(RNS) — For 12 years, Dale Sutherland spent his mornings at church working as a youth pastor and his afternoons wandering the streets of northwest Washington, D.C., as an undercover narcotics officer, searching for drugs.

Sometimes, his two lifestyles would collide, like when he received calls while at church from drug cartel members and calls from church members while he was buying drugs.

“The drug dealers don’t know you’re at church, and the church people don’t know you’re doing drugs,” said Sutherland, who is now a pastor at City Light Church in Falls Church, Virginia. 

In February, he released the first episode of “Cops, Criminals and Christ,” a podcast in which he shares anecdotes from his past life and how faith guided him during his years of service.

It is also an occasion for him to shed light on what an undercover officer’s life truly looks like. Now a retired officer, Sutherland also dedicates more time to increasing cooperation and trust between police and the people they serve. In 2015, he founded Code3, which works to create “the conditions for cops and communities to work better together.”

“Cops, Criminals, and Christ" podcast. (Courtesy image)

“Cops, Criminals and Christ” podcast. (Courtesy image)

His daughter and co-host, Kristen Crew, prefaces each episode by noting that the podcast highlights “interesting stories and unique perspectives about the world of cops, the world of criminals and how faith plays a role in the lives of both.”

Sutherland said his encounters with criminals, drug addicts and dealers helped him grow spiritually as much as his time serving parishioners did. Still, maintaining both activities felt odd and challenging sometimes. He found himself questioning whether his job aligned with his ministry.

“How do you buy drugs to the glory of God? You know, it’s quite complicated to try to think it through,” he said.

Growing up, Sutherland attended nondenominational churches and decided at a young age to go into ministry to serve children. At 21, just as he was heading to Washington Bible College, he chose to work in law enforcement for a year to observe firsthand the challenges faced by the communities he would pastor.

“I didn’t know much about life or what they were struggling with,” said Sutherland, who ended up working as an officer for 29 years. “I felt like I was needed and I was doing something that I was actually having some success at.”

After climbing the ranks, Sutherland became detective sergeant of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Major Case Squad, a special investigative unit. He served as the lead investigator in 15 narcotic conspiracies, some of which lasted several months. In 2013, he retired at 50, three years after receiving the D.C. Detective Sergeant of the Year award.

Sutherland became a police officer at the peak of the crack epidemic in the late 1980s. The violence related to the selling of crack cocaine had transformed D.C., he recalled. His unit would be called on multiple shooting scenes happening simultaneously almost every day.

“I don’t think people really appreciate it. We don’t talk about it enough in history. How big of a deal that was in America. I mean, it was like a civil war across the United States,” he said. “It was a crazy time.”

According to a Drug Enforcement Administration report, murders related to crack use skyrocketed in the 1980s and ’90s. At the high point, in 1989, 7.4% of homicides committed in the country were related to drug use. Acts of violence related to the crack epidemic included addicts committing robberies to purchase drugs and homicides committed by drug cartel members.

Because approaching drug dealers to gather information was highly risky, Sutherland said members of his unit would usually target one neighborhood, become regular clients and study dealers’ practices before proceeding to arrests.

Despite what movies suggest, life as an undercover officer doesn’t always involve living on the run for years, noted Sutherland. Given the number of clients dealers saw daily at the peak of the epidemic, sometimes more than 100, changing clothes was enough to go unnoticed. 

“It would be like talking to your grocery store clerk and saying do you remember your customer from three days ago, they came at two o’clock in the afternoon?” he said.

Still, Sutherland, who is white, said his presence in predominantly Black neighborhoods raised suspicion among dealers who feared police intervention and robberies. 

“If I’m a new person, and I’m Caucasian and came from the suburbs or whatever, I fall more into the likelihood of police than into robbery,” he said.

Sometimes, members of his squad would go as far as creating bruises on their arms by pocking them with needles to prove to dealers they were truly addicts.

In his latest episode of “Cops, Criminals and Christ,” titled “I barely escaped death,” Sutherland describes one of the scariest moments of his career.

In 1992, after 10 months of a long investigation on a gang operating in northwest Washington, Sutherland and his team arrived at a selling point ready to arrest a dozen gang members — without realizing they were about to be ambushed. 

On this day, the team’s informant, a man who knew the dealers, was shot 28 times. “He was young. He didn’t deserve that, he just had a baby. That was all extremely sad,” he said. The investigation led to the arrest of 18 drug dealers

In the late years of his career, when he worked as an officer and a pastor, Sutherland said being confronted with such dramatic situations helped him see “the impact of sin and the pain that happens when sin goes crazy.”

Looking back, Sutherland doesn’t think his work displeased God, on the contrary. “I did not have any trouble spiritually with me enforcing the law or working undercover. I never had a struggle with that, that God was displeased. I didn’t believe that at all,” he said.

While on duty, Sutherland shared about Christ with his co-worker. In his years of service, he also had the occasion to discuss Christianity with drug dealers he had arrested in prison. He became particularly close with one who had recently finished serving time in a federal prison and who now helps in his ministry.

“I have been able to lead to Christ a few of the guys we’ve arrested over the years as well,” he said. “I used to lock people up, and now I set them free.”

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