The Lord has blessed me with many experiences in my life -- experiences that I believe have prepared me to serve Him as a street preacher. One of those experiences is a 20-year career as a deputy sheriff for Los Angeles County (the largest sheriff’s department in the world). Having retired almost six years ago from my career in law enforcement, I now serve the Lord full-time as a street preacher. In this article, I will share my experience as a law enforcement professional and a street preacher in order to provide some practical tips for interacting with law enforcement on the streets.
Police vs. Security--Understanding the Difference
Police (law enforcement) officers represent the government (local, county, state, or federal). Security officers represent private businesses and individuals. Police officers enforce laws. Security officers enforce policies and respond to criminal activity on their assigned property. Security can detain individuals suspected of crimes on the private property where they work. Police officers are included in the “governing authorities” mentioned in Romans 13:1-5. Security officers are not. In most jurisdictions, security officers have no more, and no less, authority to detain a person than a private citizen (check the laws of your state).
Police powers are limited only by law and jurisdiction. Security officer powers are limited to specific private property, which may or may not be open to the public. Security officers have no more authority than a private citizen on public property, even if that public property is immediately adjacent to the private property to which the security officer is assigned.
Do Your Homework
Ascertain if the area in which you are going to conduct street preaching activities is public or private property. Contact local government agencies such as parks and recreation, public works, and traffic, for clarification regarding public property areas. When street preaching, pick an area on public property so that if a crowd gathers it will not impede the free flow of pedestrian and/or vehicle traffic. Check for local ordinances that may lawfully regulate aspects of free speech exercise (i.e., amplification, certain size displays, etc). Check with secular organizations who may have also used the area you are considering for free speech activities. Did their activities require any permits? Were their activities ever impeded by law enforcement?
Demeanor with Private Security
Know and understand any written policy a mall, shopping center, or other private business has regarding the time, place, and manner of free speech exercise. Security officers are often young, zealous, and do not understand the First Amendment as it applies to private property accessible to the public. Most security officers misunderstand the definition of key terms, such as “soliciting.” If/when contacted by private security and asked to stop distributing material or engaging people in conversation, ask if your activities are a violation of law.
Steps to follow when interacting with private security:
- If a favorable resolution cannot be reached with the security officer, ask to speak to his or her supervisor.
- If a favorable resolution cannot be reached with the security supervisor, ask to speak to a manager of the business.
- If a favorable resolution cannot be reached with the business manager, ask the manager to contact the police.
- Be polite and respectful, but persevere!
In most jurisdictions, private security can lawfully detain an individual if he or she has probable cause to believe that the detainee has committed a crime (i.e., shoplifting, burglary, etc). On the other hand, private security cannot lawfully detain an individual for a simple violation of mall or shopping center policy. If you elect to submit to the security officer’s or manager’s request, do not return to the mall for at least 24 hours.
Demeanor with Police Officers
A favorable outcome when contacted by a police officer is less about being right and more about being wise and diplomatic. Unfortunately, many people talk their way into jail, not out of jail. Attitude is everything. You will never win an argument with an officer; but you can win an officer to your point of view through calm, reasoned, and respectful dialogue. Police officers, by and large, want to resolve public disturbances peacefully. In situations involving simple disturbances, an officer would prefer to resolve the situation without using force or making an arrest.
Posture With Police Officers
Keep your hands out of your pockets and in plain view. Try not to talk with your hands, make any sudden movements, or make movements the officer may perceive as furtive.
You should avoid:
- Turning your back on an officer.
- Reaching into a box, pouch, or backpack without the officer's knowledge and/or permission.
- Using the term "cop" or any variation of that word.
- Debating an officer in a group setting.
- Placing the officer in a position where he has to assert his authority to control a crowd.
- Placing the officer in a position where she has to save face in front of a crowd.
Refer to police officers as “officer,” and refer to deputy sheriffs as “deputy.” Avoid using the term “cop” when talking to law enforcement professionals. To officers in some areas, the word “cop” is a derogatory or disrespectful term, particularly when used by those outside the law enforcement family.
