PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) – A child custody battle was shoved into the spotlight when a Pensacola police officer interrupted a church service to execute a court order while parishioners captured the encounter on video.
After reviewing the case, Pensacola Police Chief David Alexander III said he believes officer Meghan Darling was acting within her duties when she entered the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal church, but people who were inside argue she should have waited until they finished their communion service.
“The officer properly did her job in reviewing the court ordered paperwork and in asking several people to please have the child leave the church to be returned to the father. Unfortunately, the people did not comply with her requests, thereby necessitating her to enter the sanctuary,” Alexander said. “We were there to obtain a peaceful resolution as opposed for it ending the way it did.”
Leading up to the incident, Escambia County Florida Sheriff’s deputies made attempts to retrieve the 13-year-old girl from her grandparent’s house outside of the city limits. In a statement, Alexander said the girl’s father had court documentation ordering the return of the child to his custody.
Alexander said Darling drove to the church with the father, hoping to initiate a peaceful exchange for the child, who was with her grandfather, the pastor. The encounter quickly escalated.
The body camera video shows Darling talking with parishioners in the lobby. They claim that they’re going to walk inside the sanctuary and retrieve the girl, but they never do. After a few minutes, Darling opens the door and walks to the front of the church to retrieve the girl herself.
Alexander said that at least one person in the congregation berated Darling saying she was the cause of people being shot in the back. The comment can be heard on the body camera video.
Reverend Freddie Tellis repeatedly told Darling that she needed to leave the sanctuary while they were performing the communion service. When Darling’s supervisor, Sgt. Demetrius Stallworth, showed up, they waited for communion to end, but the child was not returned to the father until after the entire church service was over.
Tellis spoke to WKRG on the phone about the incident.
“All I wanted was for her [Darling] to use good judgement and good judgement says ‘let’s wait 15 minutes,’ Tellis said.”There was no flight risk. There was no crime being committed. It was a civil matter, not a criminal matter. There was no need to disrupt a church service over a minor thing that could have been done afterward in 15 minutes.”
Tellis said he didn’t file a complaint against the officer, but said he wants the chief to explain why it was necessary for the officer to take his granddaughter in the middle of the service. He said the altercation would have ended peacefully if she had waited before entering the church.
Chief Alexander said the incident could have been avoided completely if family members and parishioners initially cooperated.