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Good policing requires solidarity with the community

To be a police officer is to stand present with people in the midst of their hardest times, says Yale Chief of Police Anthony Campbell.
Peace & Justice

“When people ask me what I do, I don’t tell them I’m a police officer,” says Anthony Campbell, chief of police of Yale University. “I tell them that I’m a cop. Police officer is a title, a role that most people understand, but I understand my vocation as a cop—‘Christian on patrol.’ ”

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Anthony Campbell is chief of police of Yale University and the former chief of police of New Haven, Connecticut. He is also a lecturer at Yale Divinity School.

Campbell, an alumnus of both Yale University and Yale Divinity School and the former chief of police for the city of New Haven, Connecticut, at one time wanted to become a Jesuit. He may not have been ordained, but he still describes his work as one of ministry and accompaniment. For Campbell, his master of divinity degree makes him a better police officer while his decades of police work make him a better minister to both the communities he serves and the other officers he now leads.

For Campbell, these one-on-one relationships are the key to successful policing work. “Just as clergy will have these one-on-one relationships, whether with members of their congregation or members of the community, that’s the goal for [police officers] too,” he says. “And the more we do it, the more we develop.” He has the statistics to back it up, too: In 2011 there were 34 homicides and 268 people shot in the city of New Haven. In 2016 Campbell became chief of police in New Haven and started ramping up his community policing program. By 2017 there were only seven homicides and 50 shootings in the city—the lowest in New Haven’s recorded history.

Today Campbell teaches a class to other aspiring religious leaders at Yale Divinity School. Called “The Changing Face of Community-Police-Ministry Relations in the Twenty-First Century,” the class focuses on the importance of community policing and how clergy serve as an important touchpoint for police in making relationships with community members and discerning the needs of the community.

Can you talk a little bit about your vocation as both a police officer and minister?

I was born in Harlem, New York and lived there with my parents until I was 18. My father, unfortunately, was a drug dealer, and my mother was a New York City corrections officer. There was this polarization: my mom working in the prison system, my dad selling drugs in the neighborhood.

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My dad always told me up front, “You’re smart. I want you to stay in school. If I ever catch you in the street, I’m going to kill you.” I knew that he meant it. I was always very active in school and in my church community. I went to All Saints School in Harlem and was raised by the Sisters of Mercy, so I came to love the Catholic faith. Then I went to Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, New York, which is a Jesuit all-boys school, where I decided that I wanted to be a Jesuit priest.

Then, in 1991, I came to Yale University as an undergraduate. In 1992 God in God’s infinite wisdom introduced me to a beautiful, green-eyed Jamaican woman in Bible study. She has been my wife for 23 years now, and when I fell in love with her, I said, “Well, I’m not going to be a Jesuit priest. So what am I going to do?”

I ultimately decided that I wanted to do something in law enforcement because of my mom. I thought maybe I’d go into prison ministry, because whenever my dad went to jail, he seemed to get right with God. But then he would come back to the community where he was engaged in drug sales, and slowly but surely he would get involved in that again. He never connected with a community of faith on the outside.

But my mother said to me, “When you’re working in jail, it’s like you’re doing a bid yourself. Maybe you should do something up front that can stop people from getting into jail.” A couple weeks after I had that conversation with her, I saw a poster on the side of a bus in New Haven that was recruiting police officers. It showed an African American woman in uniform and said, “Police others as you would have others police you.” That rang true to me and eventually led me to community policing, which in turn led me to the New Haven Police Department.

For me, policing is a vocation. I live out my Christian faith while wearing this uniform and helping people when they are at their most vulnerable and in one of the worst situations of their life. It is a ministry. It is very similar to being a minister of the faith of Jesus Christ. You are bringing good news to people and helping lift them out of some really dire situations. And if nothing else, hopefully you bring with you the love of God and help people in a way that others may not want to.

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Why did you decide you needed more formal training in ministry after becoming a police officer?

