Police Relies on Help of God Squad

( [email protected] ) Jan 03, 2004 12:44 PM EST

Who does the police in St. Paul know call on for back-up when crimes scenes get out of control? While many Christians would call on the name of Jesus in their times of trouble, St. Paul cops call the God Squad to the rescue.

"Without the God Squad the body count would be higher," said Cmdr. John Harrington of the St. Paul Police Department. "They've saved my behind."

Started in the late 1990's, the God Squad is a group of ministers who help police maintain peace at crime scenes and neighborhood gang conflicts. What began in the Summit-University area of St. Paul, is a now a full-time job for the ministers who try in any way to prevent violence from happening. They walk the streets, talk at high school events and even speak to mothers of gangbangers.

Last year, when police hard difficulty dealing with a turf war between two gangs, the God Squad eased the situation by visiting the moms of the involved gangsters.

Harrington said, "They talked to the moms and said, with some legitimacy, 'We don't want to bury your sons.' "

The God Squad has become such a vital part of resolving police confrontations with violence that sometimes God Squad gets the first call.

"There are times when the police will call us out and say, 'Why don't you guys handle this,' " said the Rev. Divar Kemp of the Greater Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church on Dale Street in the Summit-University neighborhood.

Harrington was the one who coined the name "God Squad" and officiated the relationship when he gave them raid jackets with "God Squad" printed on the back. He says the main reason for the jackets was the saftey of the ministers. "We wanted something so they would be easily recognizable if they go into a hot zone."

The group has been able to help outside of St. Paul and helped break up a large gang fight at a Maplewood hockey arena last month.

"That's a very important message that comes not just from the Police Department but also from a respected member of the community," said Officer Paul Schnell. "I can . . . rely on their leadership and their standing in the community."

Although the ministers of the God Squad do not investigate crimes, they have been able to contribute to help resolve them.

Homicide Cmdr. Nancy DiPerna said, "They've been real valuable in getting people to come in and cooperate," said DiPerna, who stresses that the ministers do not investigate crimes.

Last year, the team was able to help turn in a murder suspect. Police were searching for Jason Dixon, who was suspected of stabbing his cousin in a fight. Because Dixon knew about that the God Squad ministers lived in his neighborhood, he turned himself to them first.

"J.D. was too afraid to turn himself in to the police, so he turned himself in to us and we brought him in," said the Rev. Darryl Spence.

In December 2001, the recognition of the God Squad ministers among the community grew when Chief William Finney took Spence pass the yellow police tape to get the news of the incident firsthand from Spence. The situation involved a police officer who shot a civilian by mistake as the civilian was struggling for a gun from a carjacker.

"They have credibility in the community and they have credibility with us," said Harrington.

Concerns loom from Finney's retirement this summer, because the new chief may hold different views about civilian participation in police affairs.

Nonetheless, Harrington sees the possibility of starting God Squad in other police districts. He also has hopes for God Squad starting in Minneapolis where Police Chief William McManus, known for his reaching out to the community, will succeed Police Chief Robert Olson.

"The difference, if you ask me, is that their mayor doesn't listen to them, their chief doesn't listen to them," Kemp said. "Our chief listens to us. But that was earned."