The Street Preacher & The Police

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Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, Titus 3:1

I have learned a lot concerning the relationship between the street preacher and the police. I have been able to preach on the street using amplification without a permit in most every city that I have traveled to. I want to share with you what I have found to be the “key to success” and favor with God. I primarily preach in downtown areas of major cities, thus I deal with the city police agencies. Suburban police are not as busy and may tend to assert their authority over smaller issues like municipal code violations. The people in suburban areas are also more likely to complain, especially if you are near a residential area. College campuses are tough as well. These institutions are some of the worst when it comes to violating free speech. I have preached near a number of high schools and middle schools and many a time the police showed up. Shopping malls involve private property. This can be problematic. Before I get started I have to admit that there are times that I have blown it and have not followed my own advice. Keeping that in mind I generally cooperate with the police, first by being friendly, and not being on the defensive.

Exception to the Rule

I want to deal first with the exception to the rule. The rule being to obey the authorities. The exception, as we all know, is when they say not to preach in Jesus name or the equivalent. Acts 4:17-20 To be honest this has never happened to me. It is always over the issue of the amp. There are some circumstances I’m sure that the message is what’s the real issue and some would work within the law to silence the message. But if they say do not preach the Gospel then I say you must preach but be ready to accept the consequences like the apostles did.

The Key To Success

Before we go out in the street ministry we need to adjust our thinking and our attitudes. A good place to start is Romans 13:1-5. You should be well familiar with this passage; and the correlating scripture in 1 Peter 2:13-17. We need to understand the principle taught here. If you have issues with the police and governing authorities, you have an issue with God’s order; thus by falling in line with this scripture you are obeying God (exception noted above). Do you want to be successful in your street preaching? The biggest factor is found in this principle. How can we have the favor of God if we do not obey His established authority on earth? There is no place for any bitterness, rebellion, prejudice, or hatred against the police. Leave it at the foot of the cross. As far as I am concerned, if you are not in agreement with this principle you are disqualified to be a preacher in the streets. We cannot think of ourselves as victims. We need to be under authority and above all, go out in FAITH!

Therefore I cooperate with the police. A good policy is first be friendly and not be on the defensive. Watch your body language. We have no idea what the person said on the phone when making the complaint, nor what dispatch has told the police. The police may arrive expecting to find a crazy nut case or crackpot. Don’t confirm their suspicions. One time the police came in force because someone said we were hitting people. (not true)

I have found that in most cases the police are ok with the Gospel being preached on the street. There are more Christian police officers than you realize. Even if a particular officer is not a Christian they may see the value of righteousness. Within the prison and criminal justice systems, including the local police, it has been established that Christian doctrine is steeped in law and order. This certainly helps our cause. Many laws on our books today originated in the Old Testament.

Is there ever a time to stand your ground? Every situation is different so you need God’s wisdom and discernment. With only a few exceptions I will not stop preaching with the amp when told to by private security, city guides/ambassadors, or well meaning citizens.

Through the years I have been involved in a couple of legal disputes over free speech. I am grateful for the victories in the courts concerning free speech, especially within the Christian realm. This keeps the government honest. However, since then I have decided that God is not calling me to battle on this front, but to focus on the preaching ministry. I have decided ahead of time that if asked or told to leave a certain corner I will do so versus being arrested or going to court. Even though in the USA we have due process, I have decided to take the principle given in the Bible and that is; when persecuted in one city flee to another. Matt. 10:23 In these cases, it is flee to another part of the city. You as an individual preacher will have to decide where you stand on this issue. Paul did take advantage of his Roman citizenship.

