Florida Sheriff’s Office Responds to Outbreak of Violence: Prayer Will Make Everything Better

There’s been a lot of violence in Orlando, Florida lately and one of the more tragic stories involves a 15-year-old girl, Danielle Sampson, who was shot in the head during a drive-by shooting.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office knows exactly what to do to make the violence stop: Pray.

For the next 40 days, Orange County Sheriff’s Office Chaplains will be leading Operation Transformation. It’s 40 days of nightly prayer vigils bringing OCSO and the faith community together to reduce violence.

This will totally make everything better, you guys. The Chaplain even says so:

According to Chaplain Willie James Barnes, praying for safer streets is something that works. He was part of a similar project with Orlando police in 2008.

“It worked. We did it all over the city of Orlando, and I’ll tell you the crime rate went down,” said Barnes.

Citation needed.

Correlation != Causation.

Others things my high school Statistics students could tell you.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, while understanding the sensitive nature of the violence in the community, isn’t letting this slide by (PDF):

We are appalled and saddened by the random shooting of Danielle Sampson. We join with others in decrying this senseless violence, and demanding reform to get assault weapons off of our streets and protect innocent lives. Our organization, mainly atheists and agnostics, has just donated $250.00 to help the Sampson family pay for Danielle’s medical care at gofundme.com/supportdanielle. However, senseless and tragic violence is not an excuse to disregard the Constitution.

… Put simply, your office is misusing its secular power to call for religious rituals and exhort citizens, regardless of beliefs, to participate in prayer.

As Sheriff, your overt promotion of religion using your official title, badge, and seal gives the unfortunate impression that the County supports and endorses particular religious rituals. The government is sending the message “to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members…”

FFRF also refers to the Phil Zuckerman study showing that societies with less religion are less violent (PDF).

Ultimately, FFRF doesn’t want to sue or get money from the OCSO. They just want to know that reasonable, practical steps are being taken to fix the problems. Prayer isn’t one of those options:

While religious leaders are free to hold prayer rallies, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is not. Public officials should get off their knees and get to work. Do something practical to help Danielle and prevent other such crimes. Please inform us in writing of the actions that Orange County is taking to remedy these constitutional violations.

I’m sure this will lead to negative publicity — why are those damn atheists complaining in the midst of our tragedy? — but religious groups have always used tragedy as an opportunity to promote their faith. I’m glad FFRF is taking a stand against that. We all want violence to go down. It’s too bad OCSO doesn’t have a legitimate plan to make that happen.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Michael Anderson

    When Rick Perry did it in Texas, it brought more drought, not less!

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    There is actually a sensible mechanism by which this could work – having prayer vigils on the streets “all over the city” means putting a lot more people out of the streets at night. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a prayer vigil for that, but you’d certainly expect there to be a bit of an effect.

  • Chris Kilroy

    Hey, I have an idea. Instead of the Sheriff’s office and police leading prayers – why don’t they get off their knees and get on the damn streets! If there is an increase in violence, they could do their damn jobs! They’re the ones responsible for investigating and stopping crime, amirite? More police patrols…and perhaps some pro-active meetings with citizens to teach them how to organize effective community watches, self-defense classes and things like that. Instead of talking to an invisible man in the sky, they could talk to the citizens and other law enforcement experts on how to stop crime. Those are short-term efforts. Longer-term, they need to work with elected officials and other leaders (some may include clergy) to find the root cause of crime to improve the community. Those are not easy things to do, but we expect our leaders, including sheriffs, police chiefs and others, to do hard work to keep our streets safe. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1185414132 Chunx OfEarth

    Perry prayed for rain and got wildfires! No one mentioned that he might be praying to the wrong god, huh? If the sheriff is left with nothing but prayer, they should find a new sheriff who takes his job more seriously. And to Ewan; more people on the street praying presents a higher number of potential victims in more drive by shootings. I wouldn’t be volunteering for that! My self preservation gene would be keeping me inside, where it is a bit safer. How about we pray for people that are qualified, educated, and genuinely concerned about the citizens? Wait. We’ve been praying for that for years and this is the result. I proffer prayer is ineffective.

