Police chaplains take mission of mercy to community’s frontlines

Scott Davidson, Flickr ; Jeff Kirchoff, Lee's Summit Journal;  Elvert Barnes, Flickr

Scott Davidson, Flickr; Jeff Kirchoff, Lee's Summit Journal; Elvert Barnes, Flickr


This article originally appeared in the Lee's Summit Journal
When Missouri Trooper Brandon Brashear was riddled with bullets during a May traffic stop in Lee’s Summit, Bryan England rushed to his defense.
England isn’t a police officer and doesn’t carry a gun. But as a law enforcement chaplain, he covered the wounded officer with a shield of spiritual and moral support.
After Brashear was airlifted to a hospital, England and other chaplains hurried to comfort friends and family. He stayed for six hours, helping to sustain relatives while Brashear underwent life-saving surgery.
Next, England went to Highway Patrol Troop A headquarters to support officers struggling to cope with the attack.
Although that’s not a typical day in the life of a chaplain, it illustrates the behind-the-scenes support these ministers provide to officers working on the front lines of the community.
“They’re invaluable,” said Lee’s Summit Police Chief  Ken Conlee. “They have a different set of skills than a police officer would have. They show up at critical incidents and provide assistance not only to the citizens but also to the officers.”
England, who serves at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, an Episcopal church in Kansas City, is part of a team of volunteer chaplains who serve Lee’s Summit’s law enforcement officers. Ten support the Police Department and five serve Troop A.
Chaplains have the unenviable task of helping officers deliver death notices and of being on hand when family deaths are investigated. They also offer their services to police who need counseling or simply want to vent after a difficult day.
“It is the best volunteer program going,” said Officer John Boenker, public information officer for the Lee’s Summit Police Department.
Comfort in time of need
Officers and chaplains face a tough job in delivering news of a death. When a suicide or a fatal automobile accident occurs, it often falls to the police to inform family members.
Although officers can empathize with people suffering loss, they aren’t usually equipped to provide counseling. In addition, if the death occurs in a home, police may be preoccupied with performing an investigation.
Chaplains help to bridge this gap, providing spiritual and practical assistance if the citizen requests it.
“We can’t give our total attention to the family,” said Lee’s Summit Police Sgt. Rod Schaeffer. “They (chaplains) are good at counseling and are aware of arrangements that need to be done. They are able to provide comfort that we are not able to do. A lot of people don’t like to reach out to a guy with a badge and a gun.”
England said he and other chaplains have no canned pep talk or agenda when visiting people in time of loss.
“We’re basically there for comfort,” he said. “There is not a lot you can say. The less you say, the better you do. It is a ministry of presence. You are just there and seeing what need you can meet.”
Chaplains do offer to make phone calls for the family or assist with funeral arrangements. If family members have religious faith, England may offer to pray with them.
“It’s whatever we can do to make the situation go a little smoother for them,” he said.
Rev. Dave Moore, senior pastor of New Summit Presbyterian Church, has been called twice in the last year to assist officers when they were investigating the accidental deaths of infants. Although police care for the families involved, they are chiefly there to investigate.
“You have a very awkward, very tender situation,” Moore said. “But they have a job to do. They have to determine if a child has been (intentionally) hurt in any way.”
Moore maintained a constant presence with the families while they were grieving and explained the situation as additional relatives arrived.
“At each point in this stage, people want to see the baby but they can’t,” he said.
Officers let him know that they appreciate his presence in such situations.
“Typically it’s understated and very direct,” he said. “An officer will say, ‘Hey, thanks for being here.’”
Encouragement on the job
In addition to serving the community at large, chaplains also look out for the health of the men and women in blue.
“Police officers are not immune from being affected by what they see and do out in the street,” Conlee said. “Those kinds of things generate questions. Typically a police officer is not going to share (them) with another police officer. This is another outlet for them.”
Moore and England said they are motivated to serve the department because they recognize the challenges officers face.
“Their job is very, very stressful,” Moore said. “They tend to encounter the 2-5 percent of society that is the least fun to be with. They don’t know when they walk up to a car if (motorists) have a gun in the seat.”
England echoed that sentiment: “Police officers have so much stress in their daily lives. I want to help that out.”
Although chaplains serve on a weekly rotation, much of the work doesn’t fit neatly into a planner.
“They’re real good at dropping whatever is going on … if they can,” Schaeffer said.
Last year, Moore’s teenage daughter informed him of the suicide of a classmate.
Without being asked, Moore went to the department at the time of a shift change simply to be available. He said the topic and the conversations were awkward, but he hopes he was helpful.
“In those times, there is a quiet presence that says to the officer, ‘I know you have to do your professional duty, but it’s alright for you to be shocked by this,’” Moore said. “It’s not unusual to be shocked by humanity, to experience what some would call post-traumatic stress. It’s not wrong for you to have a sleepless night, to hug your wife and child a little tighter.”
For that kind of support, Schaeffer is thankful: “We have to go through some very traumatic things. Unfortunately the divorce rate is very high in this field.”
Conlee said he continuously hears praise from his staff for the work of the ministers.
“They’re just always there,” he said, “always supporting.”
The work of chaplains goes beyond crisis management to proactive support. Moore occasionally rides along with officers on patrol and has even played softball with them. To him, the work is all about strengthening the men and women behind the badge.
“I want the department to feel they are supported, uplifted and helped,” he said.
Mission accomplished.