Be respectful even if you feel that the officer is not being respectful to you.
You will not win a sinful, prideful, war of words with an officer. Nor should you want to. Anyone can get arrested. It’s not difficult. The smart street preacher (at least in present day America) is the one who remains out of jail, evangelizing the lost.
When interacting with a police officer you should:
- Submit to the officer's reasonable orders.
- Use an inquisitive tone of voice, not an argumentative tone.
- Be respectful, but persevere!
If an officer orders you to stop street preaching or distributing tracts, respectfully ask what law(s) you have violated. If the officer cannot or will not cite a specific penal code or municipal code section, respectfully ask why you must stop your activities if you are not in violation of the law. Respectfully explain to the officer that you are exercising your freedom/right to express your strongly held religious beliefs, in a public place. If the officer persists in ordering you to stop, respectfully ask to speak to the officer’s supervisor. Explain to the officer that the purpose of your request is clarification, not accusation or complaint. If the officer refuses to summon his or her supervisor, then you may have to cease your activities for the time being, or you can allow the officer to arrest you without incident.
If Resolution Can Not Be Found with an Officer
If you are unable to reach a favorable resolution at the scene, and you opt not to go to jail, respectfully ask for the officer’s name and badge number before you leave the area. These days, most officers carry business cards, so ask for one. When you return home, collect your thoughts and write a detailed account of the incident. Collect the names, addresses, and phone numbers of those who were with you at the time of the incident.
Go to the police/sheriff station the following day, as close to the time of day of the incident as possible. Ask to speak to either the Watch Sergeant or the Watch Commander. Typically, these are the people who have overall command of a particular shift. Try to obtain a positive resolution without filing a formal complaint. Remember, your goal is to preach the gospel unmolested, not to vengefully exact a pound of flesh from the officer.
If you do not reach a positive resolution with the Watch Sergeant or Watch Commander, request a meeting with either the Station Commander, Chief of Police, or Sheriff. If you are unable to reach a positive resolution with the law enforcement agency, then contact a reputable Christian defense organization for further assistance.
Establishing Rapport with Law Enforcement
It is better to have your local law enforcement with you than against you. Take time to talk to police officers in your community. Get to know the officers who frequently work the area where you conduct your street preaching activities. If officers happen by when you are street preaching, respectfully acknowledge them, thank them for their service, and encourage the crowd to do the same. If you are in a coffee shop or fast food restaurant, offer to pay for the officer’s coffee or meal. Do not be offended if the officer does not accept your offer, and don’t press the issue. In some jurisdictions, an officer can be reprimanded for accepting a gratuity (gift) of any kind.
Tactical Considerations when Street Preaching
Carry a digital tape recorder with you when and wherever you are engaged in evangelism.
Most states have what is commonly referred to as a “one-party consent” law. This means that in environments where there is no expectation of privacy (i.e., most public places), the law requires that only one person needs to be aware that a recording of the conversation is being made. And that person can be the person making the recording. (Important: Check the laws in your state. This is not legal advice.)
There is a reason why Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs and in small groups. For reasons of personal safety, accountability, and support, it is good to have at least one partner with you (whenever possible) during street preaching activities. Don’t look like a suspect. --- What Does This Mean? ---- Many people unwittingly place themselves in situations that make them look suspicious to law enforcement.
When All Else Fails with Law Enforcement
Scripture shows that the apostles submitted to the governing authorities without compromising the proclamation of the gospel. There may come a time when you will have to choose between proclaiming the gospel and your freedom. Will you deny yourself in that instance, take up your cross, and follow Christ? Our encouragement for you is that you would persevere, no matter what the consequences.
Presently in North America, Christians still enjoy a great deal of religious freedom. But an erosion of that freedom is slowly taking place. It is incumbent upon Christians to stay abreast of changes in local, state, and federal laws that directly impact the freedom of religious expression. Hopefully this article will serve as a helpful tool to you, the reader, as you seek to serve and glorify Christ in your street evangelism efforts.