The Police

Regarding street preaching I have dealt mainly with city police agencies and the officers assigned to downtown. In Sacramento, because of the Capitol, I have dealt with the state patrol somewhat, once a county sheriff, and a couple of times city park rangers. In most cities the police do not enforce minutiae laws, including the noise ordinances, unless they get a complaint. (unwritten hands off policy) The police have to answer the calls they get from dispatch no matter how frivolous they seem. Understanding this helps because you realize he or she is just doing their job. Greet him or her with a friendly submissive attitude. This will go a long way. Because these noise complaints, especially in the daytime, are not a priority, it may take them so long to get there you are already gone and may not even be aware that someone complained. If there is more than one of you out preaching decide beforehand who is going to talk to the police. Generally there should be only one. Police don’t want to necessarily talk to several people and everyone saying something different etc., although they may want to talk to the one speaking regardless if they are the leader or not.

I have never had the police say that I could not preach the Gospel. This does not mean that they are not trying to stop the message indirectly on occasion. In most cases I have found the police to be reasonable and courteous. When the police get a call on a noise complaint they do not want to be heavy handed. Noise complaints are mundane and kind of a hassle for police, yet they must respond. Do not give them reason to be agitated. It is good not to be defensive, but rather polite, answering their questions. Sometimes it is not wise to volunteer large amounts of unnecessary information about what you are doing etc. It helps to know the laws regarding free speech and amplification. In more than a few cases the police do not know the codes. By explaining the law to them in a humble manner, more often than not, you will be able to stay and continue as you were. Another reason to inquire about the code is that sometimes within the code (no use of amp) it only applies over a certain decibel level. Therefore as long as you are within that level you may use the amp without a permit. This is the case in Sacramento, although challenged at times. Also the code may either be unclear or state that “free speech” is exempt and the no amp code is for musicians and alike. This is the case in San Diego from what I can tell.

I will add this; not too long ago in Santa Rosa, California a few brothers and I were out preaching and had some complaints with the amp. The officer came and told us we couldn’t use it, ok fine. Norm started preaching after that with just his voice and the officer came back twenty minutes later with another complaint. (Norm has a strong voice) He wasn’t directly telling us we couldn’t be there but he let us know that he didn’t want to have to come back. We negotiated a deal where we went a few blocks down and used the amp there. After all that we decided to leave and go to a neighboring city.

Badges and uniforms are looking more and more official today. Sometimes it is hard to tell if someone is security or law enforcement. On occasion you may run into a Parks & Recreation officer. Since they all wear green uniforms it is hard to tell if they are an officer or a maintenance worker. New York uses park rangers like police in open squares, that are technically parks, but actually are large cement and brick areas. I always look for a sidearm (gun) first, then I look at what kind of badge is worn. If you see a sidearm this usually indicates they are officers of a law enforcement agency. Exceptions would be private security for financial institutions and armored car drivers. A park ranger who carries a badge and sidearm has authority in the park. I wouldn’t advise minimizing his authority. Transit police only have authority on the transit property not on a public sidewalk as it pertains to noise violations. Detectives & meter maids generally do not interfere but sometimes they do. They do not carry ticket booklets for muni-code violations, however I would not advise to blow them off. Use the wisdom God gives you at the time.

Security Guards

As with the police one should respect the security guards out there. Calling them a “rent-a-cop” is probably not Christ like. Obey them as much as you can, but they do not have authority to arrest you, site you, tell you to leave, nor can they enforce any noise ordinance even if they knew what it was. Security is privately hired by a bank or some other place of business and sometimes even by government agencies. They are not required to worry about what you are doing on the street corner. If they see a law being broken, they must call police like everyone else. They are prevented from engaging in a scuffle, or petty things based on the fact that their company is worried about litigation. They are not insured to take on matters outside of their specific job. They are within their rights to prevent you from blocking a doorway and things like that but they have no jurisdiction over the sidewalk. I try to comply with their requests as much as possible but I usually end up telling them to call police.

In several cities hotel security claim they own the sidewalk. This has been tried in the courts on numerous occasions by different groups. Even if the hotel owns the property up to the street, the sidewalk is a public thoroughfare and thus a free speech zone. Once in Dallas they tried this and I didn’t budge. As a habit I always stand to the farthest part of the sidewalk closest to the street. Nevertheless they said I couldn’t be there. Once police showed up they apologized to me and cleared me. The officer then went in to inform this hotel’s security that I was totally within my rights. I was using an amp which was also ok.

