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How Police Chaplains Help First Responders During (and After) Tragedies

The police-issued radio of the Rev. Monsignor Salvatore Criscuolo, chaplain for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, is shown next to the chalice as he delivers Mass, Sunday, April 17, 2005 in Washington. Photo: AP Photo/Haraz Ghanbari

On the morning of April 16, 2007, Pastor Alex Evans got a call that would change his life forever. It was the office of Blacksburg, Virginia’s police chief letting him know there was a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus.

Evans, chaplain for the police department, rushed to the campus to counsel officers and assist in delivering death notifications to the waiting families. But as the shooting faded from headlines, Evans was concerned about the impact the tragic event had on the department. After the shooting, he was faced with the task of helping traumatized police officers cope with the violent events they witnessed.

In 2008, Evans started the Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program (VALEAP), a nonprofit program assisting local, state and federal law-enforcement departments in understanding how to manage their interactions with traumatic violence.

A&E Real Crime spoke with Evans about the evolving role of a chaplain in today’s modern world and the need for chaplain assistance in law-enforcement departments.

How did you first start working as a chaplain for law enforcement and how did you develop the role?
Around 2002 or 2003 I was a pastor at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia. An officer was killed in the line of duty in the next town. Within a few months, the Blacksburg Police Department asked me if I would consider being a chaplain with their department. They said, ‘We don’t have any chaplains and we realize if we have an incident like our neighbor just had, we would be deeply challenged. So we are trying to put a chaplain program into place.’

In the beginning, I did ride-alongs, I showed up at roll-call. But it felt really awkward. Sometimes I wondered what I was doing. These are police officers—they don’t know how to hang around with preachers and chaplains.

Then in the fall of 2006, a hospital security guard and sheriff’s deputy were shot by an escaped prisoner. We went from standing around wondering what our job was to being in the middle of a crisis.

Then the Virginia Tech shooting happened. Tell us about being a chaplain during that time.
I went to the command center the afternoon of the shooting and stayed on campus while they were removing bodies and sorting out situations. I was trying to support officers—that was my only goal.

That night, I had a worship service at my church for the whole community. We had 250 people show up. In the middle of the service, the police chief called me and asked, ‘Can you come back? We need you to help us do notifications.’

All the families who couldn’t find their loved ones [congregated] at The Inn at Virginia Tech (a hotel on campus). It became a place of wailing and sadness, [with families getting] the worst news they could ever could hear. But you won’t believe it until someone tells you, and that was my job. It was terrible.

We tried to find enough people to provide care to the families who were learning the horrible news…that their [loved one] was killed. It’s not what you expect to hear when you send your kid off to college.

After the tragedy disappeared from headlines, how did you assist the police in processing the event?
I spent a lot of time at debriefings, where police gathered in manageable groups and tried to talk about what happened, how they were dealing with it and how to [move forward] from it. It was very intense. About three months later, the police chief was concerned about an officer who was one of the first at the scene of the shootings. He’s on the SWAT team, he’s a very big guy, very devoted, quiet guy. The chief asked me to meet him and ride around with him.

I met him one night during his shift and we made small talk. Then about 1 a.m. he says, ‘Preacher, I wasn’t ever in favor of the chaplain program. I didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to me. But on April 16 when we were in Norris Hall surrounded by so much darkness and death—I saw you. That was just the reminder that God was present and there was hope for all of this darkness.’

I thought that made it all worth it. All I did was show up and try to be caring and he just confirmed how important that is.

Why did you start VALEAP?
Eric Skidmore started South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) in Columbia, which is the model for our program. It’s a ministry working with traumatized police. After the shooting he said [to me], ‘You have to bring some officers down to my program, because they are going to need it.’

In July of that year, eight to nine officers went to South Carolina to participate in a three-day seminar. It was so significant that we went back the next summer with more officers.

We knew that we needed to start this in Virginia. So we followed the model. Since then, we’ve had 15 seminars. We do them twice a year and we have as many as 50 people in each one. We had 10 officers from the Sandy Hook shootings come to our state program. I’ve seen people show up at a seminars looking one way and leaving looking another way. They tell me, ‘Thank you, You’ve given me my life back.’

What happens at these seminars?
It’s a peer-led seminar, so if we have 50 police officers who are coming after a critical incident, they spend three days with 30 peers from our leadership team who have been through similar incidents and have attended our workshop. It’s cops helping cops.

We have lectures on trauma, on coping, on resilience, on what happens to your relationships. We have small groups for a large part of it, so they can continue talking to each other. We also have counseling: Everybody has one-on-one time with a mental health professional who is especially sensitive to police trauma.

Aside from mass shootings, this is a tense time in America for law enforcement. How do you work with them on everyday challenges?
These are very difficult days for police officers, in general. I had an officer tell me last month he signed up to serve his community and the message he gets from his community is, ‘We don’t want you and we don’t like you.’ That is hard stuff to deal with if you’ve devoted your life to being a police officer.

Recent conversations with police are about challenges they face…and even police suicides. Police officers are more likely to kill themselves than be killed in the line of duty. And not many people are talking about that. We have a lot of work to do.

I have a huge amount of respect and appreciation for police and what they are called to do. It doesn’t mean they are all perfect. We are all human beings, we all make mistakes. The best officer can make the worst decision in a split second and the worst officer can make the best decision and it will have lasting effects for lots of people.

Police officers need our prayers, our care and our support. That’s what my organization is trying to do— to affirm the difficulties they face, encourage them to keep doing their best and provide them with the support they need to get there.

What do you think needs to be done to provide first responders with the support they need?
It takes a special sensitivity to the police community. There are very effective police chaplains in departments where they have special relationships [with officers]—but it’s not automatic. It has to be built and encouraged.

Whether you live in New York City or Virginia or a small town somewhere, communities know our police are dealing with a lot of difficult situations. There are shootings, there are car wrecks, there are break-ins, there are situations involving babies and older adults. We read it and we never really think about who had to deal with these terrible situations.

Human beings are not made to deal well with this level of violence all the time. It’s gotten so pervasive and it’s taken a toll on officers.

What advice would you give to other chaplains in how to counsel law enforcement through traumatic events in their communities?
A chaplain’s job is, first and foremost, one of presence. It’s less about what you say, and more about where you are. You show up. That’s what police do. They show up. I think an effective chaplain will show up when police ask them to.

Just show up, be supportive and remind people that the tragedy that happened is not the last word. We are still here, we are still working through it and we will get through it together.

—Cara Tabachnick

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