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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 December 2003, 11:01 GMT
The new weapon in crimefighting... prayer
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine

Policing crackles with buzzwords nowadays, from zero tolerance to on-the-spot fines. The power of prayer is an unlikely addition to that list - but could it be an effective weapon in the battle against crime?

He is, according to canteen culture, John the Baptist. That was the nickname John Sutherland got as a young policeman.

Now 33, and a remarkably young-looking inspector in the Metropolitan Police, he seems comfortable with his authority, leading a team of up to 25 officers as they respond to 999 calls - robberies, assaults, whatever the world can throw at them.

In many ways he's the regulation copper, asserting that what defines him is the way he deals with everyday cases like car crashes. But he does distinguish himself by his willingness to talk about his prayers.

"I believe in the power of prayer and the person of Jesus," he says. "In terms of my fight against crime as a police officer, I believe we are capable of having an impact in a practical way. If you take an individual burglar, and pray for him, and he becomes a Christian, one of the net impacts of that is that he may stop burgling."

Specific issues

Each month, Mr Sutherland compiles a list of crime issues in the borough he polices, Hammersmith and Fulham in west London. He then e-mails the list round to more than 150 churchgoers in the borough, asking for their prayers for those specific issues, be they a reduction in levels of street crime or the arrest of a particularly prolific house-breaker.

Robber in window
Burglaries are one of the network's prayer targets
The December prayer list, being sent out on Wednesday, includes a prayer for people's houses to be safe "between now and the New Year - Christmas can be a favourite time for burglars".

The network grew after Mr Sutherland asked fellow officers - many of whom were sceptical - if they had any issues which might benefit from prayer.

"There had been a killing, and there was a fear of reprisals," he says. "So people were asked to pray simply that there would be no more violence. And there was no more violence."

Next he asked his network to pray that there should be a significant reduction in street crime, one of the Met's priorities. "Towards the end of the summer," he says, "street crime started to come down."

While his prayer list does highlight "answers to prayers", such as a 4% drop in street crime allegations in his borough, he accepts that all sorts of different things will have contributed to crime reduction, not least the actions of his fellow officers.

"Street crime and burglary have both fallen in the last four weeks," he says. "Now that might be attributed to a number of different factors - but the prayers of local people are definitely there in the mix."

Bigger picture

Statistics indicate the numbers of reported crimes in his borough did fall between October 2002 and 2003 in six out of seven categories. It's part of the bigger picture in which overall street crime in the Metropolitan Police area fell between April 2002 and March by 21%.

I have seen enough answers to prayer in my life to take it beyond the point of coincidence
John Sutherland
Christians and people of other faiths have always prayed for the world around them. The spread of e-mail has however helped make prayer networks easier to set up; it is possible to join a network praying for practically any part of the country or profession.

And they do not depend on technology either - a week-long prayer marathon to tackle crime, drugs and violence was held in Ivybridge, Devon, in October after the town council asked for prayers to help social problems.

An experiment earlier this year into whether prayer does have concrete results may have disappointed believers.

The study, run by the Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina involved prayers being said for half of a group of 750 hospital patients. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist volunteers prayed for one half of the group, but not for the other. Researchers found no difference in the recovery rates of the two groups.

Revival movements

Some commentators were, however, dismissive of the study, saying it was tantamount to "putting God to the test". The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, was one of the research's critics, saying that prayer was "not a penny-in-the-slot machine".

Aside from prayer, though, Mr Sutherland says church involvement with crime can work on another level, pointing to the social effect historically of the revival movements modern projects on Manchester housing estates in which graffiti-cleaning and rubbish removal by young church-goers are credited with helping bring crime down.

There is also a huge benefit to the police, he says, in engaging with the churches as a way of staying in touch with the community.

"I would love to see New Testament miracles, and maybe one day we will see the lame walking," he says. "But for us at the moment, it seems to be a bit more subtle. All I know is that there were a couple of significant requests for prayers and what we asked for happened. When people pray, situations change."

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