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Clergy join Erie police on ride-along patrols

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ERIE, Pennsylvania — Erie police Cpl. Craig Stoker greets the Rev. Michael Coles with a handshake, then slips a bulletproof vest over Coles' head, muting the color of the reverend's fluorescent orange T-shirt.

"Oh, they push these ribs right in," Coles says with a grunt as Stoker tightens the vest's straps.

The two walk to Stoker's black Ford Crown Victoria patrol car. It's notable as a police vehicle only by the small emblems on its sides and the emergency lights tucked under the roof at the top of the windshield.

After a brief explanation of the car's computerized call system and a how-to on working its lights and siren, Stoker puts the Ford in gear. They chat about a mutual acquaintance, a retired city police officer, as the car circles Perry Square on its way toward East Sixth Street.

Stoker and Coles head out on a two-hour, midafternoon ride around Erie.

"We've got to get hold of the young people before they get too far gone," Coles, 60, said before the ride-along with Stoker. "Everyone's tired about what's going on in the city. We've got to do something. I hope this does some good before someone gets hurt, gets killed."

Coles, the pastor of House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church, 155 E. 21st St., and a resident of the city's west side, didn't need to ride around in a police car to learn about crime problems plaguing the city. He said he's seen and heard about the shootings, robberies and assaults, and he noted that he and some members of his East 21st Street church regularly walk around the community.

But climbing into a police car with one of the city's officers provides a different perspective on what's happening, said Elder Parris Baker, of Believers International Worship Center, which shares worship space at Coles' East 21st Street church, and an assistant professor and director of the social work program at Gannon University.

Baker said he has long encouraged his fellow clergy members to ride along with Erie police. He's done it off and on for several years, with the idea hatched during diversity training that Baker provided to the department after an incident in which a city police officer was caught on video joking about a homicide victim.

The idea caught on slowly, Baker said.

"The community sometimes believes if you're a pastor and you're in the car, you're on (the police's) side. Kind of an us-them thing. We had to work through that a little bit," he said.

Baker and Erie Police Chief Randy Bowers talked about a ride-along program again earlier this year, and a schedule was developed. Six clergy members, including Baker, have signed up to ride with police during first, second or third shifts, with the first ride-along held June 13.

Stoker wheels his police cruiser south onto Wallace Street from East Sixth Street and coasts down a street where groups of people, some sitting on porches and others standing on the sidewalks or on the side of the road, stop and stare. Coles, his right arm resting on the passenger door and partially out the open window, lifts his hand to wave to a few.

Stoker answers a question about how he became a police officer, and he talks about his current duties. Coles, a reverend for 35 years, talks about meeting his wife during a revival in Erie.

Stoker, 39, tells him the problem for city police right now is gun crime, like the numerous shots-fired calls that officers have responded to in recent months. Other times of the year bring other problems, like burglaries that tend to increase around Thanksgiving and Christmas, he says.

The car turns left and travels a few blocks east before turning north. Stoker stops it at East Sixth Street and waits for traffic to pass before turning left. As he waits, a man and a woman walk past the car, close enough to touch it. The man takes a quick glance at Stoker and Coles, who are talking, and mutters a derogatory term at them. They don't seem to hear it.

"Some people think we want to arrest people. I don't want to arrest people. Sometimes it's nice to drive around," Stoker says.

"This is a good thing when the community can see we're all working together. That's what I like about this," Coles replies. "The main thing about it is we want the city to be safe. My kids, whoever's kids, want to be safe."

The ride-along isn't a formal program, Bowers said. But he thinks it's a positive one designed to develop stronger bonds between the police department and the community it serves.

"We think it's an important symbolic gesture for the community to see the clergy and police together. We share the same concerns about violence in the community. We think it's a good thing that they are seen together. Each time one of the pastors is in the cruiser with one of our police officers for a couple of hours, it allows them to get to know each other better," he said.

A clergy member riding in a police car will not reduce violence, Baker said. But the ride-alongs will create a link between what police are doing in terms of protecting and serving the community and what clergy members do in serving the community.

"What we're trying to do in the role of the clergy is to increase solidarity in the community, provide a sense of hope that things can change, things can get better, we're not in it alone," Baker said.

In the past, priests and pastors would live in the community where their church was located and would get to know what's going on. Now, a lot of clergy members live outside the community and drive a long way to reach their churches, Baker said.

"People don't see the connection as clearly, and to some degree they think we don't care. We show up and say, 'You're a bad person, you need to change,' then we leave. People are getting tired of hearing that, so the ride-along helps in that fashion," he said.

The only "action" Coles sees during his ride-along with Stoker is when they respond to an area of East Seventh Street where a caller reports a group of girls fighting with Tasers. While en route to the call from the upper east side, they receive word that the girls are no longer fighting.

"They must have heard you coming," Coles tells Stoker.

By the time Stoker reaches East Seventh Street, other officers are talking to four 13-year-old girls. One officer warns them of the trouble they could find themselves in if they return to the location of the reported fight and start up another fight.

The beef, Stoker and Coles are told, was over something someone posted on Facebook.

"That Facebook is crazy," Coles says after climbing back into Stoker's car. "It's a good thing, but they abuse it. And these young kids, they don't think."

Stoker drives off and turns south onto Parade Street, passing an ice cream stand where Stoker and other officers apprehended a bank robbery suspect in late June and near the spot where a man was shot twice by another man a few weeks before the bank robbery. Coles notes the absence of customers at the ice cream stand. Stoker says the business should get busier when evening falls.

"That's crazy. Can't even take your family out for ice cream," Coles says.

When clergy members and police officers are riding together, it's important that they get out of the car and talk to people if there are activities in the community and there's not a call, Baker said.

"When there is an opportunity, many times there's a wonderful metamorphosis. 'You're the Po-Po, and I hate your guts.' Why? 'Because someone taught me that.' You spend 15, 20 minutes, and you're kind of a nice guy. The badge and the gun are a barrier, but the longer we stay in the community and talk, the more that dissipates. They become more human," he said.

Everyone involved in these interactions learns that they have more in common than differences. They find that they have the same challenges and the same desires, like good schools and a thriving community, Baker said.

"That's the value," he said. "It's real simple. There's no formula for this. Just love people, really."

Stoker's patrol car eventually makes its way to Erie's west side, where his conversation with Coles turns to basketball. As they cruise West 18th Street, the conversation switches to memorable meals they've eaten at some now-closed restaurants they pass.

Stoker tells Coles he's the first clergy member he's taken on patrol. He says he expects more ride-alongs to happen, but likely not as uneventful, call-wise, as his time with Coles has been.

"Today is a more relaxing day. Tomorrow might be a different affair," Stoker says.

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Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com

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