I joined the New Haven Police Department in 1998 and entered a master’s program at Yale Divinity School in 2002. In this job you experience a lot of death, a lot of pain, and a lot of suffering. Outside of the legal aspects of trying to make arrests, gather information, and determine if there’s probable cause, you need to know how to connect with people. I discovered that many of my courses at Yale Divinity School helped me to do just that—courses such as “Death and Dying” taught you how to be compassionate and how to touch people where they are. Others talked about people who have mental illnesses and addressed the breakdown of the mind and how that affects the soul and the spirit.

I went to divinity school to get more education so that I could meet the needs of the community I was serving, but I found that I primarily use what I learned administering to the officers I oversee. Officers experience stress in a way that many people don’t. They have the highest level of suicide outside of the military. They have the highest level of divorce of any profession other than actors. And they have a life expectancy 22 years less than most people. My ministerial training helps me meet the needs of people who really need not only spiritual guidance but also emotional guidance as they deal with difficult situations. I can help them navigate their family and work lives and just make it through this career.

Do you have an example of when you felt like those two strands of your vocation came together really well?

When I was a sergeant in the New Haven Police Department, I was assigned to the detail room. Everyone knew of my spiritual background: Officers came to me for spiritual advice and counseling. I had performed wedding ceremonies for officers. I got a call from my lieutenant, who said, “We need you at Yale New Haven Hospital.” One of the captains in our department, Joanne Peterson, was at work doing overtime. She had four children, one of whom was autistic and very attracted to water. The babysitter had lost track of this 4-year-old child. She called the police. By the time they found him, he had made it into the neighbor’s yard and was in the pool. He had drowned.

When I got the call, he was at the hospital on life support. So I went to the hospital to comfort and console my captain. We met in the chapel of Yale New Haven Hospital, and I sat and prayed with her while she held my hand and wept.

At one point, she said to me, “My child is going to die. I know he is going to die. How am I going to move forward with my child gone?” I replied, “God is here right now with you. He’s with your child. He’s with you no matter what happens. God loves you, and he will be with you every step of the way in this process, and so will I.”

To me, that is when those two worlds come together. As a police officer, I’ve had to bear bad news to people many times. And when I do so, I bring more than just my police training: I bring a compassion and grace that only comes from God. Hopefully, I am able to bestow upon people my presence, prayer, and comfort and bring them a peace that truly does surpass understanding.

What do you want clergy and other religious folk to know about policing?

I teach a class at Yale Divinity School about policing in the 21st century and the importance of community policing and clergy collaboration. Much of what the clergy does is so similar to what law enforcement does. We both represent the law. The clergy may be the Law with a capital L, while the police represent the law with a lowercase L. We both swear an oath before God that we will serve all members of the community no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation. And we are meeting people most of the time while they are at an inflection point.

My course tries to help students—most of whom are ultimately going into some form of ministry—to understand that it is incumbent upon them to contact their local police department and to influence policing as a whole. My goal is to show them that clergy can be a bridge between the community and the police that otherwise may not exist in many communities. And that they can help law enforcement to do community policing with the community rather than to the community.

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I require students to do a ride along with law enforcement to understand not just the theoretical aspects of policing but to see it for themselves. I ask them to talk with the officer they’re riding with and to ask them questions about their spiritual journey if spirituality plays a role in how they do policing. I want them to see that the person behind the uniform is a human being. I think that interplay has led many students to understand policing and many of the police officers to understand the clergy in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.

What is community policing?

The true success of community policing is really about helping officers have as many tools and points of connection as they can with the community so that they can provide resources and be a resource. Just as clergy will have these one-on-one relationships, whether with members of their congregation or members of the community, that’s the goal for us too. And the more we do it, the more we develop. Community policing is based on people knowing their police officer. One of the things I would always tell officers when I was the chief in New Haven and that I tout here at Yale University is that people do not want to call the anonymous police department. They want to call someone they know. They want to call their police officer.

What I’ve learned over the last 25 years is that you have to think outside the box and meet people where they are. You have to use whatever tools you have available to connect with people, whether it is a therapy dog like we have here at Yale, whether it is body cameras so that people know that they’re going to be safe because your interaction with them is being recorded, or whether it is business cards for each officer so people can call them directly. We have community engagement officers who don’t respond to calls but whose sole responsibility is to go out and engage the community to find out what people need, whether that’s coats for their kids, food, or turkeys at Thanksgiving. Whatever tools you use, true community policing is a ministry of connecting to people.

