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Cover Story

Police Chaplains: Helping Hands

Gruesome, emotional and devas­tating—whatever the circumstances­, police chaplains are committed to making themselves available where the greatest need exists for law enforcement officers.

February 01, 1996  |  by Sara Roen

Off the Record

In past years, some police departments have turned to police psychologists to counsel officers in need. In many cases, they perform important functions that work hand-in-­hand with what chaplains do.

However, chaplains offer a different kind of emotional support. Officers aren't going to feel comfortable confiding in a psychologist who takes notes and keeps the information on file. Often the only contact officers have with a staff psy­chologist is in their office and after a crisis situation. No rap­port or relationship has been established, and the information usually can be found in an officer's personnel file. Whatever is shared with a chaplain is confidential and goes no further.

Confidentiality and a non-judgmental philosophy are cru­cial to gaining and keeping a police officer's trust, according to George "G.W." Schwanenberg, chaplain for the San Anto­nio Police Department and for the FBI. 'I'm no fink," and the officers know that, he explained.

Schwanenberg, who is in his 70s and has been a chaplain for 40 years, was asked to "debrief' several of the FBI agents who were involved in the 1993 Branch Davidian incident in Waco, Texas. Schwanenberg, the son of a police officer, said he was only asked to listen to each officer on a one-an-one basis.

"They were like soldiers in battle," he said. Agents, who were under constant stress, were frustrated from the long shifts they worked and being separated from their families for such a long time-all while witnessing fellow law enforcement officers getting killed. Due to the nature of the operation, many of the officers at the scene were unable to grieve or attend the funerals of those slain before their eyes.

"It was a bitter experience for some," Schwanenberg said.

"My job is to listen, not to direct them. I'm to give them an 'I'm sorry, you're still loved and needed,' and to let them know that this will pass." Sometimes that's just what they need.

DeRevere emphasized that chaplains come from all faiths, ranging from Roman Catholic and Baptist to Jewish. They are not charged with steering someone toward one particular faith or following. "It's in our code of ethics; no proselytiz­ing," he said. Officers can speak candidly without fear of judgment or pressure to alter their beliefs. "The officer can talk to us in confidence. He's not going on the record."

Firsthand Experiences

"Officers sometimes need a non-judgmental ear to listen to their troubles, just a chance for cops to vent stress," said Rev. Rob Dewey, senior chaplain for the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy of Charleston County in South Carolina.

"Shift work is tough," said Dewey, a former police offi­cer. "What other job do you worry if you're going to come home at night?"

He recalled a string of events that would take a toll on even the toughest person. Joining officers for just a few short hours, Dewey responded with police to a series of events that included an attempted suicide off a bridge. a DUI and a case where he had to minister to the mother of a rapist. "We have to be available,"' he stated emphatically, noting that he is pri­marily there to serve the officers' needs.

In bigger communities, such as Rockford, Ill., depart­ments often have a staff of chaplains ensuring that someone is available 24 hours a day. The Rockford Police Department has a legion of 30 chaplains. who average nine calls a day, said Father William Wentink, who also serves as a chaplain for the FBI and the Illinois State Police. Wentink has been "on the streets" for 26 years.

His responsibilities include recruiting patrol and working with individuals and families. In recruiting, he cautions new officers about stress-the signs, symptoms and how to avoid or detect it. Through the family counseling, he believes offi­cers can learn to better manage the stress of the job.

The job isn't easy, he said, recalling a period when three offi­cers were shot and killed in the line of duty, and he offered sup­port to the families and other officers. "We still keep in close touch with those families. Those were difficult times for them."'

A Distinct Role

The role of police chaplain is defined, Wentink says. His "job description" states that he is to provide spiritual guidance and counseling to all members of the department, both sworn and civilian, as well as to their families in times of need.  Also, the chaplain is to be an aid to Rockford Police officers and the people of Rock­ford through a field service ministry.

Chaplains provide moral supp0I1 and build a rapport that a psychologist can't, Wentink said. They often ride regularly with patrol officers, developing first­hand experience and knowledge of what cops face daily. By building trust and credibility, chaplains are able to effec­tively help officers in times of crisis as well as months and even years after.

He said he performs a wide range of duties, including difficult death notifications, assisting in finding lodg­ing, food and medications, counseling for family disturbances, helping people who are alone with a problem and among others, being a stable force in a crisis situation. Chaplain Schwanen­berg said his wife makes a practice of delivering baby blankets to officers with newborns.

While gaining an officer's trust can be difficult and take time, Wentink dis­cussed other difficult issues in his law enforcement capacity. More than a decade ago, he responded with police to a house where a father had killed his six children.

"Being in the house with the bodies of those six kids and with the offi­cers-that was very difficult," he said, adding that officers must deal with these types of tragedies every day.

"I really believe that police are people of God. They work for peace, jus­tice and order. I like dealing with them," Wentink said. "I still get shocked at some of the things I see. I think the day you don't get shocked is the day you should get out of it."

Tags: Police Chaplains, Officer Psychology


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