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How police chaplains can serve your community

Having a chaplain in your department can be an incredibly valuable resource for all its members, from rookie to veteran, auxiliary to chief

Early in my current tenure, I responded to a call of “man with a gun — shots fired.” It turned out to be a suicide; a teenager had shot himself in the head in front of several of his peers. It was a tragic and traumatic situation, not only for the witnesses but for me and the responding officers. My team did what we do: the crime scene was processed; statements were taken; next of kin were notified. But so much of what “happened” to all present was not put down on paper, and did not make its way into the official record. Human beings need to process this kind of event with a qualified individual who is fully prepared to do so: a police chaplain.

This event became the catalyst in my looking into establishing a chaplaincy program for our small department. The addition of a chaplain, I felt, would not only broaden and deepen our ability to serve our community; it would serve the officers as well.

I got in touch with Rev. Jim Bangle, a retired Lutheran pastor and an excellent source of information on the use and benefits of police chaplains. He is currently the chaplain with the Marion (Va.) Police Department, and also serves as part of the FBI’s Crisis Response Team. As such, Rev. Bangle responded to the Virginia Tech massacre and served in his much-needed capacity as a chaplain. Using Rev. Bangle as a resource and sounding board, I set about implementing a formal chaplaincy program for my police department.

The Function
Police chaplains serve in a wide variety of ways. They may be called upon to assist in death notifications, assist and support victims in times of crisis, respond to suicide incidents, and serve as part of a crisis response team. They visit sick or injured personnel, are a resource for counseling for members of the agency and their families, and serve as a liaison with other clergy in the community. They are called upon to deliver the invocation or benediction at public ceremonies as representatives of the police department. They also are on hand to serve inside the police department.

Rev. Bangle voiced what we as law enforcement officers know: “…police work is underappreciated, and can rapidly shift from long periods of boredom to moments of genuine fear. Having someone on your team to talk to about this, not as a fellow cop but as a genuine listener, is invaluable.”

Having a chaplain simply drop by the department on occasion and, as Rev. Bangle puts it, “loiter with intent” for a little while, can gently open the door to needed communication.

The position of police chaplain is typically a special, non-certified position that carries no law enforcement powers, but does require that person have or develop an unique understanding of police work and the challenges law enforcement officers and their families face on a daily basis. This understanding enables them to be a very effective part of the department, assisting inside and outside the patrol car.

The role of police chaplain can be a very demanding position as their services can be requested at all hours of the night, under all kinds of conditions. They are bound by the same ethics as law enforcement officers, especially when it comes to confidentiality, as well as by departmental policies and procedures.

The Selection
More important than having a police chaplain is having the right chaplain. One size does not fit all; just because an individual may be a minister or pastor of a church does not mean that they are the right person to serve as a department’s chaplain. Applicants for the position must be carefully screened and interviewed, as you would any prospective member of your department. Additionally, there are some serious choices that must be made, and important questions asked.

The position requires a very special man or woman; the individual must be willing to be carefully screened before being appointed, the position (as in my department) is likely unpaid, and the work can be extremely unglamorous and boring (just like police work). The police chaplain serves as a very visible embodiment of the department’s ethics, and may serve as a representative of the department at public functions. Accordingly, the selected individual must be someone who will fit the needs, culture and image of the department.

As noted by the International Conference of Police Chaplains, the position and function of a police chaplain differs from that of a pastor. Their role is to serve, not preach — it is a ministry of presence. Police chaplains, just like military chaplains, must be able to deal with a variety of people with different faith backgrounds, as well as people without faith backgrounds. There is a difference between being a pastor and being a chaplain. A pastor takes an active role in people’s faith life development, while a chaplain supports people where they are at that moment.

Sort of like the difference between a family physician and a medic in the field of battle.

