The fine art of being present: A Chaplain’s call for the spiritual connection with front line cops

Sometimes being present in the moment is enough to allow feelings of vulnerability to emerge and for healing to begin. Cops, and I dare say fire fighters, are not used to being vulnerable. Often less is more when is comes to shared space, personal pain and having a connection with one or more people who understand. A quiet moment of reflection after a difficult call may be enough to diffuse the experience of trauma and provide damage control going forward. Career hardiness and satisfaction requires that some moments be recognized with a circle of shared vulnerability and authentic empathy that can be just a few seconds to minutes.

Police Chaplaincy since 1800’s

During the coronavirus after a particularly deadly shift, members of ICU teams took a moment to share the names of those who had died in their care. These were somber events that acknowledged the losses and a measure of desolation shared among team members. People undergoing enormously stressful events can unburden themselves only if they acknowledge their inner feeling state. “We’ve seen chaplains accompany COVID patients in their last moments when loved ones could not be present. The year 2020 inflicted deep wounds on many in our communities and chaplains were there offering support,” said Wendy Cadge, the project’s principal investigator and Senior Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives at Brandeis University

“When we can feel and acknowledge our deepest fear – it can be liberating and reduce the perceived stigma of being vulnerable and in pain.”

Elissa Epel, Ph.D., UCSF, as quoted in NY Times

Police, fire, and first responder agencies across America have called upon the chaplaincy when their membership has experienced an out-of-the ordinary exposure to trauma like fatal car crash, death by suicide, death of a member, school or mass shooting, and more. Some of these are more routine like a notification of the sudden death of a family member. Meanwhile, other incidents leave a searing imprint of the entire event like the shooting of over 20 Sandy Hook elementary school students in Newtown, CT. It has been frequently mentioned that exposure to death and uncivilized brutality has an impact on wellness and personal resilience. Not a surprise. In the case of Sandy Hook how can any member of law enforcement or EMS ever forget that day? But what can be done?

Police chaplains is one part of the solution. The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab received two grants totaling $750,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation in the second half of 2020 to continue building and supporting resilience in chaplains and other spiritual care providers across the country. Chaplains often find themselves on the front line and frequently encounter operational chaos when they are called upon to minister to the troops. Yet that rarely stops them. They were there at Sandy Hook in 2012. The new program at Brandeis University in Boston aims to train chaplains to be better equipped for things like Sandy Hook or any community event that impacts large groups of people.

In Boston, the call went out that a firefighter was down. This during a 2-alarm fire in Watertown, MA. The department chaplain Father Matthew Conley was needed “now” at the Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA for the Anointing of the Sick – known to many as “the last rites.” Fr. Matt had not been on scene during the incident as it appeared to be a routine call. But like so many calls it went south in a hurry.

Firefighter Joseph Toscano was near death from a medical emergency suffered while on duty fighting the fire. It was a hot summer day. He was 54-years old and had a large family of a wife and 5 children. The family were all members of the Catholic faith at a parish a short distance from Watertown. For many Catholics, the anointing of the sick is something to bring about reconciliation for someone who may wish to ease their suffering on the journey toward death.

Firefighter Toscano died that day while doing the job he was trained to do. The Last Rites involve prayers and the final Holy Communion known as the Viaticum. These were something Fr. Conley had done many times before. But when he arrived at the Mt. Auburn Hospital that morning he was met by a phalanx of Watertown police and fire fighters. As he walked into the emergency department of the large Cambridge, MA hospital he knew right away by the look in their eyes that this was no ordinary blessing. He was called to minister, first, to the dying public servant, his wife and children who had been brought to his bedside at the trauma center. But what’s more, he was tasked with consoling the entire brotherhood who looked to him for comfort and hope when no amount of prayer could bring back their fallen brother. But he listened, and he heard their pain, and validated their experience.

“You are here for all of them”, he would say, “and I am here for you.” Fr. Matt Conley sharing the words of former Parish Administrator Fr. Kevin Sepe at Watertown Collaborative.

The story is told that as Fr. Conley dealt with the enormity of the pain felt by all who felt the sudden loss of the career firefighter, when in-walked Fr. Kevin Sepe, the Watertown Collaborative priest administrator. The presence of Father Conley brought a strong empathic presence to the family who had lost their husband and father and to the first line firefighters who felt the loss deeply. Fr. Matt listened and he offered prayers.

