“Okay,” Ministry and Counsel said, “he can come to meeting for worship, but he can’t bring his gun.”
That was the response to my request to be given a few minutes at the rise of meeting in order to be sworn in as a chaplain by our police chief. Knowing that police officers never wear their uniforms without strapping on their guns, I said that I would relay the information to him. Being the flexible, accommodating person he is, the chief was happy to make an exception: coming in uniform but leaving his gun behind. His wife came too and has expressed an interest in coming again, just to be among us.
|Courtesy of Joey Rodger|
That incident embodies the tension felt by some when I explain that I’m both a Quaker and a chaplain for our Evanston Police Department. “How can you support men and women who carry guns?” they ask. Or, “Cops use force. That’s not the Quaker way.”
For a Friends Journal issue on crime and punishment, it seems appropriate to offer an account of the work police officers actually do to preserve the peace of our community, as well as to explain why this 70-year-old, white-haired Quaker feels led to support them as a part-time volunteer chaplain.
Police work is extremely stressful as well as dangerous. For beat officers, it is shift work, a factor that creates many tensions in their families. What kind of relationship can you have with your kids if you go to work at 3:15 PM and don’t get home until after midnight? or if you go at 10:00 PM and arrive home exhausted at 6:00 or 7:00 AM when your family is getting up? What happens if you work the day shift and get home in the afternoon? Perhaps your spouse takes off to work an evening shift, an arrangement worked out so one of you can be with your children when they are at home.
Add to shift work the challenge of never knowing what you will encounter in the course of the day: boredom when nothing happens, 15 minutes of action followed by three hours of paperwork, or a life-threatening attack. All are possible. Strapping on the bullet-proof vest, gun, taser, radio, and other equipment reminds every officer every day that he or she needs to be prepared for anything and everything.
Police officers see and handle many things that most of us rarely imagine. Recently our officers spent the better part of a day combing through the grass and bushes of a park behind a middle school, seeking the body parts of a young man who had literally blown off his head in the middle of the night. They didn’t want any remains left that might indicate a lack of respect for the man who had died or that might be found by children playing in the park the next day. Later, one seasoned officer noted in conversation that she had seen a lot, but “finding human flesh attached to a patch of grass” was something that she just couldn’t get out of her mind. The results of violence, between people or self-inflicted, need to be dealt with by somebody in society. In most of our communities, that “somebody” is a police officer.
Every police officer I know entered the force wanting to protect individuals and communities from danger. Each time I ride along with an officer, I ask, “Why did you decide to become a cop?” They all talk about having begun by wanting to serve and protect members of communities, wanting to help keep the peace. That idealism usually lasts about five to seven years, and then it begins to wear thin. As one of our officers says, “When you become a cop, nobody is ever glad to see you, and nobody tells you the truth.” That’s hard, day after day and year after year. For some officers, needing to walk into homes where children are abused and neglected because of addictions of the adults caring for them is the hardest thing. Any time a life is taken (whether it be a traffic accident or a fight), officers, on our behalf, absorb the disturbing images and interactions. One officer told me that he has gotten used to almost everything but can’t get animal abuse out of his mind after he’s had to deal with it.
In a presentation given by Craig and Kathy Hungler at the 2010 International Conference of Police Chaplains, they reported that one officer had written that “the benefits” of a law enforcement career included the following:
- elevated levels of alcohol and drug use;
- higher than the normal rate of divorce;
- extra-marital affairs;
- emotionally traumatized children;
- elevated suicide rates;
- elevated cases of spousal abuse;
- a short life span past retirement.
I’m lucky to be a part of an extremely progressive police department that offers trained peer support, so officers always have a colleague available for talking things through; that hires social workers for victim services; that has juvenile officers who believe in restorative justice, and beat officers who believe “the weapon of choice is always your voice.” Many go years without drawing their guns.
But being a police officer is hard, depleting work and almost impossible to do spaciously year after year. Police officers need and want emotional and spiritual support. That is what our Chaplain/Clergy Team (a.k.a. The God Squad) is there to offer.
There are five main areas of responsibility for police chaplains:
- Most importantly, we offer a ministry of presence on a regular basis: attending roll calls, riding along with beat officers, offering appreciation with food and kind words on special occasions, and just being available in our office at the police station for conversation. All conversations are confidential. In the words of our chief, we offer “safe space.”
