Alabama Senate approves bill to allow a church police department

The Alabama State Senate has passed SB193, which is a bill to allow a Birmingham church to form its own police force.  The Bill still needs to be passed by the House and signed by the governor.  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.

The Bill in question reads:

Section 1. (a) The Board of Trustees of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, organized as a nonprofit church under Alabama’s nonprofit corporation law, may appoint and employ one or more persons to act as police officers to protect the safety and integrity of the church and its ministries. Persons employed as police officers pursuant to this section shall be charged with all of the duties and invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state.

(b) Every police officer appointed and employed pursuant to this section shall be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission and shall meet all of its requirements, including continuing education.

(c) The authority of any police officer appointed and employed pursuant to this section shall be restricted to the campuses and properties of Briarwood Presbyterian Church.

Section 2. This act shall become effective immediately following its passage and approval by the Governor, or its otherwise becoming law.

The Church in question, Briarwood Presbyterian has said through its attorney, Eric Johnston, that their situation is similar to several small colleges that also have their own police departments and that the bill uses similar language to those authorizing college police agencies.

“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.

There has been concern that a church controlled police force might be used to cover up crimes; it was noted that there was an investigation of a drug-related crime at the church’s high school in 2015.  Church officials pointed out that they cooperated fully with that investigation and are not seeking a means to avoid scrutiny.

Local news sources (here and here) suggest that such a bill would be unprecedented; however there is a prominent church in the US that already has its own police department; the National Cathedral.  The National Cathedral police force has about 20 officers who are licensed through the District of Columbia police force and who have full police powers on the grounds of the Cathedral or when in pursuit of a suspect.


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