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Alternatives to Calling the Police
Alternatives to Calling the Police
Safe Congregations, Conflict Management in Congregations

Alternatives to Calling the Police—Introduction

Praxis means risking embodying our values under pressure and when we are afraid. So many of us have so much to be afraid of these days. Many of us find ourselves with no answers, going in circles when we ask what tools and resources we have to be more safe. We know that much of what we’ve been taught about safety is shaped by systems of oppression telling us who to be afraid of. And we know that real community protection does not criminalize us or our neighbors. Below is just one offering in response to concerns and questions raised around congregations facing harm for living their values.

We recognize the resource is incomplete and implore readers to reflect and assess the themes raised and answer some of these questions:

  • Who defines safety?
  • How do create systems of safety that center those who have been most harmed?
  • What are non-punitive ways to address and respond to harm?
  • How can transformative justice become the way through conflict and harm used by institutions and between individuals?

Our country is facing a time of increased visibilized violence by white supremacists and white nationalists, including vandalism and threats directed toward mosques, synagogues, and sometimes even UU congregations. We want to follow the best protocols and keep our community as safe as possible when these events occur. We also want to avoid involving the police, if possible, as policing in this country is also steeped in white supremacy and oppressive violence, and there are alternatives that make us all more safe. We also know that the desire to protect property has often prioritized buildings over people. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being.”

Depending on our lived experiences, we may ourselves be acutely aware that involving police and law enforcement when harm occurs often escalates the possibility of violence and fails to address the harm in a way that is healing for both the individual(s) and the community affected. Others of us may be confused about why the police would not be the first and best option. It is incumbent upon us to center the experiences of people and communities most impacted by state violence and surveillance. This means, we must consider the experiences of those of us who are Black, Native/Indigenous, Arab, People of Color, immigrant, Muslim, queer and trans, poor, disabled and/or survivors of trauma, as we consider solutions.

This country has a long history of racist violence against Black churches by white vigilantes. It is not only important to situate our responses in our values, but also within that historical context and current reality.

Below, find a series of questions to think through before contacting the police in situations of vandalism. We hope they are useful in a time when fear, anxiety, urgency, and anger can make it harder to make safe and responsible decisions.

For more in-depth resources on resolving a wider variety of issues without police involvement, you can read this community-compiled online guide What to Do Instead of Calling the Police. There are many resources, organizations, and tools guiding us away from punitive solutions into restoration and transformation. Whether or not your congregation has faced vandalism, familiarize yourself with these resources in advance.

Let’s talk about why you’re calling the police...

  1. Are you hoping the police will keep watch on your church to prevent further vandalism?

    If so, consider how increased surveillance may make the church less welcoming to targeted communities like People of Color, people who live on the street, trans, gender non-conforming and disabled folks, immigrants, and Muslims.

    Also, consider developing a “Community Protection Plan” that involves other ways you can help your congregation feel safer after an incident. For example, you can try the following: If your church is in a gentrifying neighborhood, consider how calling the police will contribute to existing harm, surveillance, and targeting happening in the area.
    • Buddy system for closing up the church.
    • Keeping doors locked when staff or others are alone or spread out in the building.
    • Widely shared phone tree for who to communicate with.
    • De-escalation or self-defense training in case of meeting an angry or hateful person on the property.
  2. Do you want an official record of what happened?
    You can use other methods of keeping records, such as photos, written and signed testimony, and emails to the Board or to the Region or UUA. Ask yourselves:
    • How would having the incident on the police’s records benefit your community?
    • Are there other ways to meet those needs?
  3. Do you want to press criminal charges?
    It is understandable to feel hurt, furious, and betrayed by vandalism. It is completely reasonable to fear that a person who defaces a Black Lives Matter sign or spray paints a slur might be violent toward People of Color, queer people, Jewish people, Muslim people or whoever was the target of the hateful behavior. However, we think it’s important to consider these options—many of which have long-term benefits for the congregation and community —before calling the police: Here’s an example of bystander intervention without calling the police: Don’t Be a Bystander: 6 Tips for Responding to Violent Attacks
  4. Do you need to file for insurance purposes?
    Take time to understand the policy. Ask yourself:
    • What is required and for what purposes?
    • What will be the outcomes if you do not file with the police?
  5. Are you hoping for financial reimbursement for damages made?
    Consider the potential harm of police presence, and weigh that against the financial impact of the vandalism that’s occurred. This may need to be considered in a community protection plan and/or with Board members, minister, and other interested parties.

Say you decide you need to interact with police. Let’s discuss how you can minimize harm.

  1. Can you go to the police station with photos instead of bringing the police to your neighborhood?
    Inviting police into your community may be putting people in your neighborhood at risk. This approach is recommended in tip #2 of this zine 12 Things to do Instead of Calling the Cops.
  2. Can you include framing around police in your communication about the incident?
    When you communicate with your members about the event, explain why you chose to utilize the police. Acknowledge that some folks (often white) feel safer when police are around and involved, and others (often Black, Indigenous, People of Color or poor) feel less safe and even in danger when police are around or involved. Be transparent about the challenges of engaging in social justice work when the majority of UU congregants are white, while People of Color are most at risk of experiencing the violence we all fear. It is possible that People of Color, particularly Black and Native folks, may not understand or find any feasible reason to call the police. If necessary, offer space to talk through priorities and safety when these events occur.
  3. Can you proactively pursue transformative justice?
    What transformative justice resources are available in your community? Try and find others who have gone through similar situations. The UU congregation in Arlington has done this. You can also read this much longer moving story about Muslims asking for mercy within the criminal justice system after a hate crime at their mosque.

Referenced Resources

Document compiled by Ronnie Boyd, Annie Gonzalez-Milliken, Jason Lydon, Elizabeth Nguyen and Nora Rasman

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For more information contact safecongregations@uua.org.