SAN DIEGO (CNS) — Religious leaders are recognizing they have a unique role in helping improve relations among law enforcement officers and the broader community.

To help, a new program, the Building Trust Partnership, is connecting people and helping police and residents to see the viewpoint of each other.

The partnership involves the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, the Diocese of San Diego and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development-funded San Diego Organizing Project.


A handbook and a website — — are among the tools organizers hope will boost collaboration and reduce conflict.

San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy reflected on the genesis of the partnership during its recent launch, noting how many people began coming together months earlier during “a time of great tragedy,” when shootings of both young African-American men and police officers were dominating the headlines.

In addition to talking and praying about “this searing crisis,” the bishop said, participants knew they needed “to take some concrete step.” The diocese reached out to the Kroc Institute to identify actions to build trust between local law enforcement and the communities they serve.

The partnership is the result.

Bishop McElroy recalled what he had been told by a friend who serves as a chief financial officer. The friend said his company’s many rules will not make bad people good, but will help good people remain on the right path. The bishop noted the same is true of the suggestions made in the partnership’s handbook.

“This is a step which will help good people remain good, to help good people become better and, in doing so, to help heal this society which we all cherish,” he said.

Kevin Malone, executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project, said public safety is “not just a conversation about law enforcement.”

“Public safety is all of our work,” he explained. “We have to change the conditions that lead to hopelessness in our communities.”

Malone, whose organization is an interfaith network of 31 congregations, noted the special role of clergy in such work.


“There’s a role for clergy in this that’s pro-blue and pro-community,” Malone said, referring to the need for clergy to be supportive of law enforcement, while also holding those agencies accountable. “Clergy can play that role. They can if they choose to.”

The Kroc Institute’s Daniel Orth wrote the handbook. He said it and the website reflect what he learned from more than 80 conversations he had with religious and community leaders and law enforcement officers throughout San Diego County, all of whom are “committed to improving trust and relationships between police and communities.”

In joining the launch of the initiative, Bishop Cornelius Bowser of Charity Apostolic Church said clergy can find themselves receiving pushback from both sides. Some community members accuse them of being “soft” on law enforcement, while local police departments can be uncomfortable when clergy come to them with concerns or criticism.

Bishop Bowser said he has spoken with police officers who came to neighborhoods with the best of intentions, only to have their morale diminished when some residents flash their middle finger or shout obscenities.

But he encouraged law enforcement officers to try to understand “why these folks feel that way.” He explained that the officers are coming into communities that feel “over-policed” and encountering people who feel they are “constantly being stopped” by police. As a religious leader who enjoys a positive interaction with law enforcement, he said, even he wonders at times when he is pulled over whether it’s “a legitimate stop” or an instance of racial profiling.

Chula Vista, California, Police Chief Roxana Kennedy told those gathered for the kickoff event that her department encourages its officers to consider the point of view of the people with whom they interact. She suggested that religious leaders and community members do the same.

“I’d like to also challenge you to put yourself in the shoes of the officers and think about some of the challenges that these officers face today,” she said, acknowledging that they might be “on edge at times” because they must quickly determine whether there is a threat to their lives.

She added that newer officers might not have the experience that older officers have in making these judgments.

“What I really am going to take away from this,” Kennedy said, “is that we’re all in this together and that we can all make a difference if we’re willing to try.”


Grasska is is assistant editor of The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.