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How a council helped calm a community

Chaplin, Rabbi Eric Morganstern, left, and Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station Captain Justin Diez attend a memorial tree planting hel at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic on Friday, 052121. Dan Watson

By Perry Smith

Signal Managing Editor

One of Capt. Justin Diez’s top priorities in March 2020 when he took the helm at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station was community outreach.

And then COVID-19 came along.

As requirements from L.A. County Public Health — like social-distancing rules, the stay-at-home orders and an all-out ban on gatherings — made things like meet-and-greets tough, Diez didn’t shy away from the challenge.

In addition to a number of virtual events that have now evolved back to in-person get-togethers, like the popular Coffee with a Cop meetups, Diez created a first-of-its-kind Clergy Council for the SCV Sheriff’s Station. The station’s Clergy Council, which has already seen significant community benefit from its collaboration, could be a working model for similar law enforcement departments to build on local outreach efforts.

Getting started

One of Diez’s first tasks when he took the station’s helm last year was to ask the Community Relations Unit to reach out to local places of worship to try to determine a list of these various community gathering points. Thinking there would be maybe a couple dozen locations, Diez quickly learned there were more than 60.

“We got a hold of every single, solitary place of worship, identified them … their location, and (contacted) the head spiritual leader of each place,” Diez said, “that’s churches, mosques, synagogues and everything in between.”

When the group first got together a little over a year ago in the early days of the pandemic, the group started to meet every month on Zoom.

This past summer, the group began meeting in person, with Senior Pastor Mauricio Ruiz and his wife, co-Pastor Virginia Ruiz, at Elevate Church on Main Street in Newhall hosting the first one.

“It’s a way to reach out to the community,” Diez said. “These spiritual leaders have anywhere from 30 parishioners on up to 6,000 or 7,000. They can bring any concerns that their parishioners have to us, or (listen to) anything that I want to get out to them.”

It’s been more than an opportunity for healthy dialogue, Diez added, noting there’s also been a sharing of resources, for everything from mental health and substance abuse help to improved security.

Elevating the visibility

For Mauricio Ruiz at Elevate Church, the outreach between the Clergy Council and the Coffee with a Cop events has made a huge impact in his community, where the nearby community school, Newhall Elementary, has more than 60% of its students in the English-learner category.

At the recent Coffee with a Cop at Elevate Church, there were a handful of tables with deputies surrounded by members of the community talking, laughing and getting to know one another, Ruiz said.

“It was great to see a lot of the leaders of churches or houses of worship be in attendance, and really caring about the fact that the goal of Capt. Diez is to promote unity in the community,” Ruiz said, adding his participation in the council is what led to the congregation taking part in the Coffee with a Cop.

The resulting dialogue was extremely valuable in creating a “safe space” for members of his congregation to ask questions and share concerns, regardless of whether they might be concerned about an immigration issue.

“Because the most important thing is creating that space, where people can come and have a cordial conversation, and really begin to rebuild the trust with the community and police departments,” Ruiz said. “Obviously, you see the climate of our nation, with … police officers, and we love the fact that our captain is out there promoting unity and community.”

The chaplain’s charge

For Rabbi Eric Morgenstern, chaplain for the SCV Sheriff’s Station, who was at the station in March 2020 when Diez took over, the council was an important early collaboration with the station’s new captain that was immediately well-received by those involved, he said.

“The first thing was that the (Sheriff’s) Department was reaching out, and that was very well-received,” said Morgenstern, who arrived at the SCV station as chaplain in April 2017 under Capt. Robert Lewis. “(The Clergy Council) really appreciated the fact that Capt. Diez. took the time to meet with them, talk with them and explain what’s going on, within the department, within the city, and that he was open to being available for them throughout the COVID situation, throughout the tensions amongst religious groups during the COVID situation — and it became a buffer for (religious groups), where they could talk about getting support from the deputies and the various teams who would come out, and advise, and help the religious communities that are out here in this valley.”

He added: “And that was invaluable, because it was about that time that the government was giving churches, synagogues and mosques funding, if you qualified for it, for security purposes.”

Information sharing and partnerships became characteristics of the council early on, according to members, with Morgenstern also crediting members of the council like Laura Bloom of the Salvation Army, who helped with the notifications for the meetings. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was also a member that was able to discuss security questions with the station.

Morgenstern said a number of members of the council have expressed gratitude to him just for creating an atmosphere that lets the council grow. It also allows religious leaders to learn more about community resources that are available to parishioners who might be experiencing anything from addiction to domestic violence to homeless, and a range of other potential concerns.

“(Clergy Council members) really appreciate the bonding, the coming together, the fellowship and the sharing — with not only each other, but including the (Sheriff’s) Department as a whole,” Morgenstern added. “They really love this community, and its citizens.”

Sharing tools, resources

Abdo Jaber of the Islamic Center of Santa Clarita Valley recently expressed gratitude for the Clergy Council’s assistance, as his congregation received a number of practical benefits from being a part of the group.

While much of last year the group was prompted to meet virtually due to COVID-19 concerns, in-person worship has now resumed at their facility on Bouquet Canyon Road, which recently received about $200,000 in security upgrades, such as cameras and more secure entry points. Jaber said discussion at a Clergy Council meeting played a big role in his grant application, as well as help from the SCV Sheriff’s Station, part of a dialogue made easier by the regular meetings.

He’s now using the group to share the info he learned and trying to help others apply for the Department of Homeland Security grants, which are offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state’s Office of Emergency Services.

“(The Clergy Council meetings) have been very valuable and we’ve been able to get more information that way,” Jaber said, adding that the grant process was a bit daunting, but helped the center with “new doors, new windows and new lighting.”

“We’ve been exchanging that information,” Jaber said. “We’re hopeful that many, many places in Santa Clarita will take advantage of it in the community.”

The impact and potential

During an especially tumultuous year for the country in 2020, which Santa Clarita obviously was not immune from in terms of pestilence and protests, Diez was able to have conversations with large pockets of the community in order to share perspective and have leaders speak out in support of law enforcement — particularly during the national reactions to the trial over George Floyd’s murder, as well as an incident in which deputies were filmed drawing their firearms at a group of teenagers following a series of 911 calls.

“I reached out to (the Clergy Council) as a group, and asked them to respond to the protest for spiritual guidance, and a lot of them did,” Diez said, noting about a half-dozen of the leaders from a few different places of worship came out and addressed the crowd on the station’s behalf on three separate occasions, when there were relatively large local protests.

Having the presence of spiritual leaders during that time helped add a calming presence to very tense situations, Diez said. The dialogue from the council helped leaders from the various local religious communities bring the same sense of security and calm to the protest that Morgenstern brings to the station as chaplain, he added.

The Clergy Council meets in person each month now, each time at a different location, and Diez considers the opportunity an invaluable one in terms of being able to work directly with the community.

“If I can meet with this group once a month,” Diez said, “and disseminate information to them, and they can, in theory, disseminate that information to their parishioners — that’s huge, that’s a far reach.”

The next meeting is scheduled to take place at the new Sheriff’s Station in mid-November. The date is to be determined.

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