I think that any police chief worth their salt will tell you this: Ninety percent of policing has nothing to do with law enforcement. Instead, it’s responding and listening to issues that people have. Most of the time the issues aren’t even criminal. They’re things like, “My neighbor is driving me crazy with that loud music. Someone’s blocking my parking space so I can’t get out of my driveway. A dog is pooping on my lawn.” It’s not about crime as much as it is helping people increase their quality of life and overall sense of safety and well-being. That’s what we’re really called to do. I think if we focus on that and really dedicate ourselves to it, that’s when people really connect with us and have great respect for us. They need to know that we’re there for them. We’re here to help them and make sure that they get through their days and that they have a resource that is literally a phone call or text away.

When you arrive on a call, you do not want to make the situation worse, so you have to understand who you’re dealing with. We’ve been teaching these officers for years the history of policing in this country so they know that if you are dealing with a marginalized community such as a Black and brown community or the LGBTQ community, you have to understand their history with law enforcement and why they may view you a certain way. You have to understand that you may have to overcome some obstacles, one of which may be your very uniform. And once you have a connection, you have to foster it, you have to nurture it and maintain it so that in the future people know they can reach out to you and you know that you are part of that community as well. Community policing is really about teaching your officers how to connect with people.

We have a monthly clergy meeting where we ask how we’re doing and what the concerns of the community are that maybe they’re hearing but we’re not. We ask them to share with the community some of the things we’re doing and thinking about doing and see if it’s something community members are open to. Clergy become a bridge and sounding board to bring us together. I think this approach can work anywhere, no matter how big or how rural the community may be.

Can you give an example of a time when clergy and police came together for community policing?

When I was the chief of police for the city of New Haven, we had a violence-interruption program. We identified the individuals who were involved in gangs, cliques, or groups that may be involved in drug sales or violence and worked with probation and parole to bring the individuals whom we identified as those most likely to be shooters and those most likely to be shot. We worked with clergy to do what’s called a “customized notification.” A police officer, member of the clergy, and social worker would go to each individual’s home before anything happened, knock on the door, and have a conversation with them and their family members. We would basically tell them, “We care about you, and this community cannot thrive without you being a part of it. Your family can’t thrive if you are in jail or in the ground.”

After that, we offered them services, whether helping them get a job, further their education, whatever they needed medically or otherwise. Then, we would bring each person we visited together as a group and show them pictures of them hanging out with their groups, sometimes involved in criminal activity. We showed them that we see what they’re doing, but this is not about arresting them or charging them: It is about showing them that we care.

I, as the police chief, would get up in front of these young men, most of whom were Black or Latino. I told them that I’m raising three Black men myself in this community, and they cannot thrive, they cannot truly be safe if the men in front of me are not safe. I told them that, as their police chief, I work for them, and I want to keep them safe. I told them that they are here because they’re a person of influence. And I would say to them, “As your police chief, I care about you. I love each and every one of you, and I want to see you thrive.”

Since that program started in 2012, we have seen a significant reduction in the number of shootings and homicides. Few of the people we brought in and had that customized conversation with were shot, murdered, became shooters, or continued in their criminal activity.

You are the second Black chief of police at Yale. How does this affect your work?

We all bring our personal experiences to our leadership. For me as a Black man who grew up in Harlem, and came to New Haven 31 years ago, my perspective, especially when it comes to law enforcement, is different perhaps than those of my white counterparts in leadership. When I look at police interactions, I’m always from the standpoint of, “Are the officers on the scene cognizant of whom they’re dealing with? Do they know they need to go that extra mile to make sure people understand that the officers are there for them?”

You are going to deal differently with a person of color, whether on campus or directly in the New Haven community, than with someone who is not a person of color. You’re going to deal with someone who is part of the LGBTQ community differently. You have to be cognizant of these things. You have to be cognizant of your language and your body language. You have to understand where people are coming from and what you may represent to people. To some people, you represent safety and security. To other people, you may represent fear and possibly harm, death, or persecution. And even though that’s not who we represent as police officers, especially not as police officers at Yale University, that’s the reality for some.

