Faith on foot

Two police officers and a priest walk into a liquor store.

It sounds like the start of a colorful joke. Instead, it is part of a policing initiative that aims to involve the whole community, including spiritual leaders, in reducing crime in troubled Springfield, Mass.

Building trust

Father Yerick Mendez, a priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield, regularly joins state and local police officers as they walk through the North End neighborhood of the city, knocking on doors and greeting citizens on the street, in restaurants or in liquor stores.

“I think sometimes people don’t know what to make of us,” he said. “People don’t know whether they should be afraid or come say, ‘Hello.’”

In a neighborhood where gang members were known to ride mini-scooters with assault rifles strapped to their backs, building trust has been no easy task for law enforcement.

Massachusetts State Trooper Michael Cutone saw something familiar about the situation. He had previously served in the National Guard Special Forces, commonly called the Green Berets, employing counterinsurgency measures in Avghani, Iraq.

There, he witnessed insurgents taking advantage of corruption, disorder and poverty in a community.

They operated under the cover of greater societal disorder and used fear to intimidate locals.

Take back the streets

Though it was not a war zone, some residents of Springfield told Cutone they felt like prisoners in their own homes.

He wanted to empower them to take back the streets, but first he had to gain their trust. That took time — more than a year, in fact.

Four years ago, the police officers began by attending a weekly community meeting where residents and decision-makers gathered.

Then, they started patrolling door-to-door. When residents saw their commitment last for months, trust began building and crime tips started flooding in.

Earlier this year, an analysis revealed that since the initiative’s implementation, violent crime has dropped by 25 percent and drug crimes by nearly 50 percent. There is also less litter and gang graffiti.

Police call the initiative C3 Policing, which stands for Counter Criminal Continuum. The idea is to find a friend, and he or she will help you combat the enemy.

Major media outlets have noted its success. The story graced the pages of The New York Times and appeared on an episode of “60 Minutes.”

The publicity has led police departments from around the country and the world to inquire about how to implement the program in their own districts.

Cutone is currently serving in Afghanistan and spoke with Our Sunday Visitor over the phone.

He stressed that the Springfield initiative is a team effort involving state and local police, elected officials, business owners and community members.

He measures success not in numbers, but in talking with locals who believe their city is safer and work to keep it that way.

At the request of Cutone, Father Michael Sheehan, a Franciscan of the Primitive Observance from Roxbury, Mass., has traveled to the community to knock on doors, too.

He said that the project is in keeping with Franciscan spirituality.

Courage to effect change

Father Sheehan related a story of a shop owner in Springfield who believed a drug dealer was parked in front of his store. Father came up to the car, banged on the window and asked the man to leave.

The man turned out to be an undercover officer, but Father Sheehan said the shop owner’s actions showed that he cared about the community at large, not just his own business.

“Trooper Cutone and his colleagues can have all kinds of great ideas; they can have meetings all day long, but if the people in the neighborhood do not decide to help, and they don’t decide to go out there and bang on someone’s door to try to go visit them or bang on a car window when they think it’s a drug dealer, if they’re not willing to do things like that, nothing’s going to change and it might even get worse,” he said.

Col. Timothy P. Alben, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police, said in a statement, “The C3 Initiative is successful because the citizens it serves have bought into it, and the fact that they have is a credit to the state troopers and Springfield police officers who execute the mission day in and day out.”

Healing a community

The healing of the community goes deeper than dealing with problems on the surface. The area needed healing on a spiritual level as well, and the Church has a responsibility to act, Father Mendez said.

“Sinfulness can grow and spread like a deadly disease, and you can’t police sinfulness away. It has to be healed, and the mind has to be enlightened by truth,” he said.

Springfield’s North End is a culturally diverse area with a large population of Puerto Rican immigrants. Many residents have Catholic roots, and Father said he hopes to communicate to them that the Church cares about each of them individually. It is about bringing hope and shining a light in a dark place, he said.

“When a person gets transformed by God, they’re never in isolation. The same as when a person is corrupted by crime and sin and even drugs, it affects the whole family and the whole community. When people change for the good, it has a lasting impact on the whole community,” he added.

‘Leadership is sacrifice’

Trooper Cutone has his own conversion experience. He was raised Catholic but fell away from the practice of his faith for 20 years. While attending the funeral Mass for a family member, he felt “enveloped in mercy and love” and came to the realization that he needed to go to confession.

For months, he passed a Catholic church on his way to and from work, and finally, he went in. He made a good confession, and every day he attended Mass and prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

He said that since his reversion, he better understands what leadership is. He has written a book on Catholic leadership and explains that “leadership is sacrifice” and that Christ is the role model.

Cutone even weaves his faith into his work. He feels called to shine the light of Christ on the people he serves.

He has noticed young men wearing a Rosary around their necks, which can sometimes be used as a gang symbol and shared with them his devotion to its prayers.

Cutone lets them know that he carries a Rosary wherever he goes and prays daily.

He recalled one incident during an arrest of a heroin addict on Route 391 in Chicopee. Cutone was just putting the man in the back of his cruiser when the man asked, “Why are you treating me so nicely?” Cutone held up the wooden cross the man wore on his neck and said, “Because He commands me. He expects me to be nice to you, to treat you with respect.” Cutone said the man began to weep.

Spiritual backup

Cutone said that it all comes down to a “spiritual battle.”

“If we’re not fighting to be in a state of grace, then how do we expect ourselves to do good in the community?” he asked.

He said that sometimes Catholics underestimate the power of frequent confession, daily Mass and the power of prayer.

He has requested the prayers of many different people for the success of C3 Policing, including cloistered Dominican nuns who live at Mother of God Monastery in West Springfield.

Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, who will celebrate her 50th anniversary as a consecrated religious next year, said the policing initiative “absolutely” takes a Christ-like approach to residents.

She said Trooper Cutone and his fellow officers preach by example.

“The respect for other human beings, which is kind of a rare gift today, certainly is obvious in him,” she said. “People are touched by kindness and goodness, and you see it in him. I can easily imagine the young kids who come in contact with him seeing him as a role model.”

She said the sisters pray that God will bless the policing effort and bless the North End community. “Sometimes I’ll even ask sisters from another monastery to pray for a special intention for Trooper Mike, so he’s getting double backup on prayer,” she added.

Christine Williams writes from Massachusetts.