From his years as a priest and police chaplain, Fr. Sepe understood what Fr. Conley was facing in the call to the hospital crisis as the department chaplain. His support was largely nonverbal that day. “You are here for them,” he would say, “and I am here for you,” bringing his presence, peer support, and understanding of the enormity the ministry at hand.

“Police chaplains aren’t there to push a religion on police officers; their role is primarily to listen and offer emotional and spiritual support” from an article in Police One, 2015. The chaplain program has been around for over 200 years and often works in the background subliminally. The military has utilized multi-denominational chaplains to minister the troops as well. These men and women are on the front lines and 3 members of the clergy have paid the ultimate price for their calling during recent wars.

Chicago Police Chaplain Father Dan Brandt

Not everyone is religious and you might believe that a goal of a department chaplain is to advocate one denomination over another. Not the case at all. The chaplain may be a Catholic priest as in the illustrated case or he or she may be an ordained Protestant minister, Muslim Imam, or a Jewish rabbi or some other ordained member of the clergy. As a police officer, I worked with a female protestant chaplain who was very helpful with members of our community. I would not have hesitated speaking with her in confidence if I were in need. The role of the chaplain is to provide support and to listen. She was good at it too. Being present with someone who is in crisis or dying can be among the most gut wrenching of all human experience. Fr. Conley once told me he never goes anywhere without the Sacramental oils for the blessing of the sick. This allows him to be ready to offer the Sacrament should he be called to do so. He felt deeply that this anointing was his duty and one of seven sacraments priests are prepared to offer.

I have given death notifications before and have witnessed the soul wrenching-anguish experienced by those receiving these notifications. It is a horrible experience and I remember most all of these events and am still bothered by several.

For line of duty deaths, chaplain’s ask if prayer might be helpful. The sacrament of the sick is one “of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age provided by the Catholic Priest. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God against the temptation of discouragement and anguish in the face of death” according to Michelle Arnold published in Catholic Answers in 2017.

The key to a successful departmental chaplaincy is contact — if you have enough chaplains strategically placed who are artful in “reaching out and touching someone,” two things will happen. Successful interactions will take place and the word will get around. Once calls for a chaplain begin to come directly to a chaplain from the on-scene sergeant or deputy, the chaplaincy has made its mark.  Chaplains can best serve when their role is defined and the confidentiality of their relationship to law enforcement is understood. Police One, 2015

The chaplaincy has been around for centuries in public service. It is making entry into many law enforcement agencies in earnest. Many have had chaplains riding in cruisers for decades like Fr. Dan Brandt in Chicago and his fine crew of law enforcement trained chaplains of all denominations. At some times, this has raised the issue of mixing government with religion. But there are guidelines in place. “In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the justices established the three-pronged “Lemon Test,” which, as it translates to the chaplain’s position, says he must have a secular purpose, must not excessively entangle the government with religion, and neither proselytize nor inhibit religion” said reporter Jon O’Connell in a 2017 report. The police and fire department chaplain is there for support of first responders, not as an evangelist, but as moral reminder of the “sacred nature” of their work, according to Fr. Dan Brandt, the director of the Chicago Police Ministry. In Watertown and now Scituate, Massachusetts, Fr. Matthew Conley brings forth his presence with kindness, reverence, and often good humor making the human connection with those in his purview.

Brandeis Now. Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University receives $750,000 from Henry Luce Foundation. January 23, 2021

O’Connell, J. (2017) Police chaplains take a stronger role in community policing. Scranton Times-Tribune. News article.

McDermott, M and  Cowan, J. Combating Pandemic Fatigue. Quoted in NY Times. October 2020.

