When a teenager was arrested for a theft he didn’t commit, Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay called the God Squad.
The parents and teenagers were “highly upset,” according to the Rev. Richard Woods, pastor of North Ash Church of the Nazarene. Yet members of the God Squad and other activists opened the door to the family meeting with the police.
During that meeting, the arresting officer apologized to the young man.
“Once they had met and talked it over, the parents were so much impacted by the fact that the chief was concerned about their feelings and about their mindset,” Woods said.
The “God Squad” is a group of black religious leaders who’ve met regularly with the Wichita Police Department to train, share information and build relationships.
Their goal is to act as a calming voice if tense situations arise and to help mediate between community members and the police.
“In the African-American community the church is the heartbeat of it,” said the Rev. Roosevelt DeShazer, pastor of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. “If people want to find out what’s going on, want to find some kind of consolation, some help or answers to questions, the church has always been the center.”
The God Squad was one of the first projects Ramsay took on after being named chief of police in January 2016.
Sgt. Bart Brunscheen said Ramsay made one thing clear to him when as he developed the God Squad: That the squad doesn’t work for the police department. Rather, it is its own group that works with the police department.
“The chief is smart enough, he recognized the power of a black minister in a black community,” said the Rev. Carl Kirkendoll, pastor of Bethany Missionary Baptist Church.
The group developed as there was intense unrest due to the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Apostle Marilyn Shaw of Greater Works Ministries said the group has already helped the community feel less anxiety regarding the police, while also helping the police department understand the community’s concerns.
“I think it’s very important that the people in the community see us working together with the police,” she said. “Just being a voice in the community has impacted this area.”
While no major incidents have occurred in Wichita since the God Squad’s beginning, the group has been at work. It began to form after Ramsay arrived in Wichita, but solidified around a picnic with Black Lives Matter protesters and members of the police department.
Kirkendoll and Woods said the pastors are able to help the police stop gang violence and recruitment. In some cases, gang members and former gang members have told the pastors things they wouldn’t tell the police, allowing the God Squad to convey that information.
“We’re working together to try to see what we can do to reduce violence, to ensure that when we do have tragedies in our community that as a police department we’re being considerate of families and the community,” Ramsay said. “They help us with that, help us ensure we are considerate, up to standards on how we interact and treat families that are victims as well as those that are suspects.”
Brunscheen said the squad is often called in to help with potentially tense meetings, meetings held on the street in a neighborhood that has experienced a significant incident like a drive-by shooting. People in the neighborhood are able to get information directly from police and ask questions, often with the God Squad on hand.
The relationship between the pastors and the police has had other effects.
Once, when the son of a church member was arrested and his family didn’t know where he’d been taken, Kirkendoll called the people he knew in the police department. They found out the man had been arrested by a different agency, allowing the mother to find out what had happened to her son.
At a meeting before Christmas, one pastor asked a question about a recent shooting. The group also discussed human trafficking and a citizen advisory board that is being formed. Ramsay told the pastors he wants the board to include representation of groups that have traditionally distrusted the police, including people of color.
Kirkendoll said the God Squad offers solutions to problems. The squad recently told Ramsay that young men were getting numerous tickets for infractions like broken headlights that they couldn’t afford to fix. Eventually, they were losing their licenses, making them unable to go to work or job interviews.
After hearing from the squad, Ramsay started a program to help the drivers, Kirkendoll said.
The group, which consists of six to eight African-American pastors, is also open to people of other races.
Although still new, the God Squad hopes to diffuse situations before they escalate, while continuing to learn more about the police department and convey accurate information to their communities.
“We believe in what we do, and we’re behind it 100 percent,” Woods said. “Our belief is that it’s going to grow, going to get better, going to get bigger and going to have a greater impact.”