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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

Street Smarts

Wentink has managed to remain calm and cool during stressful times. In the early '70s, his department request­ed that he help negotiate a hostage situation. In phone contact with the sus­pect, Wentink explained to the suspect that he was a Catholic priest. Suspi­cious, the suspect ordered the priest to prove it by reciting a mass in Latin.

"That's when God came through and gave me two sentences in Latin," Wentink recalled, noting that he couldn't remember the Latin he had learned as an alter boy. The suspect released the hostage and was subse­quently arrested; afterwards, Wentink asked whether he was Catholic.

The suspect said he wasn't, but then revealed that his mother had been a housekeeper for a priest who had been kind to him as a child.

"Those are the kinds of situations you build on. Someone had been nice to him and he remembered that. The same thing happens with cops."

Serving as a police chaplain is one of the most important facets of his work, said Rabbi Moshe Wolf of the Chicago Police Department. Wolf said he enjoys riding patrol and is commit­ted to helping police officers, particu­larly in times of trouble.

"Sometimes the hardest part is not having enough time to spend with each officer," Wolf said, stressing that officers should lean how to pat themselves on the back. "Many can't do that," he said.

Wolf has unique insight into chap­laincy. His rabbi father served as a chaplain for the New York City Police Department. His two brothers, who also are rabbis, also serve as chaplains-one in New York and the other in Cleveland.

Wolf, who stands about 6 feet 4 inches tall, is trained in martial arts, and notes that he is capable of defending himself if necessary.

However, he said the role of a police chaplain does not include getting physi­cally involved.

"It takes a little bit of street smarts. There's a certain element of chaplains who can't be tough."' he laughed. "A chaplain needs to know that you can be compassionate, understanding, but also that there are ceI1ain elements of life that go beyond our comprehension—death, shootings and just being crazy."

Maintaining Confidentiality

Wolf emphasizes that the bigger con­cern in chaplain work is an officer's pri­vacy. "Confidentially is not a big issue. It's the issue."

Wentink echoes that critical ethical code. "You must be completely dedicat­ed to confidentiality. You have to base your whole career on confidentiality."

FBI Special Agent Mike Appleby said chaplains weren't utilized by the agency in April 1986 when two agents were killed and five others wounded in an unexpected gun battle with two sus­pected bank robbers in Miami. Appleby, a spokesman in the Miami office, said the event was devastating to everyone, because FBI agents rarely get involved in such situations. "We're not law enforcement officers; we investigate violations of the law."

In that case, two seasoned and popu­lar agents, Benjamin P. Grogan, 53, and Gerald Dove, 30, were shot and killed. The two suspects whom agents had been monitoring were shot and killed by one of the wounded agents.

A few years after that, the agency initiated an employee assistance pro­gram, which includes seminars for officers involved in crises situations like shootings. The course is offered at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., which also offers training programs for police chaplains.

Appleby, who had been involved in a shooting in which no one was hurt, attended one such seminar. He said the idea is to help officers deal with what happened.

Often in shootings where someone is wounded or killed, law enforcement officers are removed from duty while the incident is being investigated. However, Appleby believes that sepa­rating officers from their peers defeats the healing process, since they're being removed from the very ones with whom they would be most com­fortable opening up.

Future Outlooks

Therefore, offering chaplain assis­tance may be the next best thing. That applies even to students in middle schools, according to Lt. Buddy Roys­ton of the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Royston, who in the same year became certified in law enforcement and a practicing minister, developed a school resource officer program involving the chaplains.

"The idea is to get the public to see cops as people," Royston explains. Through the program, he says, school resource officers (SROs) function as chaplains of sorts, bonding with students and helping them stay out of trouble. With sUPP0l1 from Royston, SROs have responded to student suicide attempts, child molestations and abuse, as well as other problems students have shared. "You see people at their greatest need when you're a cop," he said, adding that this also applies to chaplains.

Most chaplains make it a rule to ride regularly with patrol officers, helping to establish and maintain their visibility.

In some cases, it's a requirement.

Others have offices in police depart­ments and spend time with officers daily. And several have had their share of scrapes and close calls.

Schwanenberg said that while accompanying a patrol officer recently, they were shot at several times. "We had picked up two boys and (were) loading them in the car. They took off and turned around and started shoot­ing," he said, laughing.

In 1992, Rabbi Sruly Wolf of Cleve­land received a Citizen Award Plaque for saving the life of an unconscious, off-duty Chicago police officer. Sruly Wolf, who was in Chicago on business, was walking down a street and saw the officer in a smoke-filled vehicle and pulled him from the car. In a newspaper account of the event, he remained mod­est. "Look, I just went to Chicago that week to attend a trade show."

Chaplains say they are aware of the danger that's involved, but it's not a deterrent.

Their dedication to supporting police outweighs the risk, they say. That doesn't mean it isn't frightening. "The chases are the worst." noted Schwanen­berg. "They're so scary. I always tell the officers to drive safely."

Schwanenberg said some of the doggedness officers display in their work is not worth the risk.

"I just tell them that if we miss 'em, God will get 'em."

Sara Roen is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Fla.

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Tags: Police Chaplains, Officer Psychology


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