- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

They are like military chaplains — only they attend to the families of those killed on D.C. streets.

They are 28 local pastors and other church volunteers with the newly formed Clergy Response Team, who are among the first to be called by emergency operators when someone is killed in the city’s 6th and 7th police districts — where most of the city’s homicides occur.

The pastors and volunteers go to crime scenes with police to comfort the families of homicide victims, help them mourn their loss and, if asked, raise money to give the survivors a chance to give their loved ones a proper funeral.

“The Clergy Response Team is really an asset to the police department because it opens another entry door that can give folks a sense of faith that there is a brighter day ahead,” said police Sgt. Darrell Best, who often works with the team. “We’ve had programs, but sometimes programs don’t work. … Prayer makes a difference.”

The Clergy Response Team is an independent program started about a year ago by the East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership, a network of ministers working to curb crime in the District. The team seeks to include clergy of all faiths, but so far, only Christian clergy are involved.

The team is the first of its kind in the metropolitan area and one of fewer than a dozen in major cities throughout the country.

“The concept was to get the church behind the law,” said the Rev. Donald L. Isaac, a minister at Southeast Tabernacle Baptist Church and executive director of the partnership. “We encourage clergy to do that because it gives us a chance to meet cops and know where the hangouts are. It also allows us to help secondary victims of homicide.”

“We work with the police, not for the police,” said the Rev. La Verne Harley of New Testament Ministries in Temple Hills, manager of the response team.

Although there is a family liaison division affiliated with the Metropolitan Police Department, the Clergy Response Team “has more flexibility because we are clergy,” she said. “Families can confide in us.”

On any night, a member of the response team joins an officer on his or her shift or waits to be notified through the police department’s communications division.

As soon as word comes that a homicide has occurred, a pastor or church volunteer is called to the scene. If a member of the team is not immediately available, someone will be in touch with the victim’s family within 24 hours.

Mr. Isaac said praying and comforting families of homicide victims often prevent crimes of retaliation — a vicious cycle that officials say has plagued neighborhoods in Southeast for generations.

As of July, there were 112 homicides in the city this year, 25 of them in the 6th District and 30 in the 7th District, according to preliminary police statistics.

Members of the response team mostly work in the 6th and 7th police districts, but can respond to homicides in all seven of the city’s districts.

“It helps the community on a whole,” Sgt. Best said. “Because when there is a homicide, the community is in an uproar, and sometimes you need that person that represents God to step in and bring the community from an uproar situation to a calm, cool and collected one of ‘What needs to be done?’ ”

As an example, Sgt. Best referred to the Feb. 2 slaying of 17-year-old James Richardson, a student at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast who was fatally shot near the school cafeteria. The shooting was tied to a long-running feud between two neighborhoods.

Sgt. Best said clergy led the school staff and police in prayer before authorities met with parents about the slaying. The clergy then prayed with parents and students after they learned about the slaying.

“Prayer was needed, and prayer was exercised,” Sgt. Best said. “Police could have prayed. The school superintendent could have prayed. But it was more appropriate to have the church represented there at that time of need.”

The response team offers victims more than prayer, however.

Outside the yellow tape at a crime scene, volunteers seek out family members and offer them whatever comfort and support they can days and months after the crime occurs.

They provide a packet of information explaining victim’s rights and how to work with police. If asked, they can help the deceased’s family organize a candlelight vigil and arrange a funeral.

Members say prayer is always needed.

“There has not been one time where I have gone into [a] house and said, ‘Do you all need prayer?’ and they have not said, ‘Yes, please,’ ” said Essie Bowman, a case manager for a nonprofit called Teen Moms who volunteers with the team. “There has never been a time where people have said, ‘No.’ ”

The church-police partnership, which initiated the response team, was designed to replicate a program in Boston known as the “10 Point Plan” that helped dramatically reduce youth crime.

Miss Harley said ministers in other D.C. police districts are looking to start similar initiatives.

Although the team was formed with the intent of sending pastors and other clergymen to the homicide scenes, the group found it difficult to recruit enough Christian ministers — let alone Jewish and Muslim clergy or volunteers.

“We call it Clergy Response, but oftentimes the pastors are too busy,” Mr. Isaac said. “So we opened it up to people of faith.”

Mrs. Bowman, of Northwest, is not a minister, but she knows how to comfort and work with victims’ families.

Mrs. Bowman can relate to tragedy: In the past two months she responded to four homicides and knew each victim.

“When I volunteered to work with Clergy Response, I never thought that [the work] would be of this magnitude,” she said, adding that she prays that no one will be killed while she is on call.

Police sound grateful for the assistance.

“The church should never have sat down,” Sgt. Best said. “But the Clergy Response Team and the church are on the right road now.”

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