The heart of the matter.

DSC_0572A few months ago I received an email from the Chief of Police which was sent through the email database for the “Interfaith Coalition”. The letter was an invitation to meet with him to discuss the revival, and the expansion of the Police’s Chaplaincy Program.  As a Zen monk, and a social worker, I was used to dealing with the aftermath of arrests and law enforcement contact, however, as an asset to the arrestee. My time and effort was always geared towards helping men, women and children in crisis situations; for example, crisis intervention, helping homeless families find shelter, transporting men and women to treatment centers, intake and referral as well as the occasional supportive court appearance. To be honest, I had never really given any thought to what it must be like for the police, and how dealings with conflict day after day could affect a person. To be honest, what many of us see via the media makes law enforcement look cold and mechanized, and that was my assumption. Law enforcement in the United States has become jaded, and police officers are many times perceived to be a tool and method of oppression. I am in no way saying that there are not officers who abuse their power, there are, and interestingly enough most law enforcement will admit to this as well. However, maybe our view of law enforcement is limited in scope, and we are missing a vital piece of the puzzle, a piece called “heart”.


After a background check, credentialing and some preliminary police chaplaincy training, at the Police Academy, twelve chaplains were chosen. I think we are down to seven now, which is “par for course” due to clergy being so easily over committed. Soon after our preliminary training, we were fitted for our uniforms. It gets old quickly telling everyone, I am not an officer, I am a chaplain. Our new uniforms easily identify us as chaplains, and now that the community knows what we are, they appear very supportive of the pairing. Our next step was to begin our “ride-a -longs”, in which we are paired with an officer. These are different from the public “ride-a-longs” as we are there to offer a supportive role to both the officer and the community. The liaison for the program soon informs us that we are cleared to begin our “ride a longs”, and I schedule my first one, second shift.

Being ordained for 15 years, I have seen many unsettling things, from suicides to fatal car accidents, however, I had no idea what to expect on my first “ride a long”.  I was fairly confident as a social worker how to interact with many of the men and women I knew we would come into contact with, my steep learning curve was how to interact with the officers. We were instructed to attend “role call” and at that time we would be partnered with an officer. Just sitting in role-call was a lesson, the sergeant sat in front of the room and read the briefs for the day. “Does this stuff really happen here?” I asked myself. Soon after I was greeted by my partner for that shift, a young officer. I guess he ended up with the rookie chaplain as part of his dues. This young officer’s honest enthusiasm about his job immediately put me at ease, and in between calls, I listened to him speak. I soon realized that there was a young man behind that uniform, and that young man was much more ordinary than televisions shows like “cops” portray. He could have been my son or my nephew. He was a young family man, and spoke with excitement and pride when the topic moved to the new additions to his home, and family. He said he didn’t want to know if it was a boy or girl, and I blurted out, “neither did I”. It was during my first ride-along that I deeply realized, these officers are wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, brothers and sister and that their lives and dreams were no different than yours and mine, with the acceptation that on any night, these dreams could come crashing down during something as seemingly mundane as a traffic stop. Yes, those dreaded flashing lights behind you, after you push that yellow light a little too far. For us, this is a “Don’t you have anything better to do” moment, however, for a police officer, there is more to it. He has seen something you probably have not, the aftermath of what happens when you are not so lucky as to squeak through that intersection, and that parent returning home from a hard days work, never gets there.