Positive Policing and Purpose in Life

Purpose in life has been introduced as benefiting people, including law enforcement officers, to find a positive sense of purpose and personal satisfaction in their work product and in their lives. It was originally espoused by Viktor Frankl in 1946. Frankl, a physician, survived the German concentration camps and the deliberate extermination of 6 million Jews during WW-II. His wife and entire family were killed at Auschwitz and Dachau. How could he possible find purpose and meaning in life after this horrific experience. In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, Victor Frankl shares the experience of seeing hundreds of people herded off to their extermination. People and members of his immediate family were horrifically gassed and sent to mass graves. Frankl’s theory holds that “there are three primary human capabilities, or, in his words, noological possibilities: self-detachment, self-transcendence, and the ability to “spiritually be in touch” with something or someone independent of spatio-temporal dimensions” according to McGann (2016) who reviewed Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Officer well-being is essential for career longevity. It becomes apparent that police officers grow and remain productive in an environment of support: both within the organization and within the community in which they serve. These attributes build a sense of personal meaning and career purpose. Leo Polizoti, Ph.D.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl described the daily demoralizing prisoners underwent both physically and psychologically. Survivors of the horrific images at concentration camp Auschwitz began to find meaning in their forced labor – even humor along with camaraderie. Many of us glean a significant sense of well-being from what we do personally and professionally. Most cops derive great personal meaning and purpose from the job of police officer at least for the first 3-5 years. Law enforcement officers’ derive much of their identity from the work they do on a daily basis and can experience wide ranging stress from call to call. As such, it has become well-known that police work requires special understanding of one’s community and a positive sense of personal responsibility, well-being and resilience for career success and hardiness (Polizoti, 2018).
Our tour guide at the West Bank in Israel in 2019 – Rami Nazzali found great purpose in teaching visitors about the plight of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip – He strongly believes the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are fighting for purpose and meaning in their lives. Rami Nazzali writes for The NY Times.
Purpose in life refers to an underlying belief that what you do for work has importance and purpose on a larger scale. Moreover, to diminish oneself as a result of career embitterment runs a risk of the erosion of purpose and loss of group membership. That is when one becomes marginalized and loses his purpose and the “why” for living. Viktor Frankl believed that once gone the purpose of life and the will to live cannot be restored. Mark Dibona previously was a patrol sergeant for the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in Florida, where he supervised nine officers, but the memory of the June morning where he was called upon to resuscitate and dying infant still haunts him. “Other stressful situations include, but are not limited to: long hours; handling people’s attitudes; waiting for the next call and not knowing what the situation will be; and even politics within the department. Then, on top of it all, officers are frequently criticized, scrutinized, and investigated for decisions they make” said Michelle Beshears on the faculty at American Military University. Among police officers between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population. A colleague and friend, Sergeant Mark DiBona retired from law enforcement in 2019 has had some difficult times on the job in Florida that effect him in a profound way. He is an strong advocate for law enforcement mental health and suicide prevention. “Until this day,” said Dibona, who admits to having contemplated suicide several times before he began counseling, “I can feel the warmth of that baby on my arm.” A child Mark believed he could save.

Another look at self-destruction in law enforcement and its septic underpinning

This is a photograph produced by Dave Betz who lost his son (pictured) in 2019 to suicide.

Officer Dave Betz lost his son David to suicide in 2019

The code of silence.  It surrounds the culture of police work and always has.  I was once told there are two kinds of people: police officers and ass holes.  If you were not a police officer then you were an asshole.  It was a brotherhood with a formidable blue line that defined the police service as a singular force against all that is bad.  Some have said that law enforcement offers a front seat to the greatest show on earth.  Until what is viewed in the front row cannot be unseen and slowly chips away the veneer of solidarity by threatening the existing culture.  For police officers to have long term career success the organization must come to grips with its membership and relieve them of the stigma they feel that prevents them from coming forward. Who would go for that?

If the organization devalues its rank and file for experiencing the natural, neurobiological reaction to repeated, high lethality exposure to violence and death, then who would join such an organization?  Fewer and fewer applicants are signing on in 2019. If a police officer is emotionally denuded by the job why would he or she step up and break the code of silence and be labeled a “nut case” only to lose his badge, firearm, and police authority?  No one will sign on for that kind of treatment.

Each time a member of the law enforcement community takes his or her own life the unspoken silence becomes a lancing wound to the festering emotional infection that is from repeated exposure to traumatic events. The reappearing wolf in sheep’s clothing cuts his teeth on the souls of unwavering academy graduates now paired with senior field trainers who promise to teach the tricks of the trade. Academy graduates come forth like professional athletes with all the confidence and enthusiasm of an elite athlete.  They need experience and mentoring so they know what they are up against.  I was asked to speak at the annual Society of Police and Criminal Psychology meeting in Scottsdale, AZ in late September, 2019 on the importance of the field training program on long-term officer wellness and career satisfaction.

Country music blared from the car radio as Dave, dressed in pajama pants and a t-shirt, stood over his son and realized he was dead.

