication between clergy and police that lead to strong bonds. The benefit of this was clear to Jordan.
It’s always better to develop a relationship before there is a crisis than try to communicate and talk after there’s a crisis.