City Ambassadors

Most major cities have city ambassadors or guides. They usually are employed by the city’s public safety department. Their job is to aid the people who frequent the downtown area. They assist tourists and provide a first-line defense in crime by the way of being a deterrent. These ambassadors have two-way radios and can call police very quickly. They also patrol the downtown area on foot and bicycles. They are there to be servants to the people. These are men and women, usually younger, which act as patrols in the city. You always want to show respect to these folks. I have found in most cases that they do not interfere with the preaching of the Gospel using an amp. Every once in awhile one of them may tell you that – quote, “you cannot do that here” end quote. If that is the case I will politely tell them that I am perfectly within my rights and if they do not agree they are encouraged by me to notify the police. At that point sometimes they will call and sometimes they just leave.

In Los Angeles the ambassadors wear purple shirts. I call them the purple people eaters. This particular day I was at the corner of 7th and Hope street. As is my custom I got there early and prayed over the area. I felt this was a good corner but a lot of spiritual warfare. I started preaching and a demonized man came across the street yelling, and at the same time, another woman fell down. This started a great commotion and drew attention from the city ambassadors. A Christian man was there, and an unbeliever as well, to shield me from several of these purple-shirted city ambassadors. One of them asked if I could stop using the amp. I asked what law I was breaking and she quoted some municipal code. I respectively disagreed about the code since I told her they would need a sound meter to see if I was above the allowed decibel level to account for the street noise. I suggested they get the LAPD.

People started to gather and listen as I preached intensely and fast. I looked and behind me were around 10 of these purple-shirted guys and gals. Some were on bikes and some on foot. By them being there it drew a good-sized crowd. I figured the police would show up at any time. Over the next half hour the purple-shirted ambassadors started to leave a few at a time until all were gone. The police never did show up. I preached to large crowds that day for about two hours. Praise the Lord! The rest of my time there in downtown Los Angeles I was given what seemed to be a free pass to preach wherever I wanted using the amp. What favor with the Lord, whew!

Well Meaning Citizens

I write this section because there can be well-meaning citizens who take it upon themselves to try to stop the preaching, and or, the amp. I am not talking about hecklers that are trying to stop you. These are just everyday people who think that you must be breaking the law. I have defused a number of situations by telling them, “not to take the law into their own hands”, but to call the police. In most cases the police are not called or they have taken so long to answer the call I am long gone.

There is something you should be aware of however. Sometimes when an officer doesn’t think they are within their rights to outright stop you, they may call on a citizen to arrest you. This is normally asked of the person who called the complaint if they are present at the scene. This is called the old fashion “citizen’s arrest”. This is a rare occasion but I have been involved in a couple in my many years of street preaching. What you want to do if this happens to you is to inform the citizen that if the charges are dropped, or it turns out that it has been deemed a false arrest, they, the citizen, are liable for any lawsuit that is filed and responsible for the punitive damages etc., The police do not offer this information to the citizen. If they still persist after counting the costs I would advise to stop and walk away from the situation. As the battle goes I would not be willing to die on this hill. Go preach somewhere else – that’s my advice.

Testimonials

Sacramento, California – In Sacramento the police have come to me with only a few complaints over the years. In these cases I was allowed to continue. I will share one specific occasion when someone complained about me preaching with the amp. I was across the street from the State Capitol during the lunch rush as my custom. I didn’t know it at first, but an officer came up behind me on his bike and listened to me for about ten minutes. He told me this once he made himself known. For what it is worth he commented that I didn’t seem to be agitating people on purpose. He asked me if what I was doing was within the law. My response was to give him my understanding of the law in a five-minute discourse. About that time his partner arrived on another bike. The first officer said to the second one that I was complying with the law. I didn’t think he knew the law but was convinced that I did. They said to carry on and rode away. I wasn’t asked to leave or even turn it down.