  • Gus Snarp

    Part of the problem is that sheriffs are elected officials, so they do things like this as political grandstanding. And there are many places where this sort of thing is awfully popular with the voters, especially in central Florida. So we get sheriffs like this one, like Grady Judd who persecutes people who challenge his unconstitutional gifts of county resources to churches. More broadly we get sheriffs like Si Leis in Cincinnati who tries (in futility, in the end) to censor the Maplethorpe exhibit and the Hustler store, and like Joe Arpaio in Phoenix who takes the law unto himself to arrest and abuse immigrants. All are symptoms of the same problem, sheriffs who think that with their election they get some level of power other law officers don’t have and that they must use to keep getting reelected.

    Why do we elect sheriffs? It seems like a silly anachronism to me. We’re electing the top law enforcement official based on their political positions and in some cases it becomes clear that violating the constitution can get them reelected. Who wants a top law enforcement official who is more beholden to their campaign donors and blocks of religious voters than they are to the law? If hiring the best qualified professional and making them accountable to city hall works for the biggest cities in the world (and lets leave off the problems of police departments, they’re a separate issue that the election of sheriffs hasn’t prevented in sheriffs’ offices either), then why shouldn’t it work for the county level?

  • Quintin

    40 days? You’d think that if it’s that effective, they’ll keep it up at least ’til Christmas. They can’t deny it, even they know it’s ineffective.

  • C Peterson

    I see a real opportunity for criminals here, what with the more sheep-like members of society congregating nightly on the streets. A nice chance for the wolves to engage in a bit of culling, no?

  • TiltedHorizon

    “It worked. We did it all over the city of Orlando, and I’ll tell you the crime rate went down”

    Which is another way of saying, crime still exists. Clearly a miracle.  

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Well, I guess if people were bowing their heads instead of shooting each other, then it would hypothetically work.

    But so would twiddling your thumbs, watching TV, eating ice cream, working at a soup kitchen, sleeping, singing the closing theme to “Lambchops Play-Along”, staring at the back of your hand,  etc., etc., etc….

  • Stev84

     He just didn’t pray hard enough

  • Tony Miller

    It worked in 2008 but now it isn’t. Does this mean prayers have a 4 year life span?

  • Gus Snarp

    You would think that if there were a god who was interested in human lives and justice, he wouldn’t require us to beg him en masse to stop innocent people from being shot.

  • Mandocommando23

    Well,the more Christians that gather in one place, the more the crime rate will go down. The criminals are at prayer group. The atheists are the only ones not there, and they make up less than one percent of the prison population. ;)

  • Coyotenose


  • burpy

    Well the FFRF has got one thing wrong. Assault weapons are not the problem, hand-guns are. But good luck getting any politician to touch that issue with a 10 foot barge-pole. 

  • TheBlackCat

     etc, etc, etc,  etc, etc, etc,  etc, etc, etc,  etc, etc, etc,  etc, etc, etc,  etc, etc, etc, (damn you, now I can’t stop), etc, etc, etc,  etc, etc, etc…

  • Miss_Beara

    When Perry prayed for rain for Texas, we got a ton of rain in Chicago while Texas experienced prolonged droughts. Thanks Perry! 

  • http://twitter.com/AchronTimeless Achron Timeless

    Honestly, yes. I’m one of those odd liberal atheists that doesn’t have too much of a problem with responsible gun ownership. That being said, other than hunting or being able to take on a couple thugs that just kicked in your front door (which is surprisingly easy to do) with a shotgun or the like, there really isn’t much reason to have one. I can’t even think of a legitimate reason for owning a handgun other than to kill someone. They’re small, concealable, and as a result turn arguments into ambulance rides. (Remember the argument several months back over who made the best Kool-Aid that turned into a shooting? Handguns.)