- We are available to go with uniformed officers for crisis communication and death notification calls upon request.
- As appropriate, we offer pastoral care to police department members and their families in times of illness, death, or other major events.
- We assist in public ceremonies involving the police department: conducting services, offering prayers, or whatever is needed.
- We are available to help temporarily meet needs of crime victims or perpetrators for spiritual support until a link can be established or activated to a house of worship in the community.
One unofficial responsibility that has evolved is being an ambassador for our police department to the community. Ours is a great department, known for patience and respect as well as for skill, so this is not a hard job. People often approach me with stories about how an officer helped them. “Send an email to the Chief,” I tell them, as this is the way the system recognizes exemplary work. “Why don’t all officers live in town?” is another question. The answer is two-part: many can’t afford it, and others don’t want to have their children possibly harassed at school by kids that their parent has arrested. “Why does it take two cars to make a traffic stop? I was only going 15 miles over the speed limit.” Traffic stops often go bad very quickly. Unlike cops in TV dramas who always have partners, our officers work mostly alone. Stopping a car for speeding can quickly morph into an arrest for drunken driving, carrying a concealed weapon, or transporting stolen goods. The officer making the stop needs backup. This work of passing along appreciation and explaining why things are done the way they are is probably my most frequent community interaction as a chaplain.
For me, doing this work is a leading as well as a privilege. On a personal level, it became clear to me that becoming a police chaplain was part of my path to peacemaking.
In large cities, police chaplains are often full-time professionals. In our small city, our work is done by an interfaith, diverse Chaplain/Clergy Team composed of volunteers. In addition to this Quaker senior citizen, our team has included an Orthodox rabbi, a Catholic priest, an Episcopal priest, a Salvation Army major, a Seventh-day Adventist elder, and ministers from historically African American congregations. We will soon be joined by the Muslim Associate Chaplain at our local university. All, except me, are ordained in their traditions. It’s a wonderful and diverse group of people who come together to serve those who help keep our peace.
All of us first took a 12-week course in the local Citizen Police Academy that we might better understand the department and how it works. Following successful interviews, we were appointed by the Chief to be Associate Chaplains and assigned to a more senior member of the team who guided our early learning. Many of us have also been to several days of training offered by the International Conference of Police Chaplains with sessions such as Legal Liability and Confidentiality, Officer Injury or Death, Ceremonies and Events, and Stress Management. Experience, time, and additional training make us eligible for promotion to full chaplain status.
We gather monthly for prayer, conversation, and planning; hold regular in-service training sessions, and commit to being the on-call chaplain one day a week. On our on-call days, we try to get to at least two roll calls and often add “ride-alongs” so we can build relationships with individual officers. Like most institutional chaplains, ours is interfaith work. We offer ourselves as persons rooted in our home traditions but not advocates for them. We show up and do the work of love as we understand it: listening deeply, caring passionately, and always, always learning.
For me, doing this work is a leading as well as a privilege. On a personal level, it became clear to me that becoming a police chaplain was part of my path to peacemaking. In another role, I serve as Acting Executive Director for PeaceAble Cities: Evanston, a nonprofit committed to eliminating violence in our small city. How could I do anything but seek to serve the men and women who put their lives on the line every single day to keep the peace for my neighbors and me? After years of marching, demonstrating, and writing letters and checks for various international peace initiatives, I realized that was no longer my calling. I became convinced that creating paths to peace and eliminating violence in my own community was the work of these years of my life. In addition to the good it might help bring to my city, this commitment protects me from the righteousness without responsibility that I have experienced as an activist for causes I could little influence.
Joey Rodger (center) in conversation with community members during a program of PeaceAble Cities Evanston, 2010
It is a joy to unite with the spirit of the Elders at Balby who wrote in 1656: “That if any be called to serve the commonwealth in any public service, which is for the public wealth and good, that with cheerfulness it be undertaken, and in faithfulness discharged unto God.” (Christian Faith and Practice in the Experience of the Society of Friends, London Yearly Meeting, 1960, p. 580)
Other Friends may wish to consider such service in their communities or at least occasionally to let your local law enforcement staff know that their work is appreciated. They are important partners in the work for peace in the world.