Newport Beach, California – Having the police sneak up on you and listen for a few minutes is not all that uncommon. This happened to me here in Newport Beach as well. As I looked over the best place to set up I had a feeling somebody may say something. After about a half hour of preaching an officer approached me with the usual I cannot use the amp. I listened to him and because he heard me and the volume he was going to let me continue as long as he didn’t get another complaint. I was very surprised at this but was thrilled. I continued another hour or so without incident.

Seattle, Washington – I was born and raised in Seattle. A prophet is without honor didn’t stop me here. I only had one problem from the police in the many times I have preached here. I have had a officers stand across the street and listen for awhile before. Can’t say enough about the Lord’s favor here. However this is the only city where I received a written warning. This came about when I would not yield to a city clerk who told me to stop using the amp. He was on his lunch hour and didn’t show me any ID but was actually rather rude. Later he came with two officers on bikes to write me the citation.

Fort Worth, Texas – I was told I couldn’t use the amp. How this came about was after about a half hour into my preaching I noticed a police officer on a bike circling the area. Not uncommon at all until a police car drove up and stopped. That’s when they both approached me. Right then there were two police on horseback also arriving. The lead officer told me about the code etc. I just said OK no problem. After that apparently he was amazed that I didn’t put up an argument. He even complimented me on my attitude. He then revealed that the last street preacher they had gave them such a problem they had to restrain him. Later I reasoned that this is why the first officer waited for backup. This is quite an indictment on the street preachers.

Salt Lake City, Utah – “You don’t have to leave we took care of him, besides I like the preaching”, the young man with tattoos responded. He looked just like any other guy you would see on the streets. I have seen a lot of undercover police officers in my day, but with this guy I would have never guessed he was working undercover. Here’s what happened: When preaching on Thursday in Salt Lake City I had encountered a very difficult person. He was somewhat crazy or perhaps demon possessed as he approached me and crying out at the top of his lungs, yelling blasphemies against God. As he left my presence and crossed the street a hurried young man came and stood in front of me and asked, “ what is with him?” I said, “I think he is demon possessed.” He responded by saying, “we will take care of it”. I just thought he was a passerby. He was texting and within about two minutes, another older man, showed up who was obviously a police detective. He conferred with the younger guy and that is when I realized he was an undercover officer. Right then a patrol car pulled up to the curb and he got out and was talking to the detective while the undercover officer stayed back on the sidewalk. They asked me what happened and I told them. They went across the street to talk to the guy who seemed to calm down when he saw them. It was when I was gathering up my gear the undercover officer said I didn’t have to go. I said that I was leaving anyway, that I had been out there for sometime already. As we parted ways the undercover officer said, “We’ve got your back”

FAQ

Question: Do I ask permission from police or city officials before preaching?
Answer: No, inevitably they will say it is not ok. At that point you can hurt your conscience to preach anyway against what they just told you. It is better to preach until told you cannot do so.

Question: Do I stop preaching when I see a police officer or police car?
Answer: No, it indicates you are doing something wrong.

Question: What do I do if someone threatens to call police?
Answer: I encourage people who are hostile, to call the police and not take the law into their own hands. Their presupposition is that you will be afraid of the police coming and it will diffuse them when you tell them to call. In roughly two thirds of the cases they will not call for whatever reason. If they do call, the police take a long time to show up since it is not a priority.

Question: What do I do if the police threaten to arrest me?
Answer: Pray, usually they will give you time to think about it. This issue is up to you. If you plan to take the issue to court then I would say get arrested. This type of arrest is usually “catch & release” It is highly unlikely you will do any real jail time. If you are not willing to fight the system in the areas of free speech then I would say do not get arrested by stopping the preaching and moving to a new area. You can always opt to stay and not use the amp.

Question: How should I respond if I was actually arrested?
Answer: Use your right to silence; don’t argue or threaten – Be docile – Don’t expect special treatment if the officer is a Christian – pray on the way to station or jail.

Question: What steps do police usually take for non compliance?
Answer:
1. Polite Request to Comply
2. Verbal Warning
3. Citation
4. Confiscate Equipment and/or Arrest

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