Ala. church asks for its own police department

Officials say it's essentially hiring an officer full-time, as opposed to relying on off-duty officers to assist the church


By Greg Garrison
Alabama Media Group
 
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Briarwood Presbyterian Church and Briarwood Christian School want their own police department and a bill proposing it passed 9-2 in the House Public Safety Committee on Thursday, Briarwood's attorney said.

The same bill passed last year but got to the governor late and never received a signature, said attorney Eric Johnston, who drafted the bill for the church.

Johnston said he expects the bill to again pass both the House and Senate and believes Gov. Robert Bentley will sign it into law.

Briarwood Presbyterian Church (Photo/Facebook)
Briarwood Presbyterian Church (Photo/Facebook)

Some critics of the bill have questioned why the church and school need a police department, but it's essentially a way of hiring a police officer full-time, as opposed to relying on off-duty police officers to assist the church, Johnston said.

"We've got over 30,000 events a year that take place at Briarwood - going on all day, all night, at the school, at the church, at the seminary," Johnston said. "We have to hire policemen all the time. It would be so much easier to have someone on staff."

Johnston said he doesn't know of any other churches in Alabama that have their own police departments, but he said it's more similar to a small college having its own police department. "Briarwood is larger than most of the colleges that have police," he said.

The language of the bill echoes the language of the law allowing colleges to have their own police departments, he said.

Briarwood has two large campuses, with the church and Birmingham Theological Seminary off Acton Road at Interstate 459, and at the affiliated Briarwood Christian School on Cahaba Valley Road.

"It would only be for patrolling the campuses, north and south," Johnston said. "There wouldn't be any patrolling of neighborhoods."

The church currently hires off-duty officers from area police departments, but there aren't always enough officers available, Johnston said. "They get short-handed," he said. "We have one guy that we have to have almost full-time supervising security," he said.

The police department would essentially be that officer in a full-time position working for the church, he said.

It would not involve a jail or other facilities - basically an officer and an official car, he said. "I couldn't imagine it would be something more than that," Johnston said. "If there is an arrest on campus, the local jurisdiction would be called and they would come pick the person up."

"There are no public officials. But there are elected officers in the church, trustees who answer to the congregation."

Questions were raised in committee about a drug investigation at the Briarwood Christian School in 2015 and whether a private, internal police department would cover up a drug problem.

"No, it didn't have anything to do with that," Johnston said.

The sheriff's office deferred to the school and the school to the sheriff's office.

"There was a drug investigation at the high school," Johnston said. "Like most schools, you've got students doing things you shouldn't do. The school cooperated with law enforcement. They didn't cover up anything."

Briarwood Presbyterian Church Administrator Matt Moore released a statement on behalf of the church saying that Code 16-22-1 of Alabama law provides for the employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions. "The church seeks to mirror that provision," it says.

After obtaining legislative permission, the personnel employed by the church will meet all requirements and be certified by the Alabama Peace Officer Training Commission, the statement said.

"The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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