A retired NYPD police officer delivered the sermon while a retired Suffolk police sergeant, backed by a saxophonist, belted out "Amazing Grace" during an exuberant three-hour church service.
That was the scene Sunday afternoon as dozens of members of the St. John's Baptist Church in West Hempstead celebrated "law enforcement appreciation day."
The Rev. Dr. William Earl Thomas, a retired NYPD sergeant, said he had the idea to honor members of law enforcement during church service while attempting to foster connections and understanding with his community. He said he had watched hostilities build following a spate of high-profile fatal shootings of unarmed blacks at the hands of police.
"We need to bridge the gap for us to have genuine dialogue, for us to see each other from a different perspective and know if we have one thing in common, all of us want to live in a safe environment, where we know our kids are protected," said Thomas, who leads the mostly black congregation and retired from the NYPD 30 years ago.
Thomas, whose son has followed in his footsteps as an NYPD officer, acknowledged the strains between some in his community and the police caused by the fatal police shootings and other controversial practices such as stop-and-frisk.
“There’s a need for more sensitivity training” for police, said Thomas, who, at the same time, urged congregants to remember the dangers faced by officers daily. "Realistically, all officers at the end of the day want to get home to their families.”
Nassau Police Officer Lucien Netus, a 14-year veteran assigned to the Elmont-based Fifth Precinct, attended the service during his shift. He said he had been invited by the church.
"Having everyone pray and say hello to a police officer, that can only help decrease any tensions,” said Netus afterward.
The Rev. Dr. Debra Gaye White, of the Carmel Baptist Church in Queens, urged congregants to say hello to officers they encounter. She recalled her days working the streets, confiscating “butcher knives” and said she knew that God was protecting her.
“Talk to people and treat people the way you want to be treated,” White, who retired as a NYPD sergeant, told about a dozen active or retired officers who attended the service “And NYPD will forever be my family and will forever be in my heart and thank you all for your service.”