VENTURA, CALIF. (AP) — Christian law enforcement officers gather once a week to arrest stress: Sipping coffee and flipping through well-worn Bibles, they talk shop, share anxieties, read Scripture and bow their heads in prayer.
''It's critical for me. I can feel the difference when I don't attend,'' said Sheriff's Senior Deputy William Stevens. ''It's a dark world out there.''
To make policing it brighter, the Ventura County chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers gathers for an hour each Thursday in a cafeteria meeting room in the county's Government Center.
Up to 35 people attend, including policemen, sheriff's deputies, FBI agents, game wardens and California Highway Patrol officers.
The group is a local chapter of the national Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, an organization launched by a handful of Los Angeles Police Department officers in 1971. The nondenominational group, now based in Chattanooga, Tenn., counts some 4,000 members in 150 chapters.
At the weekly Ventura meetings, prayers are sometimes offered for officers and their families, for friends in crisis and for hospitalized cops. Topping the list at a recent meeting were a California Highway Patrol officer shot on a freeway 24 hours earlier and a Thousand Oaks police officer critically injured in a squad-car crash.
''It's important to keep our fellow officers uplifted,'' said Vinse Gilliam, deputy chief investigator for the district attorney's office who led a Bible study session.
The Rev. Charley Trigg, who attends the meetings twice each month, said they help relieve the anxiety that comes from dealing with crime every day.
''They feel the stress of a society that doesn't appreciate police officers in general and peace officers who put their life on the line each day,'' said Trigg, pastor at Oxnard's Calvary Chapel.
''The meetings help to encourage their individual walk with the Lord,'' Trigg added. ''A lot of them find it difficult sharing their faith with their partners or people they work with. This gives them a chance to reach out for their fellow officers.''
Meetings begin with chitchat, then a prayer to ''eliminate baggage of the past week.'' Gilliam then offers a bit of levity with a religious-themed joke and Stevens talks about inspiration he gets from an Internet prayer chat room.
''We enjoy a camaraderie which cannot be imitated by anyone outside our unique profession,'' said the fellowship's executive director, C. Grant Wolf, from his Tennessee office. ''Police officers deal with the garbage of society.
''Instead of people appreciating and honoring law enforcement officers, they are often dissed by the public. They deal with murders and traffic accidents where people are killed and they are expected to say, 'Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.' But they are human beings.''
And the nature of their profession, which includes working odd hours, often makes it difficult for officers to get involved with people outside law enforcement, Wolf said.
Additionally, there are some within law enforcement who feel Christian officers are wimps who might hesitate to act in a life-or-death situation.
''He might say, 'Oh, Lord! Should I shoot this guy or not?''' Wolf said, relating a fear expressed by some officers who say they don't want to work with Christian partners.
As a result, he said, not all officers want to be frank and public about their religious beliefs.
''There are what we call 'secret service' Christians on departments,'' Wolf said, ''those who feel they have to be very secret about their Christianity. They feel that Christianity is not macho enough for a peace officer.''