As a Black man, every day I walk around in this uniform understanding that yes, I’m a police officer and this uniform may bring comfort to some and pain to others, but I’m always Black first. I’m always first perceived as a Black man. I’m constantly trying to improve the tools, training, and resources that we have to connect to the community and to make sure our officers are as educated and as compassionate as possible.

How do you, as a Black chief of police, stand present with the Black community while they mourn the killing of an unarmed Black person by police, for example?

I put aside my role as a police officer and adopt my role as a human being. When I was chief of police in New Haven, I went to every homicide victim’s funeral. Whether that unarmed Black man or woman was shot by another member of the community or by a fellow police officer, a family and community are hurting. As a police leader, you don’t do your department and community justice if you don’t attend, if you don’t stand in mourning with that community.

I think some might have the mindset, “Well, if I do that, I’ll lose the confidence of the women and men in my department.” I don’t believe that to be true: The women and men of the department understand that there will be a criminal and administrative investigation after a shooting and that the police officer involved will be held accountable. That does not change the fact that a member of the community has been taken from that community. If the officer winds up being justified in the shooting, it doesn’t change the fact that the community is still hurting. So as a police leader you stand with that community and mourn with them.

Before I’m a police chief, I’m a human being. That could have been my son or daughter, that could have been a member of my family, and so I stand with families, mourn with them, and seek justice, whether or not it was a police officer who was involved in the shooting.

When I was the chief in New Haven, we had four police officer–involved shootings. I always went to the scene. I always went and spoke to the community. Ultimately, all four were found to be justified shootings. But that didn’t matter: My very presence resonated with the community, because it wasn’t saying, “No comment right now. I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.” Someone has been shot by a police officer.

Our role most of the time in this country is to serve and protect. And if something bad has happened where we are the ones who wound up using deadly force against a member of the community, we have to stand with that community. We have to be accountable. We have to say, “Yes, there will be a formal investigation, but here’s what I know. Here’s what we’re doing. We see your pain, we acknowledge your pain, and we feel that pain too. We’re going to stand with you throughout this entire process.”

When you do that, it increases your credibility with the community, because people see that you’re really about what you say you’re about. If police officers are really about serving and protecting the community, then it has to be about serving and protecting the entirety of the community, not just serving and protecting unless we’re the ones who did the shooting. No, we serve and protect the entirety of the community no matter what’s going on.

So much of your job seems to be about not looking away. Just taking on some of people’s pain and not looking away.

Absolutely. Part of our role is to not look away when there is pain, even if we were the ones who caused the pain. We cannot look away, whether we were the ones who caused that initial pain or whether we represent others who may have caused the pain.

I think that when people see that we’re cognizant of their pain and willing to not look away, it helps them understand that, first and foremost, we are human beings who understand the larger picture of who we are and what we represent and that we will stand firm no matter how great the pain. We will hold their hands. We will be present on the scene, at the hospital, and at the funeral. We will help them get through this.

And we aren’t just present at the moment. We want to check in on you. We want you to be able to commemorate anniversaries. We want to be there during court cases where the person who killed your child is up for probation or parole. We want to stand present with you throughout this entire process; this is not just a transactional issue. We are members of the community who stand with the community and who will not look away no matter how devastating the scene may be. We know that by not looking away, it is transforming and altering our souls, but that’s what we’ve sworn to do, and that’s OK. We know that it is taking its toll on our mental health, it’s taking its toll on our bodies, and that we’re making a sacrifice.

But as a person of faith, I stick to the words that Jesus said. He said that no greater love has a man than that he lay down his life for his friends. Laying down your life doesn’t always mean you take a bullet for someone. Laying down your life can also mean that you don’t look away, that you stand with the community as it’s hurting, that you feel it affecting your soul or feel it affecting your mind and you don’t look away nonetheless, so you can help the community be strong and move forward. I think that’s how we are: That’s the true greatness and the source of our strength. 


This article also appears in the January 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 1, pages 16-21). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: istock.com/kali9