Police Chaplain Phyllis Poe had been offering comfort and coffee last April at the Oklahoma City bomb site when a police officer, covered in dirt, approached her and said desperately, "You've got to pray with me."
After more than 16 hours of digging through what was left of the federal building, the officer was preparing to return to the unimaginable task of searching for more buried bodies. Using an infrared camera, he had recovered 48 victims the night before, including a dead 4-year-old boy whose eyes were still open. The officer thought of his own 4-year-old son who was alive and well at home.
The officer was so caked in dirt and blood that Poe did not immediately recognize him; then she suddenly realized he was a friend from her own Oklahoma City Police Department. As they sat next to each other and prayed, the two felt a pair of arms wrap around them, offering warmth and strength. It was Poe's husband, Chaplain Dr. Jack O'Brian Poe. "It was awesome," Phyllis Poe recalled. "My heart bled for him (the officer). It gave me insight into what he was going through."
The husband and wife chaplain team, who have lent support to the Oklahoma City Police Department since 1990, were provided by the Southern Baptist Convention. Living less than 10 miles from the bomb site, they were among the first to arrive at the scene, ready to help. It was obvious to the Poes that like the survivors, those involved in the rescue efforts would face months of grief and emotional turmoil. As Jack Poe helped organize perimeters around the scene to keep out spectators, Phyllis Poe set up the Chaplain's Corner, a simple place of respite in the middle of what had become Hell.
"It was devastating," she recalled. "I didn't know a person could live on adrenaline for 21 days. Whatever needed to be done, we did it." As a police chaplain, she explained, her role is to assist police officers in need of support. "My main goal was to be there for the police. I hugged a lot of cops. That's where God put me."
During those first days, police detectives continued their search efforts, still dressed in business suits covered in dirt and blood. It became important for the chaplains "just to be a warm, real body next to them." she said. "We didn't have to say anything to them: just be there."
Poe said she learned that the officer who sought her companionship for prayer had reached for a diaper in the rubble and pulled it out, thinking he had found another child. Instead all he found was a baby's leg. "They weren't pulling out bodies, they were finding parts. That's what they were dealing with out there."
Poe said that throughout the ordeal the couple rarely slept and remained at the site for days on end, providing food and support. "Without the prayer of people throughout the state and the nation, we wouldn't have made it."
Gruesome, emotional and devastating—whatever the circumstances, police chaplains are committed to making themselves available where the greatest need exists for law enforcement officers, said David DeRevere, executive director of the International Conference of Police Chaplains (lCPC).
DeRevere, whose organization was established in 1973 in Texas and boasts a membership of more than 1,600, estimates that half the nation's police departments utilize chaplains either in volunteer capacities or with full-time staffs. Staffs can range from two to 40 chaplains. Chaplains are a tradition in the military and in law enforcement, but times are changing. The benefits, said DeRevere, are once more becoming apparent, appreciated and span the globe.
For instance, shortly after Hurricane Luis wiped out much of the islands of St. Correct and St. Thomas last year, police chiefs from both areas contacted ICPC. They requested assistance from chaplains to provide emotional support to officers whose homes had been destroyed. At least six chaplains from different regions of the country went to the islands-an effort financed by their individual law enforcement agencies, DeRevere said.
Chief Sam Gonzales, head of the Oklahoma City Police Department, agrees, calling the chaplains' role in law enforcement "significant." At the bombing site, for instance, they showed up the first day, offered snacks and coffee, and lent their support round-the-clock.
Because evidence had to be protected while the rescue efforts were carried out, the scene was even more chaotic. The destroyed building was also a crime scene; officers there not only helped in rescue efforts, but they also had to launch their investigation. The chaplains helped keep out the masses who came to help or see what had happened, the chief added.
"At the peak, there were about 100 chaplains (from different regions), all working in a coordinated effort to be out there. It became just as important to get a cup of coffee from them as words of encouragement."
Those "words of encouragement," he added, were critical to boosting the morale of those involved in the entire operation. He noted that Jack Poe, who recently was named president of ICPC, "is one of the few" who is permitted to enter Gonzales' office without an appointment and just say, "Chief, we need to talk."
Gonzales, who four years earlier worked at the Dallas Police Department, is familiar with the contributions of police chaplains and heartily endorses their work. Dallas had a dozen chaplains available, he said.
Meeting the Requirements
Over the years, the work has become more sophisticated as chaplains learn more about police procedures and the duties related to their work, DeRevere added. The ICPC offers three levels of certification that have helped the chaplain profession evolve.
The certifications include Level I, a 3.5-hour continuing education program covering 12 different areas; Level II, which is available to chaplains with at least five years experience and requires 150 hours of class-work; and Level III, which is otherwise known as the Master's Level, with a requirement of 250 hours of course work. Chaplains also must write a master's paper and participate in an oral interview to receive this certification.
While the chaplain's role is primarily to serve the officers, there are a variety of other duties as well, ranging from death notification, counseling family members, community outreach programs and officiating over funerals.
Father Michael Swan, an Episcopal priest and a former chaplain in Tampa, was enthusiastic about functioning as a support system to police.
Swan assisted police in 1992 when a disgruntled former employee of the Fireman's Fund returned to the company's Rocky Point office building at lunchtime and gunned down three company executives in the cafeteria.
Stunned by what he had seen, Swan said his respect for police work and how officers handle crises situations soared. The ever-friendly Swan said his main goal was to serve as an outlet for officers who had no other place to express their frustrations. Offering a shoulder to lean on and an ear to bend, Swan said he learned to understand the stresses that police endure.
Poe said her work sometimes goes beyond ministering just to the officers themselves. She said she is sometimes called to counsel females who don't feel comfortable confiding in men, as well as ministering to officers' spouses who may be experiencing marital troubles.
The Poes' 5-year marriage is entwined in their work.
They have teamed their pastoral duties for more than 20 years, and their work has not gone unnoticed. Since the bombing, they have received numerous invitations from organizations around the country to share their experiences during the aftermath of the bombing.[PAGEBREAK]
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."
"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."[PAGEBREAK]
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."
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.
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.