Father of 24-year old police officer David Betz, 2019

The psychological autopsy may provide insight into the manner of death and must include prior exposure to trauma.  How many first-in homicide calls had the decedent handled? How many unattended SIDS deaths?  How many death notifications? How many cases of domestic violence where the victim was too frightened to speak about the nightly horrors in the marital home? How many times did he witness the remnants of a violent motor vehicle crash with ejection?  Each time he bears witness to this inhumanity he risks never coming back. Some spouses will say they remember when they lost a husband or wife. “It was after the 4-alarm fire – sifting through the rooms for possible causes and finding the old woman who rented the place in an upstairs bathtub” or “the time the addict threw his newborn son off the 14th floor balcony because his baby mama did not return from work when she was expected.” Many espouse the use of the psychological autopsy as a way of honoring an officer who died by suicide as a means of linking the suicide to their tour of duty. 

High lethality calls must be tracked allowing for paid psychological defusing time in the aftermath of these calls.  Defusing and psycho- education can be provided for the entire group who handled the high lethality call rather than identify a single officer.  Aftermath check-ins and peer support should follow. An officer who begins to exhibit changes in his normal work routine, e.g. increased tardiness, citizen complaints, or substance abuse should be referred for psychological follow-up that is linked to annual performance reviews and recommendations for corrective action.

In truth, the reader may wish to put himself into the position of the first arriving police officers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a place called Newtown.  In December, 2012, twenty seven people were violently murdered – most were first grade students. I have read the Connecticut State Police report of the Sandy Hook shooting and was left feeling numb and physically sickened. It is over 1000 pages of grueling detail.  Now, when I see TV images of LEO’s running on campus toward the sound of gunshots, I know they must step over the desperate victims, some of whom take their last breath reaching for a pant leg or a blue stripe or a black boot covered in blood all the while begging to live.

Recruits enter the police service with high hopes of making a difference but quickly learn that their purpose in life is being sucked out of them like embalming fluid moving though the lifeless remains of a brother or sister officer who could endure no more. Coming forth and asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, resilience, and heroism. There should be no penalty or secondary administrative sanction when an officer comes forth.  They must be provided behavioral health treatment and a pathway to return to the job.  

Police officer suicide impacts police agencies everywhere in America and across the globe. Many officers feel abandoned by their agencies and become marginalized because they struggle with depression, substance abuse, and PTSD after years of seeing the worst life has to offer. It is time to lessen the expectation of shame among the troops who serve communities large and small. No father should be first in at the suicide death of his own son and be expected to stand with a photo and share his story at the same time he remains stoic and brave.

The Field Training Officer: Important things they may not know

Most departments has active field training protocols that recruits must pass after leaving the academy.  This means they ride along with the FTO until they are ready to function independently as LEO’s.  The specific time line for this depends on FTO daily observation reports during the phases of field training.  These begin with close supervision where the trainee does little of the daily work. In the latter phase of training the FTO may pull back and provide intervention only if needed by allowing the trainee to be the lead on all calls.

Officer resilience depends upon solid field training with adequate preparation for tactical encounters, legal and moral dilemmas, and mentoring for long-term physical and mental health.  Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018

Law enforcement officers begin their careers with all the piss and vinegar of a first round draft pick.  This needs to be shaped by supervised field training and inevitably will be effected by the calls for service each officer takes during his nightly tour of duty. Much like competitive athletes, law enforcement officers at all levels exhibit “raw” talents, including leadership abilities and the cognitive skills to go along with them.  Moreover, like competitive athletes, these raw abilities have to be honed, refined and advanced through a combination of modeling, coaching and experience in order for the officer to develop the skills needed to improve performance, as well as prepare them for career advancement according to Mike Walker.  This important task falls upon the field training officer (FTO) and is a critical phase in probationary police officer’s development.  “The FTO is a powerful figure in the learning process of behavior among newly minted police officers and it is likely that this process has consequences not only for the trainee but for future generations of police officers” according to Caldero and Crank (2011).  In 1931 the Wickersham Commission found over 80 percent of law enforcement agencies had no formal field training protocols for new officers entering the field of police work described by McCampbell (1987). In 1972, formalized field training protocols were introduced by the San Jose, CA police department that became a national model for post academy probationary field training.

Just before I was promoted to sergeant while working for a law enforcement agency, USCG Vice Admiral John Currier, a friend of mine said to me: “Michael, move up or move out”.  I wasn’t sure what he meant by that but given my 9 years as a patrolman, I started to lobby for a promotion to sergeant.  The agency at which I worked had little turnover in the middle ranks so I was never sure I would get a chance for promotion.

