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Few police officers are religion experts. That can create big problems

Pope Francis is greeted by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey as he arrives at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. Susan Walsh, Associated Press
A woman leaves the Islamic Cultural Center of New York under increased police security following the shooting in New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019, in New York. Mark Lennihan, Associated Press
New York City police stand guard outside St. Patrick's Cathedral prior to the arrival of Pope Francis in New York, Thursday Sept. 24, 2015. Damon Winter, Associated Press
Pittsburgh Police officer Sarah Pratt gets a hug before a Shabbat morning worship service led by Rabbi Chuck Diamond outside the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY โ€” Imagine seeing a group of men walking down your usually quiet street on a Friday evening. Should you be scared?

Maybe. But it's possible they're observant Jews who don't drive during their Sabbath.

Imagine knocking on someone's door and not getting an answer for a few minutes. Should you be suspicious?

Maybe. But it's possible she's a Muslim woman who needed to adjust her headscarf before meeting a stranger.

Imagine initiating a handshake with someone only to have them refuse. Should you be offended?

Maybe. But it's possible their religion discourages contact with members of the opposite sex.

A woman leaves the Islamic Cultural Center of New York under increased police security following the shooting in New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019, in New York.

Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

A woman leaves the Islamic Cultural Center of New York under increased police security following the shooting in New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019, in New York.

In each of these scenarios, confusion or concern would be understandable, since few Americans are religion experts. However, if you're a police officer, such confusion could lead you to insult or harm the people you're supposed to protect by interfering with a religious act or disregarding their concerns about discrimination.

That's why law enforcement and faith leaders alike are interested in boosting the religious literacy of America's cops. Across the country, they're teaming up to hold training sessions, host meet-and-greets and have some tough conversations. While these sessions are mostly happening on the local level, some national faith groups have published educational guides in order to expand access to training on religion.

Police officers need to understand the communities they serve in order to do their jobs well, said Rabbi Melanie Aron, who leads Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California, and took part in two police training events there last week.

"It's important for officers to understand cultural sensitivities," she said. "If you understand them, they don't have to create bad feelings."

John DeCarlo, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven who previously served as a police officer for 34 years, agrees with Rabbi Aron. But he says more dramatic action will be required in order to get everyone on board.

"There's not a lot of thought given by a rank-and-file officer to what we're talking about," he said.

Misunderstanding religion

Religion-related training sessions for police officers are part of a broader push to increase the cultural competency of law enforcement personnel, DeCarlo said. As America grows more racially, religiously and ethnically diverse, community leaders are trying to make up for โ€” and avoid repeating โ€” past mistakes.

"As a colleague of mine said recently, we shouldn't be training people to be cops and carry guns and badges without exposing them to other cultures," he said.

But police departments often do, DeCarlo added. Training programs for new officers typically spend much less time on community relations and communication skills than field exercises and legal procedures. Cops may not take part in discussions of faith-related challenges until long after they've been sworn in, he said.

In the absence of formal training on religion, police officers are more likely to take cues from harmful stereotypes, such as that Islam encourages terrorism. Muslims are often wary of any interaction with the police, even when they're in need of help, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

"You have to warn your children about that," he said.

A lack of religious knowledge can lead police officers to make unfair assumptions about members of minority faiths, said Nirvair Singh, who volunteers with the Sikh Coalition to raise awareness about his religious community. It can also make it harder for them to understand why certain crimes are especially offensive.

"Having no knowledge of the Sikh articles of faith, an officer may not understand the gravity of the situation when an article is forcibly removed or taken away," he said.

New York City police stand guard outside St. Patrick's Cathedral prior to the arrival of Pope Francis in New York, Thursday Sept. 24, 2015.

Damon Winter, Associated Press

New York City police stand guard outside St. Patrick's Cathedral prior to the arrival of Pope Francis in New York, Thursday Sept. 24, 2015.

Similarly, police officers who haven't taken part in a faith-related training session might not recognize that smearing pig blood on a mosque or hanging bacon from its door handles is not just a random act, but rather mocks Muslims' belief that pork is impure, said Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of the Islamic Networks Group, which has led trainings for dozens of police departments and agencies in California and across the United States since 1996.

"Dialogue between law enforcement and (faith) communities is sorely needed in light of escalating hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs and Jews," she said.

The goal of faith-related training sessions is to get that dialogue started. Religious leaders offer an overview of what police officers should know about their faith groups and leave lots of time for additional questions.

"Our trainings are designed to be a two-way conversation where the community and the police feel understood, respected and supported," Elgenaidi said.

In Los Gatos last week, Rabbi Aron spoke about Jewish practices that often confuse non-Jews, including police officers. She explained that people who observe the Sabbath don't drive from Friday evening to Saturday evening, which may lead to a surprising amount of foot traffic in their neighborhoods during that time frame.

Even basic presentations like that can dramatically improve the relationship between faith groups and police departments, Rabbi Aron said.

"It's much better to have these conversations beforehand and not in the middle of a crisis," she said.

First steps

Although cultural competency training is gaining traction, many obstacles stand in the way of widespread acceptance, DeCarlo said.

As he noted, few police departments make time for much communication training in their orientation programs. Those that do see value in community engagement often assign efforts to a single person or team.

Pittsburgh Police officer Sarah Pratt gets a hug before a Shabbat morning worship service led by Rabbi Chuck Diamond outside the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

Pittsburgh Police officer Sarah Pratt gets a hug before a Shabbat morning worship service led by Rabbi Chuck Diamond outside the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh.

Additionally, ad hoc discussions on religion, race or ethnicity may fall on deaf ears if the police officers participating are burned out or overwhelmed by their duties, DeCarlo said.

"Officers are very often disrespected. Their interactions with people are not pleasant," he said.

Perhaps most importantly, police departments typically operate independently of one another, DeCarlo said. It's difficult to spark a nationwide culture change when you have to do it one city at a time.

"How do we get one message out to change the culture of policing?" he asked.

Rather than trying to solve all these obstacles at once, supporters and leaders of religion-related training sessions are focused on doing the best they can right now.

The Islamic Networks Group recently won a grant from the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to support police trainings and hopes to cover about 20% of the departments in the state with the funding, Elgenaidi said.

DeCarlo and the criminal justice department at the University of New Haven have organized classes on how to police fragile communities and address racial bias. In the future, professors may require students to study abroad and expose themselves to other cultures.

"We are trying to educate students about the diversity of the environment they will be working in when they're on the street," DeCarlo said.

Rabbi Aron knows that meeting with police officers in her community won't solve every potential faith-related problem. However, she's glad to be part of even a small step in the right direction.

"Building relationships will make the biggest difference. (Training sessions) are the first step into the water," she said.