This leads to a major decision that must be made by the agency head, and may lead to a question that must be asked of candidates. There has been a fair amount of controversy and debate in recent years regarding public prayers by police chaplains, and how those prayers are worded and closed. When the head of a state police agency directed the agency’s chaplains, while serving in their official capacity as agency chaplains, to refrain from sectarian wording of prayers at public events, many of the Christian chaplains objected strenuously, and some resigned their chaplaincy.

They clearly saw no conflict with presenting themselves as a representative of the agency and putting forth a specific theological doctrine. Other agencies’ chaplains chose to utilize a more inclusive wording. When asked about this subject, Rev. Bangle noted that he closes his public prayers with “in your Holy Name,” thereby allowing the listeners to decide whether that name is God, Yahweh, Allah, or some other title for a Supreme Being. Individual agency heads will need to determine what is appropriate for their agency and community.

The Implementation
I would strongly urge agencies considering establishing a police chaplaincy program to first create and implement appropriate policies and procedures, just as you would for any other position within a law enforcement agency. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I reached out to the Christiansburg (Va.) Police Department, a larger, accredited department that already had an excellent chaplaincy program in place.

Utilizing their policy, I was able to modify and craft one that would “fit” my agency and jurisdiction. Having completed the appropriate modifications, I submitted the new policy to the Town Council for their review and approval. This afforded me an opportunity to discuss with the Council what I wanted to establish and why, and to answer any questions they had about the program. The response from the council was very positive, and I was able to move forward with their full support.

The agency head will need to decide what the appropriate attire will be for the chaplains. In my agency, police chaplains have a badge and an identification card identifying them as such, but they are not in uniform. The badge is one that they can wear on a chain around their neck that serves to identify them as being authorized to be at the emergency to which they’ve been called. It is modeled after an officer’s badge, identifying the department and state, with “Chaplain” in place of “officer.” The chaplain’s badge is silver like the Patrol Officers’, not gold like the supervisors. This further helps to identify the chaplains as members of the rank and file, not the administration.

Our chaplains are sworn in using the same oath of office as the rest of the department, and are bound by the same Policy and Procedure manual as the Officers in terms of confidentiality, ethics and protocols. They are included in general departmental emails, and are invited to departmental meetings and special events. They also have an open invitation to ride with an Officer at any time, following the same guidelines as a civilian ride-along.

There are several different organizations for law enforcement chaplains. I utilized a part of my “memberships” budget to sign ours up with the International Conference of Police Chaplains, an organization I’ve found to be very helpful in developing our chaplaincy program. Membership comes with a certificate, ID card, window decal and windshield placard, along with connection to a large network of other men and women who are serving in a like capacity.

Finally, I’m very glad I decided to have more than one chaplain for my agency. Given that our chaplains are volunteers with outside jobs and lives, it only made sense to have a couple of options we could reach out for in case of emergency. I put out a call to the community for ecclesiastically certified candidates interested in working with our department in this role, and was fortunate to find two very qualified individuals in our community who now serve as our police chaplains.

Their home and cell numbers are on file with dispatch, thereby increasing the likelihood of success when we radio, “Dispatch, I need a chaplain to respond to this location.”

The Conclusion
Having a chaplain in your department can be an incredibly valuable resource for all its members, from rookie to veteran, auxiliary to chief. I’ve found them to be of tremendous help, not just when it hits the fan on the street, but also when the emotional checkbook gets overdrawn in the quiet of the squad car or office.

Anyone with any questions regarding the establishment of a chaplaincy program are welcome to email me.

Rob Hall began his law enforcement career in 1994 as a volunteer for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. Hired by the S.O. on January 1, 1995, he was fewer than five months into his career as a cop and just five blocks away from the Murrah Building when it was blown up at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. That incident defined many things for the rest of his life, including his dedication to law enforcement. In the years that followed, Hall has served as a Patrol Deputy, Drug Investigator (including a four-month stint in deep cover), Homicide Investigator of capital murder cases, Investigations Supervisor, Assistant Chief, and Chief of Police.