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Newark's 'God Squad' Offers Police, Community Support

Six-year-old unit helps officers, victims through troubled times

A Newark police officer is typically armed with a badge, a service revolver and a uniform, but a special unit within the department also counts the Bible and the Koran as part of their tools.

They are nicknamed the "God Squad."

The unit, made up of six officers, is known officially as the clergy affairs unit and is charged with using their various religious backgrounds, from Baptist to Islam, to soothe the families of crime victims, find common ground with residents, and defuse thorny situations with a faith-based approach. They are also teamed up with several religious leaders in the city who make up the police's civilian clergy alliance.

For the officers, it is a privilege to serve in a squad that taps into the faith and compassion of their beliefs and apply them into the difficult situations that a police officer encounters, and it's also a chance to portray the department in a positive light.

"I practice and live by the word," said Detective Erica Silva, a Born Again Christian.

"We get the chance to represent the best side of our colleagues," said Detective Abdullah Labeeb, a Sunni Muslim.

When Newark police detective Natombe Simmonds, who was laid off last year, died of a heart attack in May, members of the unit were called to help plan and navigate the daunting logistics and paperwork of the funeral, comfort the family and offer prayers, said Silva.

"We did everything — 24/7," said Sgt. Leslie Jones, the 64-year-old head of the squad.

They also do a similar service for the families of homicide victims as part of community outreach, Jones said.

The unit, along with members of the clergy alliance, will make a call on the family and offer their support, which entails bringing them to the medical examiner's office to identify the body, connecting them with social services and planning funeral arrangements.

"It can last days," Jones said about the unit's role in supporting grief-stricken residents. "We are sometimes with the family the rest of the night."

They also go on patrol with members of the clergy alliance and respond to cases that may call upon their spiritual background, such as domestic disputes and suicide attempts, said Jones.

And for some residents, it doesn't matter what religious background the responding officer and clergy come from, Silva said. It just helps that somebody cares.

Silva said she had to respond to a call involving a Newark resident who was Hindu.

"It went well, praise be to God," Silva said.

The unit also helps oversee some community meetings and the enforcement of curfew for juveniles in the city.

The clergy affairs unit started officially in May 2005, according to Jones, but he had the idea of one back in 1972. Jones, then a young Baptist minister when he joined the police, saw a need for the department to take a different approach with certain cases where the sensitive touch of a person of faith would be helpful.

Back then, the police administration did not buy into it, Jones said. But in the mid-1990s, Jones had an informal group with several civilian religious leaders. They helped plan funerals for police officers and comforted their families.

When the unit was officially formed back in 2005, Jones was often the sole police officer in the squad. But with Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio now at the helm, he has been joined with more officers in recent months. Besides Silva and Labeeb, the unit's officers are detectives Jacqueline Ah-Low, Alfreddy Fletcher, and Tyrone Singletary, who all three are Baptists and were not interviewed for this report.

Beyond their religious affiliations, their background varies. Jones is the older and experienced head who's had to defuse a brewing riot at the Seth Boyden projects in 2004 after a police shooting and at one time led prayers over a dying baby born premature.

Silva, 37, who became a Born Again Christian back in 1998, is lovingly nicknamed "Baby Jesus" or "Holy Roller" for her habit of reading the Bible during her lunch break. Labeeb, a former police academy instructor, has done the hajj in Mecca and was a long time member of the security team for revered Muslim leader, W. Deen Mohammed.

The officers said they are gratified to be part of a unit that helps their fellow officers and city residents.

"There's a thread that runs through all the faiths: compassion, love, human concern," said Labeeb.

Cass Zang Gonmiah October 04, 2011 at 01:53 PM
what took you guys so long to do this!!! NOW maybe we'll stop DYING for attention from the Police! :) xoxo

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