Police, religious leaders vow to strengthen ties

Rev. Alvin Bernstine and Chief Chris Magnus

Rev. Alvin Bernstine, left, and Chief Chris Magnus at Saturday's gathering of police and religious leaders.

Police officials and leaders of the city’s faith-based community gathered Saturday in the Richmond Police Department’s cafeteria to explore ways in which the two vital institutions can better work together.

More than 40 local congregational leaders, mostly from the city’s extensive network of predominately African-American churches, attended the mid-day meeting. Police Chief Chris Magnus, Deputy Chief Allwyn Brown and Councilman Corky Booze were among the civic leaders in attendance.

The gathering was prompted by an invitation from Magnus to local religious leaders involved in the city’s violence reduction programs. The luncheon was billed as an opportunity to build on significant reductions in crime over the past several years.

local pastors listen to speakers at the police department in richmond

Elder T. Marc Gandy and others listen as police and religious officials speak.

Overall annual violent crime is down nearly 20 percent from its level in 2006, and homicide totals are down from 45 in 2009 to 21 last year.

It was the largest assemblage of church leaders at the department since Magnus became chief in 2006.

“I view this as a step toward an ongoing dialogue with the faith-based community,” Magnus said. “We are now beyond that situation of crisis, and now we’re at a point where we can be more thoughtful and strategic. Now is the time to move forward.”

Some highlights of Saturday’s discussion included police officials’ vowing to make beat cops and commanders available to to meet regularly with church leaders to share information and discuss programming ideas. The department has re-organized in order to prioritize keeping officers in the same neighborhoods to foster ownership and accountability. Meanwhile, church leaders have been at the forefront of anti-violence demonstrations, community events and programming targeted toward at-risk youth.

Department personnel contact information was distributed to all attendees, and Magnus encouraged them to contact local beat officers early and often.

“We are your Police Department,” Magnus said. “We work for you.”

Pastor Patrice Keys watches at Richmond Police Department

Religious leaders Patrice Keys and Henry Washington were among the religious leaders on hand.

Spirits were high at the lunch. Several attendees noted that the relationship between Richmond’s police and the churches serving minority communities has been congenial, especially in recent years

“In Richmond, the relationship between the police and the faith-based community hasn’t been adversarial,” said Rev. Alvin Bernstine, who heads Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church. “And that is very important because the better our institutions can work together, the healthier our community can grow.”

The meeting included addresses by Magnus, Brown, Bernstine and Devone Boggan, the director of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety, and brief introductory remarks from each attendee. Youths involved in the Richmond Police Activities League were also commended for involvement in that program.

Magnus in particular struck a hopeful tone. After weathering stretches of high crime and internal dissention—several high level officers in the department have a pending discrimination lawsuit against Magnus and the city—the police chief touted double-digit percentage reductions in violent crime over the past several years, an achievement he in part credited to efforts led by the faith-based community.

He said the city is in a “transformational” period, and pointed to a brazen shooting during services inside New Gethsemane Church of God in Christ in February 2010 as a “tipping point” in the city’s long and bloody struggle with street crime. That shooting, during a Sunday service, drew national attention and inspired a series of anti-violence community gatherings and marches.

Leaders repeatedly emphasized that while relations with police were good, they would like more regular meetings with beat officers or supervisors to share information and collaborate on local events. “Our church is ready to host quarterly meetings with police,” said Rev. Dana Mitchell of North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church.

Many attendees discussed efforts already underway in the city, including truancy sweeps by police in collaboration with local youth centers and Operation Ceasefire, a grant-funded initiative targeting high-crime cities with a range of parole re-entry, education, youth recreation and other prevention and intervention measures.

Rev. Bernstine pointed to a mentorship program developed at his church to train local mentors and pair them with more than 50 young people at Kennedy High School.

Bernstine said the work of police and religious leaders have been powerful on their own, but that Saturday’s gathering was a key step in leveraging anti-crime work. “If we want to work together, we’ve got to be together,” Bernstine said.

Boggan gave a stirring speech near the end of the roughly two-hour meeting. His Office of Neighborhood Safety is a city agency that works to intervene in community disputes before they escalate into violence, work that routinely puts his agents in contact with local religious leaders, who are often the most trusted and respected figures in their neighborhood.

“The norm in our environments must change in order to see continued transformation,” Boggan said. “And that requires every single one of us in this room.”

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