Cops for Christ?

A Growing Nexus Between Law Enforcement And Fundamentalist Christianity Raises Church-State Concerns

At one point during Phoenix police Lt. Jim Gallagher’s 18-year career, he realized he had arrested the same woman nine different times on suspicion of prostitution. That’s when he decided jail was not the best way to stop sex workers from plying their trade.

“I’ve done all the really cool jobs in police work that there are,” Gallagher said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera America. “The most important job that I’ve done is this, because it has given me the opportunity to really, really help an underserved population. These are discarded women: people that have been completely forgotten, people that make people uncomfortable.”

The “this” Gallagher referred to is Project ROSE, a program he started in 2011 along with Arizona State University Prof. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, whose expertise is in social work. The goal is simple and, many would say, admirable: reduce the number of women on the streets by helping them turn their lives around instead of just throwing them in jail. The problem is the method, which consists of a partnership between Phoe­nix police, Catholic Charities and a local Christian church.

The women arrested in Phoenix’s twice-yearly sex-work stings are forcibly taken to Bethany Bible Church and escorted inside in handcuffs. They are then given the option to avoid criminal prosecution by participating in a sectarian program. Critics, including Americans United, have said that Project ROSE is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, it is one of a growing number of programs nationwide in which church and state have teamed up in an attempt to lower crime rates, as law enforcement officials hope that a dose of old-time religion can convince criminals to change their ways. But the reality, critics say, is that such programs don’t just raise constitutional concerns – there is also little evidence to suggest that they work.

Nevertheless, the trend is expanding, with police chaplains becoming more common and correctional offici­als increasingly open to evangelical Chris­tian programs to keep convicts from committing new crimes after release.

The Phoenix program is among the most blatant for its religious ties. During a sting in October 2013, Phoenix police apprehended 54 women on suspicion of prostitution. Those women were as young as 18 and as old as 58, Al Jazeera reported. They were immediately coerced into joining Project ROSE, which gives suspects a choice: go to church or go to jail.

Under the program’s rules, women picked up by police must authorize Catholic Charities to enroll them in its Prostitution Diversion Program (PDP) located in a section of Bethany Bible Church marked by a sign with a Latin cross, the Project ROSE logo and the words “Prosecutor’s Office.” There, a city prosecutor informs them that if they wish to keep their arrest off the books, they must complete Catholic Charities’ program.

On its website, Catholic Charities describes the PDP as “36 hours of self-exploration and education to develop self-esteem and give hope. Participants also receive rehabilitation services including support, education, and treatment to help them escape prostitution. Job placement assistance is also provided. Those who complete the program have their charges dismissed.” 

 If the suspects don’t agree to enter that sectarian program, a police report is submitted to the Phoenix Prosecutor’s Office, and they are charged with prostitution. A conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 15 days to six months’ imprisonment, in addition to a fine of up to $2,500.

“Phoenix is essentially telling crim­inal suspects that they can go to church or go to jail,” said Americans Uni­ted Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in a recent press statement. “The government has absolutely no right to force anyone into a position like that. These suspects shouldn’t be coerced into participating in a program that might not reflect their own beliefs.”

 Roe-Sepowitz, however, defended the program, which has led to the roundup of some 350 women as of last October.

“It is illegal behavior, and there’s nothing that we can do to say to the police, ‘Don’t arrest them. Don’t press those charges,’ except by saying, ‘Perhaps if we can negotiate with the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement, that that arrest can kind of lay low,’” she told Al Jazeera. “We’re just trying to work within the system that we have, within the context of our laws, to be as helpful as possible.”

But critics aren’t so sure that the program is truly “as helpful as possible.” In a letter sent April 4 to Phoe­nix officials, Americans United expressed concern that Project ROSE is violating the First Amendment by pushing suspected criminals to take part in a sectarian program.