    With handguns, anyone on the street who gets pissed off can instantly end someone’s life without warning. Without them, you’d see someone carrying a rifle and you’d know they were armed and to be wary. Just imagine seeing a gang of youths carrying hunt rifles in the inner city. The police instantly know to go figure out what’s going on, whereas with concealable weapons they can’t abridge their right to freely assemble because you don’t know for sure if they’re armed.

    The myth of the “assault weapon” is a long running tradition in the debate, and as people who demand evidence for everything else I think it’s pathetic that one of our most visible organisations has fallen into the same trap. I’m not sure if it’ll let me post this link, but here’s an old video with a police officer showing what someone would consider a hunting rifle, and an “assault rifle” and they’re the same weapon with different cosmetic stuff bolted on. Then he shows a real assault rifle, which is rare that they can get their hands on one unless they’re in a major gang that is getting supplied by arms dealers. If they manage to get ahold of an actual assault rifle, well they’re already breaking the law so I doubt they’d care if you make more. Anyway, here’s the link http://youtu.be/STeyS6LYIx4

    So, please, don’t go spreading this “assault weapon” crap. We’re secularists, we above all should do better. We might as well be asking for a ban on unicorns for the way this is tossed around. If you want to actually prevent violence, go after handguns since people actually have those in their possession and use them for this kind of violence on a regular  basis. It would do measurable good, and would get a LOT of media attention.

  • The Other Weirdo

     They are not innocent, though. Isn’t that why Christians invented Original Sin?

  • NJMason32

    I guess they weren’t praying before the tragedies 

  • http://twitter.com/AchronTimeless Achron Timeless

    What it says to me is that if there is a god, even it can’t stand Rick Perry. =)

  • ImRike

    If they think praying will prevent crime, why not fire the all the sheriffs and hire some preachers to do the job? Maybe one of each religion, to make sure somebody prays to the correct god!

  • Helanna

    “God, we’re getting an awful lot of prayers suddenly . . . something about lowering crime rates?”

    “Well, I was going to let a bunch of innocent people suffer horribly, but I guess if they ask nicely enough and long enough I’ll let it stop.”

    Yeah, that casts him in a pretty condemning light. 

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    If it works, it’s only because the criminal element is laughing too hard to commit crimes.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Damn you! Now I have That One Song stuck in my head!

  • Willy Occam

    …or to the right god.

    Allah be praised!

  • Willy Occam

     I was thinking the same thing.  Of course, any positive effect would have nothing to do with prayer, but it couldn’t hurt getting more kooks off the street at night. 

  • newavocation

    Well if this doesn’t work they could start arresting the atheists that are not praying and screwing up their mojo.

  • TheBlackCat

     Chicago, where Obama is from.  If that isn’t a clear message from God I don’t know what is!

  • burpy

    Great comment, and I agree. If we pride ourselves on evidence based thinking, we shouldn´t leave it behind when talking about the gun violence issue.

  • A3Kr0n

    Instead of trying to get rid of every little piece of bullshit, why not get rid of the bull? The sheriff’s chaplain! You know, the religious guy who is getting paid with public funds.

  • Atheistbob

    i am so damned sick and tired of every damned official at every turn trying to pander to the superstition crowd… this sheriff should be removed immediately without pay.. and WHY the hell are we paying a freakin chaplain in the first place??? you want to minister, do it on your own time and your own dime… grrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    We just need to hold their feet to the fire on this, and demand (through Freedom of Information if necessary) before/after stats on ALL crimes.  Seasonally adjusted.  Because they’re going to find one specific type of crime that went down, and run with it.

  • http://www.quietatheist.com/ Slugsie

    It would almost be amusing if on the last day of the 40 days the Sheriffs office was hit by lightning and burned to the ground. That would send some odd messages to them that’s for sure. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1236955132 David Williamson

    Thanks Hemant!

    The local (prospective) FFRF Chapter is on this. The Central Florida Freethought Community has taken steps to let them know this is NOT okay and this is NOT going unnoticed. So far they have removed the image from Facebook, but they are still taking calls in support of the prayer vigils.