A new police program in Montgomery, Ala., is raising serious constitutional concerns.The Atlantic reports that city police, who are facing what has been described as the worst crime wave in decades, have devised a novel solution to the problem: “Operation Good Shepherd.” It ran all summer and involved training local Christian ministers, preparing them to visit crime scenes right alongside working police officers.Ministers would pray with victims and perpetrators alike.The purpose, supporters say, is to reinforce morality in a turbulent town. Bill Irvin, a popular local radio preacher, referenced a documentary about elephants in a speech to the program’s first graduates. According to Irvin, the documentary showed that rampaging young elephants reformed immediately upon the introduction of a steady older adult.“They had someone to guide them,” Irvin argued. “And that's what our youth needs: someone to guide them. Without that, how will they know about moral structure?”If Montgomery police proceed with “Operation Good Shepherd,” that moral structure will be defined and provided by Christian ministers, conservative evangelical ones at that. (No imams, rabbis, Hindu priests or Unitarian Universalist ministers are riding in the police cruisers.)
Police officials don’t see a problem with that.“What we want to do is combine the religious community and the Montgomery Police Department and we want to unite those as one,” Corp. David Hicks told local Christian radio.Montgomery taxpayers are funding the project. According to the Atlantic, the ministers themselves are volunteers, but the publicly funded police force is paid to train them and provide them with access to crime scenes.Critics worry the program amounts to nothing less than taxpayer support for evangelism. Montgomery’s police chaplain hasn’t done much to relieve those concerns.“Anytime you find a group of people whose lives have been adversely affected – it could be a major fire in an apartment complex, it could be trouble in a given community, it can be a storm or a disaster – this gives us an opportunity to meet people and show them the kind of love and compassion that all human beings need,” E. Baxter Morris said.He added, “There is an evangelistic advantage. That is, that once I float to your comfort zone, and we become one in our crisis, I determine what your spiritual needs may or may not be, and I may be able to share with you a word from Christ.”If Morris’ words reflect the true intent of “Operation Good Shepherd,” then the city of Montgomery has indeed entered shaky legal territory. It looks like its police force has decided that the town’s exploding rate of violent crime can be effectively solved by Christianity—and they’re using public funds to promote that solution.Some critics on the ground are sceptical. The Atlantic interviewed Dr. Earnest Blackshear of Alabama State University, who says he’s been lobbying for “more scientific” solutions to the crime rate. According to Blackshear, “Operation Good Shepherd” hasn’t actually been proven to reduce crime.The program’s supporters claim it’s modelled after similar, successful programs in Dayton, Ohio and Arlington, Texas, but there’s no data available to support the effectiveness of either effort. In fact, in the case of Dayton, the Atlantic reports that there’s no evidence the city ever actually implemented the program in question.As Montgomery’s murder rate climbs, it seems unbelievable that its police force would direct its energy – and scarce public funds – toward an unproven, potentially unconstitutional program like “Operation Good Shepherd.” The Constitution is clear: Government cannot endorse religion. But without major alterations, that’s exactly what “Operation Good Shepherd” does. The city is obviously facing a complex social crisis that merits an urgent – and effective -- response. But a response that could cost local taxpayers millions in a lawsuit isn’t one that deserves the support of its police department. Montgomery police could do with a quick refresher on the Constitution.