On my next ride-along I found myself paired with a veteran officer who was also a medic. After that evening’s roll call, I knew I was in for a lesson, literally, the other officers said “You’re in for a lesson” and I could tell my partner, on this evening, was going to be colorful and interesting. This ride along started as the others had, with me asking “What are your rules”, as the police car is basically their office, I always make sure I am mindful and respectful of the officer’s work environment. This interaction also clarifies the officer’s expectations of me during calls. Most officers will have chaplains remain in the rear until the scene has been cleared, and is determined to be safe. At this time, the chaplain may be called “forward” to assist in a supportive role while interacting with the victims, officers or arrestees.  This shift happened to be a weekend night shift, and although I found it to be busy, I was assured by my partner, “it was quiet”. Several of our calls were for intoxicated men, and one of those calls was for a man who was found unconscious in the middle of the road. If not for the police, he surely would have been run over. I find myself standing in the presence of four other officers as they all shake their heads in the horror of what could have happened. Two officers bent down to wake the man up, and even with the mild shouts and nudges, he remained fast asleep. I see the man’s layers, and his two full tote bags and instinctually ask him “Do you have a place to live?”, and I hear a soft reply “everywhere”. It is cold, too cold for someone to be out on the streets, especially someone incapable of even remaining upright.  The officers looked at each other, and then at me, I quickly say “It is way too cold” and my partner replied, “There is no way we can leave him out here”. Another insight hit me at that moment, contrary to popular belief, at least the officers that I have worked with, they are not quick to site or arrest but, weigh the situation, many times bouncing the options off of one another. Sometimes a break is given, and other times it is not. It all depends on the particular call, and also, a very important factor, was the person honest? In this case though, there was no choice. For his own safety, this man had to be arrested and brought to a warm cell to “sleep it off”. The man finally stood up, with a little help from my partner, who also offered assurances to the man that he had nothing wrong, however, he could not stay out in the cold in his condition. Without feeling a need to handcuff the man, he walked him to his waiting wagon. It was via this interaction that I realized these guys have a heart behind that vest, and maybe my own views were shallow and limited to pop media. Arriving at the station, I continue to reassure the homeless man that it was okay, and that we were concerned for him. After he was “booked”, I found myself staying behind to speak with him in the cell block. I ended up speaking to many of the men in the block that night. The cell block was full, and most were intoxicated, just as the gentlemen we brought in. Some were bouncing off the walls, literally, while others were just bedding down to “sleep it off”. None the less, each one them had a story, and I felt myself just listening, this seemed to have an impact on the block, as I was complimented later that night. I listened, I did nothing really at all, however, bearing witness to their lives and stories seemed like something that night.

For a few moments between calls, I did a couple of “walk throughs” with my partner; once another officer joined us. It was a clear, cold night, and other than a young man sitting on his porch precariously, the streets were silent and still. By the moonlight, my partner showed me some of the gang graffiti that riddled the alleyways. He went on to explain the histories of the neighborhoods we strolled through, and he spoke about a recent shootout that had taken place on that very block we stood upon. Did I mention he would stop to feed stray cats throughout center city? Yes, you heard that right, and when he explained to me he had been feeding the strays for some time, I truly felt connected to this guy. He is a big guy, intense, and you certainly would not want to be on his bad side. However, his heart is as intense as the rest of his personality. I listened to story after story after that walk, and thought to myself, “I wish people could see this part of their police officers”, caring and down to earth, your neighbor or brother. “These are good guys and gals with a tough job”, I surmised, and yes, that ticket will never be welcomed, however, if we truly stop to ponder the potential of blowing through that stop sign, or running that red light, maybe we see their actions as corrective, not personal. I digress, let me get back to my ride along. I looked at my watch, the first time all night, and it read 5:30am. I had only intended to stay out until 3am. Before we parted ways, I felt I needed to ask one more question, I asked “How do you deal with so much trauma and conflict on a daily bases, with little to no recognition?” He started to respond, his answer was going to be in the guise of another story. As a chaplain, it is one of my vows, to never disclose anything anyone shares with me, unless they explicitly give me permission. I can tell you that the story involved a young girl, trapped in her car on a highway, and a seeming miracle in which the officer, the one seated next to me, saved two lives that night. This was not the only story I had heard of heroic measures. Each time an officer told me one of his stories, or was prodded by the others around him to do so, I could see the light and hope it generated for all of them. It seemed this was the heart of the uniform, and each one shared a piece of it through their stories, and their dedication.

I had no idea what to expect after committing to become a police chaplain, and I am still piecing that role together to date. I am grateful for the opportunity to be of service to those who have committed their lives to serve and protect others. I can relate in the sense that we both have a jobs in which we give a lot, and rarely receive praise in return. There must be a deep desire to help those in need, and to protect those in harm’s way. I was so moved by the contrast between the media portrayal of law enforcement and my personal experience, that I was compelled to write this story. What I have seen is a brotherhood of men and women who have a complex job, and who are driven by a deep feeling of responsibility to their community. Within this community, you will find their wives, mothers, fathers and friends; and it is with this at heart, that the men and women of the police, wear their badge with both urgency and honor.