Chaplains help bring solace, compassion to police officers, bridge gap in community

loberle@islandpacket.comJuly 26, 2013 

As a young state duty officer in North Carolina, Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds was the first responder when a fellow officer was violently killed in the line of duty.

"I had to go the hospital, into the room where he was laying dead. I had to go into the other room where the guy who shot him was laying up in bed laughing. I had to deal with this family and with our people," Reynolds said.

It was overwhelming for the 24 year old, but at the end of that night Reynolds had someone to call: the department's chaplain, who also happened to be the pastor at his church.

"He helped me work through my anger at this person who did this to somebody I loved," Reynolds said. "He helped me understand how to deal with a family and our officers. That was an incredible benefit, just to have someone to guide you."

When Reynolds was sworn in as the Bluffton Police chief last September, he made establishing an active chaplaincy program a priority. On June 1, five area ministers -- John Ring of Grace Coastal Church in Okatie, Manual Diaz of Inglesia Torre Fuerte in Bluffton, Paul Hamilton of Bible Missionary Baptist Church in Bluffton, Bennie Jenkins of First Zion Baptist Church in Bluffton, and Brian Rose of Church of the Cross in Bluffton -- began their work as volunteer chaplains for the department.

Reynolds originally brought in the chaplains to be mentors and supporters for his officers.

"Police officers walk on the dark side of the moon," Ring said. "They have to see things, what man does to man. It's dark, it's ugly and they're people, too. They have to process and deal with that."

But an unexpected benefit is the way the chaplains reach out to the community when officers can't. At accident scenes, the chaplains can answer questions and provide comfort to victims' families and witnesses, and the police can be focused on their jobs.

"They become a face for the police department in the community," Reynolds said.

So the program's focus becomes twofold: supporting the police officers and helping bridge the gap between the police department and the community.

Hamilton, who is black, said he hopes he can help the black community trust the police more than he did growing up.

"In the black community, a police officer has been an enemy," he said. "They tend to wear this badge that says 'This is a bad guy.'"

Born and raised in Bluffton, Hamilton has seen, and was once part of, that division.

"When I was young, I felt nobody had the right to tell me what to do," Hamilton said. "What's the big deal if I felt like drinking myself silly and getting on the road? If I got stopped, the police was wrong."

But getting married and having a child changed Hamilton's perspective. He wasn't a police officer, he couldn't arrest anyone. He realized what he needed from his community was protection for his family.

"[The police] went from necessary-evil to necessary-good," Hamilton said.

As a leader in the black community, Hamilton said he hopes to undo the same misconceptions he had of police officers, and bridge that gap.

After riding with officers, Hamilton will get asked by people, "What were you doing in a police car? Were you on your way to jail?"

"I get a chance to familiarize the black community with the police force, and next time they see this officer I was riding around with, they'll say he ain't such a bad guy because Rev. Hamilton said so," Hamilton said.

Each chaplain has his own niche, and while Hamilton's is being a liaison to his community, Ring comes concerned about the individual officers and how they are dealing with life. As a chaplain, he hopes to provide a safe place -- free of judgment, expectations or ridicule -- where officers can exhale.

"You've heard stories -- we all have -- of officers that go nuts just on a traffic stop," Ring said. "That officer probably didn't have an avenue to let some stuff out."

Police officers have to fight to not let their heart be hardened, to not lose sight of compassion, in a job short on pleasantries.

"It's a natural defense mechanism," Reynolds said.

Without a support system, officers can lose sight of their commitment to the community.

"And the last thing we want is officers with rock hard hearts who forget they're not just out there to protect the community," Ring added. "They're out there to serve the community. My heart is really to help soften that officer's heart from becoming hard."

Church leaders can also relate to officers as their jobs overlap in many ways: They're dealing with other people's problems the majority of the time while being expected to not have their own; a practical work-life balance becomes nearly impossible as critical situations will pull them out of bed in the middle of the night; they don't have the option of not answering their phones.

"We're public figures and we often get put under microscopes," Reynolds said. "Ministers and police both are expected to not have problems, and that's not possible. We're humans too."

Reynolds has pushed to have an active chaplaincy in Bluffton because of how it had impacted him.

He thinks of the things he's seen -- suicide, abuse, violence, man killing man -- and the way his career has affected his personal life, attributing a divorce to it. And he doesn't want to think of what kind of person he'd be without guidance from the chaplains he had throughout.

"I'd be afraid to speculate. I really would," Reynolds said. "They helped me maintain compassion in this profession. They've helped me maintain perspective."

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