On Tuesday, the Alabama Senate, in an an overwhelming majority, voted in favor of a bill that would allow a Birmingham Presbyterian megachurch to form its own police department. As “police experts” told the Associated Press, such a force would be unprecedented in the United States.
Sponsored by Alabama Senate Majority Leader J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner—a longtime Birmingham fixture whose father was embroiled in a number of the city’s racially charged disputes in the ‘60s—the bill would allow the 4,000-plus-strong Briarwood Presbyterian megachurch, which also contains a theological seminary and a K–12 school, to employ (and compensate) its own armed force. A separate bill, which would legally protect gun-toting congregants who acted as ad-hoc security, was also proposed earlier this year.
In a statement in March, a church administrator told NBC News a church-specific police force would prevent mass shootings such as the massacre at Sandy Hook and “similar assaults at churches and schools.” Oddly, Dylan Roof’s name did not come up.
As Salon reported earlier this year, the church’s pastor, Harry Reeder, is a Trump supporter with a fundamentalist bent, believing there “there is no sacred-secular split in life.” He’s not particularly fond of same-sex marriage or abortion, surprisingly enough.
The Alabama ACLU, among others, has expressed concern that the police force would do more to cover up crimes than to prevent them. And combining fundamentalist religious communities with a self-policing mindset has been a complicated endeavor for other communities; in the past few years, New York City’s (ostensibly unarmed) ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteer police force has been investigated for charges of bribery, corruption, and the selective application of vigilante justice on unarmed black men.
And that’s without being granted the full power and resources of the state.
Of the proposed Briarwood Presbyterian Church police force, Alabama Senator Rodger Smitherman, a Democrat, told NBC: “I voted to get [the bill] out of committee after getting assurances that they would act like a real police force and they would not be an agency that covers things up.”
Because, as we know, a real American police force would do no such thing.