Call them a godsend. Four ministers and five community members, including two former bad boys. They’re the God Squad, volunteers working with (not for) the St. Paul Police Department. When a crime scene is hot, with neighbors in an uproar, they’re often the first people police call. Suspects have turned themselves over to the squad. When a gang war threatens to spiral out of control, squad members talk to parents, telling them, “We don’t want to bury your sons.” Members walk the streets and talk at schools and appear to be having an impact. “Without the God Squad, the body count would be higher,” St. Paul police chief John Harrington has said. “They’ve saved my behind.” It’s possible they’ve saved some souls, too, but as the Reverend Devin Miller, a God Squad co–organizer, explains, the group isn’t about religion, it’s about community.
Weren’t you once a critic of the St. Paul police?
I was, and still am when I need to be. It was after I’d picketed outside the station that I got a call: “[Former St. Paul Police] Chief Finney would like to have lunch with you.” I’m thinking, “Do I have any outstanding tickets?” I’d never met this man. So I’m sitting there [at lunch] and here comes this 6–foot–8 or –9 man and he’s in full regalia and he looks down at me and says, “You’re the one who’s got my department in an uproar?” He goes, “Look here—I need you to hold us accountable and question what we do, because it makes my job easier to be held to a standard that the community wants. But all I ask is that when you’ve got a problem with the police…call me. Here’s my cell number, here’s my office number, here’s my home number. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
So then the God Squad became a formal group—you even have badges and jackets. But what exactly do you do at a crime scene?
So often, when a homicide happens, there’s a disconnect—the community may know who [the murderer] is, but because they have a disdain toward the police, or no relationship with the police, they don’t give up the information. We’ve been able to bridge that. Because people recognize who we are, they’re pouring information in to us. And if we see someone distressed, we’ll go to him and say, “Hey brother, if you want to talk, we’re here for you.” And then we go on the other side of the [crime scene] tape and the police see us and tell us what’s going on on their side. The next day, we’re sitting with the homicide detectives saying, “What do you guys know?” We try to tell the community we’re not on anybody’s side. We’ve got a much higher boss.
Do you stay in touch with victims and suspects after a murder?
If people need us to [accompany] them while they’re giving their testimony, we’ll do that. When a child or teenager gets killed, we go into the schools. We’ve done funerals for family members who have lost someone due to violence. When we do a funeral, we do an altar call: “Your friend is laying here, this could be you. Choose today to change your life.”
How stressful is it to continually witness the effects of violence?
There are frustrating times when you want to take the law into your own hands. But that’s where God steps in and you have that Garden of Gethsemane experience—“Not my will, but thine, be done.”