I just finished reading Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs, a memoir by Elissa Walls. While there are many, many issues I could tackle (and probably will at some point), I want to zero in on law enforcement in the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) community of Short Creek, now known as the twin cities Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, and the issue of closed communities and law enforcement in general.
Throughout her memoir, Walls discusses law enforcement with fear and anxiety. In Salt Lake City, Utah, where Walls spent much of her childhood, FLDS families must keep their lifestyle secret from their non-FLDS neighbors and the authorities. The police are not friends of FLDS members, and children are taught to be wary of the men and women in blue.
When Elissa Walls moves to the community of Short Creek, the police were still a source of unease for very different reasons. The Colorado City Police Department was full of FLDSmembers (and still is today – check out this article about a possible disbandment of the department) who enforced the law of the land – FLDS law and doctrine. Walls writes of police officers arresting teenagers who question FLDS teachings, tracking down women trying to escape the community, and helping the FLDS leaders expel young rebellious men. Short Creek had police officers enforcing the law of the FLDS over state and national law.
This relationship between the FLDS and the law enforcement of the Short Creek community is extreme – police officers allow their religious belief/tradition to dictate who and what they enforce. This became even more of a problem when Warren Jeffs, the controversial leader of the FLDS, was wanted by state authorities in Utah. The Colorado City police department would not assist in the manhunt, closing ranks around the FLDS community. While Jeffs was eventually found and arrested, it was no thanks to the local law enforcement.
The behavior of the Colorado City officers was extreme, with the FLDS doctrines taking precedence over county, state, and national law. Yet this is not the only community blurring the lines between law enforcement and religious tradition. Kiryas Joel is a Hasidic community within Monroe, NY with its own volunteer fire department, emergency medical services, and public safety department. In 2011, dissidents sued the community, alleging the Public Safety Department ignored harassment and violence against them, siding with the offenders who were supporters of the strict religious tradition. Though the KJ Public Safety officers are not part of the Monroe Police Department, the parallels to Colorado City are clear – religious belief is influential in deciding which which laws are enforced and which are looked over.
On the other hand, Amish communities in the United States are closed communities much like Short Creek and Kiryas Joel, but, because of the importance of non-violence, do not have Amish law enforcement and rarely involve county or state officers. Problems among the Amish are dealt with by leaders of the particular community.
In these insular religious communities, can a balance be found regarding law enforcement? It isn’t absurd to think the police officers working with and around these enclaves should have a general understanding of the tradition and culture. Yet the most knowledgable are those fully integrated members of the communities – can they separate their belief in doctrine enough from government laws to adequately enforce them? In the end, there isn’t a right answer, but it is a question to be considered as closed religious communities continue to grow in the United States.