As the “defund” movement begins to mature, one hears more calling for reform and less calls for budgetary axe-wielding. That is a good thing. This writer, who has spent over four decades working with and for law enforcement, agrees with those officers who bemoan the amount of social work they do, the number of drunks, fall-down drug addicts they deal with, and even neighbors yelling over the fence at one another. Add barking dogs, overly enthusiast post-midnight dominoes games, and even birthday parties on steroids (figuratively—or maybe not). To the cop who says, “This isn’t what I went to the Academy for,” I agree.
The intention here is to add a suggestion to a growing list of complicated and difficult to implement reforms.. It is creating, or greatly enhancing, a police chaplaincy unit. It is an easy one because it is “an inside job” needing nothing from any other layer of government. It is creating, or greatly enhancing, a police chaplaincy unit.
Most all agree that policing is stressful. The uncertainty felt, mostly unstated, when one leaves the house knowing that they might never come home, is never far from one’s mind, nor that of those left behind. Some departments have staff sociologists and psychologists, Behavioral Units, for officers to talk to, but they are often avoided. Some have AA groups; alcohol consumption is a common problem among cops.
Enter the chaplain. There are several things to know about chaplains. First, they are ordained clergy so what is said to them is covered by clergy confidentiality. Secondly, a good, experienced chaplain deals with almost every situation an officer does. It doesn’t take long for a chaplain to understand what it is like to be a cop therefore become trusted members of the law enforcement family. They are often asked to do life cycle events for cops’ families, they do invocations and benedictions at law enforcement functions, they will sit in on roll calls, and of course they do counseling. It is not unusual for a cop to call a favored chaplain at two or three in the morning to unload things that have built up inside to an unmanageable level.
Chaplains do their service two ways. They do ride-alongs and they have an on-call schedule. Many cops have their favorite chaplains and try and fiddle with the ride-along schedules, so they have them in their cars. Chaplains do this for free. While some are retired, most add these eight to twelve hours a week to their already over-busy lives and schedules.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has an excellent chaplaincy unit. It can not be said that because of it, calm settled over the 12th largest Sheriff’s Department in the country. It can be said that after a few months, a large percentage of those served in their districts stopped resisting the chaplains and began to use them. Talk went to “Are you hungry yet, chaplain?” to issues of job, family, and other professional and personal issues. It can be said that some officers (because of confidentiality no hard data is kept) used chaplains for counseling and that some chaplains were called day and night by officers “who needed to talk.” It can be said that marriages and funerals were officiated at by chaplains, that chaplains and their spouses were invited to officers’ houses for dinner and v.v.
Before closing, let us look at a fantasy. In the George Floyd killing, had it taken place in a department where there was a well-run chaplaincy, a chaplain would have been on scene. Would any man or woman of the cloth allowed that to happen no less continue? While the interference would have been out of bounds, the training both as a chaplain and as a clergy person would have risen to the top. The chaplain either would have intervened or call someone to intervene. I’d bet my bottom dollar on it.
And the year-old case now first being given a fine-tooth comb going over in Aurora, Colorado? There is no part of that of case that has any redeeming qualities. From the very beginning, had the officer keep some distance, said to the suspect, “We’ve had a call about a suspicious person, please stop walking, remove your mask, and show me some ID.” After all, except for the “suspicion” there was nothing about that young man that screamed “danger.” Had that approach been used, we’d have one live twenty-something who not only played the violin but was a light in the lives of all he touched. And we’d have three police officers still on the job.
Again, in a better world, and a better run police department, there would have been a chaplain there. Not only would we have not had a death, we would have not had the costs of three cops off duty, the trials that are sure to ensure, and maybe the costs of jailing one or more of the officers. Cost of the chaplain? Zippo. Nada. Nothing.
What does this mean for police reform? All men know the adage, “Happy wife, happy life.” Well we can say happier officers, better atmosphere. A well-trained, well-run chaplaincy can help find troubled officers and ways in confidence to help them heal. Many officers who develop relationships with chaplains, even just knowing their availability, can hit the streets in a better frame of mind, and assumedly deal with the daily stress and stressors in a more balanced and reasoned matter than if that outlet isn’t available. Finally, while sociologists, psychologists, and Behavioral Units are important, they can require budget adjustments. The chaplaincy offers the best ROI for mental health that a department has available.
Bill Gralnick has spent over four decades working with and for law enforcement agencies. He was one of the first diversity trainers for law enforcement in the state. He was assigned by Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to modernize the PBSO chaplaincy unit which had two chaplains at its inception and 37 on his retirement. He taps keys regularly here, though during Covid he dream of the keys being kegs. He reminds you, “Read. It’s good for both of us.” He urges you to check out his new book, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn.” Amazon.com (where marvelous reviews continue to mount) for Kindle or in paperback; Barnesandnoble.com for Nook and paperback. He promised to “see” you next week, “Lord willin’ and the crik don’ rise.”