“The city is coercing individuals to participate in religious activities and programs, under pain of criminal prosecution,” AU’s letter read. “The city is conveying its endorsement of religion generally and Christianity in particular. And the city is using taxpayer money and law-enforcement resources to aid religious institutions. Please immediately end these violations by suspending Project ROSE.”

The raw statistics on the program also raise doubts about its effectiveness. Al Jazeera said that on average, only about 30 percent of women caught in a Project ROSE sting actually complete the program requirements. Of those who complete the program, however, only 9 percent are arrested again within one year. The numbers sound good at first glance, but critics say that success rate is probably misleading because it factors out recidivism among those who never entered the program to begin with.

“The whole field of rehabilitation programs is littered with poor evidence,” Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of several books including When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, told Church & State. “[I]t sounds like the same flawed methodology [that many studies use]: measure success only among ‘completers.’”  

It’s also unclear if Project ROSE saves the city of Phoenix any money. The Arizona Republic reported that a single sting in April 2012 as part of Project ROSE saved Phoenix police about $30,000 in booking costs. But Gallagher said the sting required 100 officers working for 24 hours, which would have cost the department $48,000 if those officers earned as little as $20 per hour. 

Unfortunately the problem of cops working for Christ isn’t limited to Arizona. A police program in Montgomery, Ala., is also raising some serious constitutional concerns as pastors there have been used to fight crime. The Atlantic reported in October that city police, facing what had been described as the worst local crime wave in decades, devised a sectarian solution to their problem: “Operation Good Shepherd” (OGS).

OGS ran during the summer of 2013 and involved training local Christian ministers so they were prepared to work crime scenes right alongside police officers. Ministers were sent to active crime scenes and instructed to pray with both victims and perpetrators. Supporters of the operation said this would serve to reinforce morality in a turbulent town.

Notably, no non-Christian clergy were part of this project, and police officials didn’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,” David Hicks, a police corporal, told local Christian radio.

Although the ministers who participated in OGS were volunteers, the Atlantic reported that the Montgomery police force is paid to train them and provide them with access to crime scenes, making this a publicly funded project. Montgomery’s official police chaplain does not seem to think that was an issue, either.

“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,” the Rev. 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.”

Some local critics are skeptical. Dr. Earnest Blackshear of Alabama State University told the Atlantic that he has been lobbying for “more scientific” solutions to the crime rate. According to Blackshear, OGS hasn’t actually been proven to reduce crime. He also said the program is little more than a misguided attempt to cut the cost of lowering the crime rate.

“I think government right now is trying to figure out capitalistically how to do it for less, and I think they’re finding that you can’t,” Blackshear said. “And [Operation Good Shepherd] is just another attempt at trying to get something run by volunteers.”

Alabama, anchored firmly in a Bible Belt ethos, seems to have a special affinity for mixing law enforcement and conservative Christianity. In 2011, Police Chief Michael Rowland of Bay Minette, a city of about 8,500 people north of Mobile, announced the implementation of something called “Operation Restore Our Community.”

Under the plan, low-level offenders would have been given a choice: They could pay a fine, go to jail or attend church weekly for one year. At the end of 12 months, their records would be wiped clean.

“It’s an easy choice for me,” Rowland told The Christian Post. “If I had to choose between going to jail and paying a heavy fine or going to church, I’d certainly select church.”

The plan was placed on hold after Americans United pointed out that it was blatantly unconstitutional.

Local judges sometimes also go rogue and impose a faith-based sentence on offenders. In 2012, a district judge in Oklahoma named Mike Norman sentenced a teenager, Tyler Alred, to attend church weekly for 10 years. Alred had been convicted of man­slaughter after the truck he was driving hit a tree and killed a passenger, 16-year-old John Dum. Alred was intoxicated at the time.

Norman defended the sentence, telling The New York Times, “I think Jesus can help anybody. I know I need help from him every day.”

Supporters of this faith-based approach to crime and punishment often claim it is successful. OGS backers, for example, have insisted that the program is modelled after similar ones in Dayton, Ohio, and Arlington, Texas, that have worked.

