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Alabama’s Church Police Captures the Rule of ‘Order’ Over ‘Law’ in the Age of Trump

The emergence of a religiously oriented private police force is a logical conclusion of law enforcement’s move toward privatization.

By Jared Keller


A police memorial is seen at the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the Alabama state Senate voted to authorize a local megachurch to create its own independent police officers, making it the first congregation in the United States with its own “regular” police force.

Officials from the Briarwood Presbyterian Church claim that the conservative community situated just 10 miles south of Birmingham, which includes 4,100 congregants and 2,000 religious students, requires protection against the threat of mass shootings, according to USA Today, the likes of which local departments cannot provide. But civil rights activists see the request as an abrogation of the division between church and state.

“The proposal to authorize Briarwood Presbyterian Church to form its own police force places a core governmental function, with all the powers of the state, into the hands of a religious institution to exercise at its discretion with no governmental oversight,” Alabama American Civil Liberties Union legal director Randall Marshall toldUSA Today. “It also singles out one particular church out of the thousands of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious entities in Alabama that may have similar concerns, thereby favoring one specific religious group.”

The emergence of a religiously oriented private police force is, in some ways, the logical conclusion of law enforcement’s recent bent toward privatization. With municipal budget cuts hurting local police departments, many communities are turning to private security services. While data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting system shows that the number of sworn officers — invested with arrest powers, including authorization to carry a gun and badge — increased 35 percent to 477,000 between 1987 and 2013, private security services numbered 1.1 million in 2016, patrolling schools, stadiums, hospitals, and casinos, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These burgeoning private police forces take different forms depending on jurisdiction. On college campuses alone, the number of institutions using armed officers increased from 68 percent to 75 percent between 2004 and 2012. And, as the Washington Postreported in 2015, the number of Virginian citizens imbued with police powers as “special conservators of the peace” (SCOPs) — citizens who “[petitioned] the courts for the authority to carry a gun, display a badge and make arrest” — has doubled to nearly 750 since 2005:

It has its origins in English common law, and the first Virginia statute was enacted in 1860 to allow proprietors of “watering places” to protect their establishments.

The designation still retains some of that informality. No ­authority regulates the conduct of SCOPs or addresses complaints against them, although a court can revoke their commissions. The state does not track the number of arrests they make or citations they issue.

Most SCOPs patrol corporate campuses, work for neighborhood associations or perform code enforcement for counties or cities, but Youlen has pushed the model further by creating his own “department” and turning policing into an enterprise. He contracts his services to nine apartment and housing communities in the Manassas area. That’s up from one in 2012.

There are reasons to worry about this trend. A 2014 investigation by CNN and the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed “a haphazard system of lax laws, minimal oversight and almost no accountability [that] puts guns in the hands of guards who endanger public safety.” In more than a dozen states, private security can carry firearms without training; only a handful require mental-health exams for armed officers. And when armed guards do use their firearms, the incidents are seldom reported to state authorities, let alone investigated. Private security forces may be cheaper than tax-funded police departments, but they’re not necessarily as effective — or accountable.

But the hand-wringing over the Alabama Senate vote isn’t just about outsourcing a core function of the state, or blurring the line between religious and secular authority. It exposes a fundamental crack in the foundation of justice in America: that for all the jawing about the country’s supposedly rising crime rate, the institutions of justice are becoming fundamentally re-oriented as organs of “order” rather than “law.” As MSNBC host Chris Hayes observes in his new book, A Colony in a Nation, there are really two regimes of power and justice in the U.S.: the Nation, where “equal justice under the law” is sacrosanct; and the Colony, where “we obsess over order, fear trumps civil rights, and aggressive policing resembles occupation.” In his book, Hayes argues that the protests that rocked Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in 2014 helped expose the use of “order” as a vehicle for social control.

We can see the seeds of this normative re-alignment growing in the Trump administration. Since his ascendency to the White House, President Donald Trump has made “Blue Lives Matter” a part of U.S. domestic policy, re-aligned federal counter-extremism programs to focus on Islamic extremism, and emboldened state legislatures to pursue measures ostensibly designed to criminalize protesting.

During the golden years of America’s “wild” West, private police forces spontaneously emerged to enforce the law in an economic sense: protect property, enforce contracts, and define ownership for ranchers, cattlemen, and gold spectators. But the emergence of vigilante committees in San Francisco came not in defense of law, but of order.

The Briarwood case isn’t that different: According to Salon, church officials “have admitted that the megachurch hasn’t been targeted by threats or violence, such as that endured by mosques around the country.”