Calls going out for police chaplains More officers turning to clergy for comfort

May 10, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A mortally wounded police lieutenant draws his last breath as a chaplain keeps vigil. An officer shaken after shooting a suspect or despondent because job stress is affecting life at home turns to a chaplain for counsel.

As police officers increasingly face lethal confrontations in a city beset by violent crime, and cope with stress on and off the job, chaplains stand ready to offer spiritual support.

The demand for chaplains' services is growing as chaplains expand their mission beyond ministering to officers and their families to include families of violent crime victims.

To respond to the increasing workload, Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier is doubling the size of the Baltimore Police Department chaplain unit. Other jurisdictions say that for a variety of reasons, their chaplains are responding to more calls, and they are seeking additional clergy members to volunteer their time.

The Rev. Theresa E. Smith Mercer, whom Frazier hired in December to be the department's full-time chaplain coordinator, is recruiting 10 chaplains to join the nine serving the department.

"Our chaplains are volunteers," said Mercer, who was a chaplain for Liberty Medical Center. "They are pastors of churches. There are time constraints for them. To put together an effective program to support the officers and the sworn personnel, the best way to do that is to increase the numbers."

Suburban police departments are also feeling the squeeze and are contemplating expanding their chaplain corps.

In Howard County, where the rate of violent crime is much lower than in Baltimore, a new factor in the demand for chaplains is the cellular phone.

"The trend today is on serious accidents. We get family members who are called on cell phones and begin to arrive on the scene," said the Rev. George Grimm, a Baptist minister who coordinates Howard County's six chaplains. The traumatized family members need someone to comfort them, and chaplains can do that, freeing officers to do their work at the accident scene. "That's a need that's probably increased tenfold in the last several years," Grimm said.

Said the Rev. Rowland D. Scott, acting coordinator of Baltimore County's chaplains, "There is a lot more stress on police officers."

Scott said that when officers ask to speak to one of the department's chaplains, it's not necessarily because of something traumatic that happened on the street. "It's not usually so much what happens on the job, but what happens on the job creates personal problems," he said.

Trend nationwide

Nationally, the trend is for departments to engage the services of more chaplains and to make sure they have the proper training. Membership in the International Conference of Police Chaplains has increased by 30 percent, to 2,100, in the past two years, said Executive Director David DeRevere.

"We've grown to the point where we have 17 regional seminars throughout the year," DeRevere said.

The organization also offers basic, senior and master's certification programs for chaplains.

"I think the departments are recognizing more and more that their largest resource is their people, and anything they can do to help their people is going to be beneficial to the department and the community," he said.

Frazier came from a police department in Fresno, Calif., with a well-organized chaplain unit and has wanted to have the same in Baltimore. "He feels this is a very important aspect of the support his police officers need," said Maj. Allen S. Kogut, commanding officer of the Education and Training Division, which includes the chaplain program.

A nondepartmental ear

"From a police standpoint, when we get involved in a traumatic situation, specifically a police-involved shooting, the officer may want a member of the clergy to speak to," Kogut said.

In the wake of a shooting, there is a procession of people who want to talk to the officer, including homicide detectives, who investigate all shootings involving police, and members of the department's Internal Investigations Division. The officer will often want to speak to a clergy person, who can lend a nondepartmental ear to deal with the stress of the situation, Kogut said.

Mercer said, "They want to know they're talking to someone and it is confidential."

Chaplains also are called in when police officers are wounded or killed in the line of duty. The Rev. John McLoughlin of St. Wenceslaus Church in East Baltimore received the call one year ago when Lt. Owen E. Sweeney Jr. was shot in the back through a closed door by a mentally ill man in Northeast Baltimore. McLoughlin held Sweeney's hand as he died in a hospital emergency room and eulogized him six days later at Sweeney's funeral.

McLoughlin's involvement didn't stop there. He accompanied family members to court and consoled them last month when the man who killed Sweeney was confined to a mental institution and given no prison time. And today he will celebrate a memorial Mass for the Sweeney family at the home of the slain man's parents.

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