The only problem is there’s no data available to support the effectiveness of either effort. In fact, in the case of Dayton, the Atlantic reported that there’s no evidence the city ever actually implemented the program in question. Local police officials contacted about the program did not respond to the Atlantic’s queries, and two college criminologists in Dayton told the magazine they had never heard of the program.

Thus far, it seems neither the Phoenix nor Montgomery police departments have any plans to end their cops for Christ crusades despite criticism from Americans United and other civil liberties groups. In early June, Phoenix City Prosecutor Aaron J. Carreon Ainsa responded to AU’s accusations regarding Project ROSE by downplaying its religious nature and claiming that it is constitutional. At press time, Americans United was waiting to receive more information about the project through a public records request.

As for Montgomery, last fall the city responded to a complaint from New Jersey-based American Atheists (the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation also complained), which challenged the constitutionality of OGS and asked that it be shut down. In an Oct. 22 letter, Montgomery City Attorney Kimberly Fehl told American Atheists that the sectarian nature of the program has been mischaracterized.

“[There] has been a misrepresentation of the object and implementation of the program,” Fehl wrote. “Operation Good Shepherd is one of a number of initiatives of the Montgom­ery Police Department as part of its efforts to combat an increase in violent crime.”

Critics say such programs stubbornly persist in law enforcement and in the correctional system because misguided officials believe they work despite scant evidence.

Perhaps the best-known example of a faith-based reform program’s misleading “success” is InnerChange, the prison-based ministry founded by the late Charles Colson. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush asked Colson, who became a born-again Christian while in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, to create a program that would subject Texas inmates to evangelizing, counseling, prayer sessions and Bible study in an attempt to ensure that they would not commit crimes in the future.

A 2003 report by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society indicated that prisoners who went through Colson’s program were very successful at staying out of prison later. But as Kleiman wrote in 2003, that report focused on the ministry’s success stories while ignoring inmates who skipped the program. As it turned out, Kleiman said, graduates of Colson’s 16-month program were more likely (24 percent versus 20 percent) to be imprisoned again than inmates who did not take part in the religious indoctrination.  

Although Colson’s program was not the success it was advertised to be, Kleiman told Church & State that InnerChange was not necessarily a failure, either. 

“I wouldn’t say that Colson’s prison [program] is worse than average,” he said. “I’d be surprised if some of the [religious-based] programs didn’t work.”       

A 2013 study by researchers at Georgia State University also casts doubt on the ability of religion to prevent crime, albeit through a small sample size. In a research paper titled “With God On My Side: The Paradoxical Relationship Between Religious Belief and Criminality Among Hardcore Street Offenders,” Georgia State criminologists Volkan Topalli and Tim­othy Brezina, along with graduate student Mindy Bernhardt, found that criminals often used religious beliefs to justify their own bad behavior.

The team interviewed 48 “active, hardcore street offenders, each with four or more serious offenses, such as drug dealing, robbery, carjacking and burglary,” and found that most said they believed in God and sometimes employed “faith-based” rationales for their actions.

“Offenders in our study overwhelmingly professed a belief in God and identified themselves with a particular religion, but they also regularly engaged in serious crimes,” Topalli said in a media release. “Our data suggest that religious belief may even produce or tend to produce crime or criminality among our sample of hardcore street offenders who actively reference religious doctrine to justify past and future offenses.”

Ultimately, critics remain wary of religious-based crime prevention ploys because there is simply too little valid evidence to show that they are working. They also expressed concern about the potential First Amendment violations that come from making arrested individuals decide between church and jail.

The situation in Phoenix, they say, is a good example of a program that looks impressive at first glance but fails to stand up to legal scrutiny.

“This is an especially serious violation of religious freedom,” Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper said in a press statement on Project ROSE. “The city of Phoenix is rounding up suspects for the purpose of sending them to a religious program, and then threatening to prosecute them if they decline to participate. The government may never force its citizens to choose between religion and prison.”