Shoot or don't shoot: Religious leaders get police training in Duluth

Some, like Rev. Beth Wendl of Brookhaven Christian Church, performed well, holding steady (and holding the trigger) when the man in the truck produced just a cellphone, or when the man in the alley turned around with nothing but a flashlight. 

Others, like Pastor Dennis Meredith of Atlanta's Tabernacle Baptist Church, "shot everybody." 

Then there was Rev. Markel Hutchins, who was given a tougher scenario — an armed man dangling a baby over the edge of a bridge. 

"Of course y'all would give me that one," the civil rights activist joked after, it turns out, waiting too long to shoot.

The Monday afternoon "training" at the Duluth Police Department — which gave clergy members from across metro Atlanta a crack at the same state-of-the-art, "shoot or don't shoot" simulator many real-life officers train with — was part of a new initiative called "One Congregation One Precinct."

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It's intended to strengthen bonds between law enforcement and the communities they serve by assigning individual officers to specific congregations and opening the lines of communication.

Fifteen clergy members participated. Seven metro Atlanta counties and three faiths — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — were represented. 

The idea is, yes, to show the faith leaders "the lives of police officers on a daily basis," Duluth police Chief Randy Belcher said. But it's also about starting relationships that can benefit communities on every level, and attempting to cut through the societal tensions that come with controversial shootings and their aftermath.

Such shootings, and law enforcement practices in general, have been at the forefront of the country's consciousness since Michael Brown was killed outside St. Louis in 2014. In July, the shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota triggered days of protests in Atlanta and elsewhere. 

"A lot of people don't want to talk to the police," Belcher said. " ... We can't do it alone. It's going to take us, the church, it's going to take everybody to solve these problems."

The clergy members that gathered Monday are part of the pilot group of One Congregation One Precinct. They'll help determine how, exactly, the initiative will operate moving forward.

"Progress won't happen until we have the courage to talk to each other and not at each other," Hutchins said. "There has not been a significant movement for social change in America, and probably world history, in recent times, that has not been anchored in the religious or the spiritual space."

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