All law enforcement officers should have a career path when they graduate the academy that lays out a career path based on officer interest, career improvement goals, on-going training interests, and agency needs.  Training opportunities offer new officers the chance to gain experience in anything from specialized investigations i.e. sexual assault and child abuse, firearms instructor, domestic violence risk assessment to bike patrol and search and rescue.  Our chief believed strongly in incident command, active shooter response, and emergency medical technician training.  I went on to take the paramedic technician course at a local college in 2011-2012. In many ways my former agency was well ahead of the curve in training opportunities and tactics including use of body worn video cameras, taser training, stop sticks, and individually deployed patrol rifles.  I was encouraged by my chief to participate in a research opportunity I was offered in domestic violence homicide from a case in northern Maine, a community much like the one I served. From this research we introduced a risk assessment instrument developed by  Jacquelyn Campbell.

The chrysalis for me came in August, 2012 when I was appointed by the Select Board to sergeant at the recommendation of my chief.  Before this could occur, I had put in a significant amount of time developing a field training program, domestic violence awareness and lethality assessment protocols, and police-mental health encounter training. I learned the hard way that most police officers do not like working with citizens with mental illness and hate attending training classes on mental health awareness and crisis intervention training. I realized that I needed to become a leader and in order to do so I needed to become better in communicating with the troops and with those up the chain of command. In order to develop leadership I was sent to sergeants school but what I learned was the importance of being a role model for those in training and to teach by doing, teach by example. I also learned that field training is demanding, exhausting work if done with the precision needed to fully socialize the trainee and provide needed modeling while gradually offering greater independence for the trainee.

cropped-images.jpgField training involves months of practicing ‘what if‘ scenarios, learning the ropes of the police service, use of force, and writing reports. Early in the phase of training the tough discretionary decisions faced by a probationary officer are made by the senior training officer based on prior judgement, experience and what is most prudent for the specific incident and conditions on the ground.  “Agencies should thus maintain a greater degree of FTO supervision, not just trainee supervision. Such an effort would go a long way toward improving FTO programming and better informing the needed research base” Getty et al. (2014, pg. 16). Field training is often time limited with special consideration for officers who need additional training in specific skills or personal areas of concern. Some officers are put on career improvement plans and extended field training, when needed, and some probationers are discharged from the agency because of skills or behavior that are not compatible with police work. Law enforcement agencies want active police officers who represent the core beliefs of the agency and individual community needs.

Field training has perhaps the most potential to influence officer behavior because of its proximity to the “real” job according to Getty, Worrall, and Morris (2014).

Probationary officers can be taught the how and when of effecting an arrest but the intangible discretionary education comes from FTO guidance and socialization that takes place during the FTO training period.  Research has revealed that officers’ occupational outlooks and working styles are affected more by their FTOs than formal “book” training, Fielding, 1988.  The selection of who becomes an FTO is not well defined.  In a study at Dallas PD probationary trainees were exposed to multiple FTOs over 4 phases (Getty et al. 2014).  The study revealed a correlation between new officer behavior – in the 24 months after supervision, as measured by citizen complaints and the FTO group to whom they were assigned. It is conceivable that the results in the study may be due to the relative brevity of training at each phase may have stopped short of instilling good habits or extinguishing bad habits in many new police officers. I have worked in agencies where only the sergeants were the FTO’s by virtue of rank and supervisory acumen long before systematic field training programs were introduced.  In Dallas, results showing officer misconduct via high citizen complaints may too have been associated with unprepared FTO’s who were drafted to supervise the trainee and who were not prepared for that role.

“Bad apple” and/or poorly trained FTOs may thus have a harmful influence on their trainees. Getty et al. (2014)

Choosing successful FTO’s is of critical importance for new officer development and for future generations of law enforcement officers. The values espoused by the FTO have enormous impact on the behavior, habits, and professionalism of new police officers. It has been shown that the quality of this training belies post-supervision job behavior and success.  Haberfeld (2013) has offered a supportive assessment of the assessment center approach to FTO selection suggesting there are qualities that may be quantified in the selection process. This may be helpful in the selection of FTO’s who are professionally resilient and emotionally hardy as they lead the new probationary officer into his career. If officers are randomly assigned to provide field training without forewarning or preparation this may staunch career growth in the probationary LEO.  If this becomes the norm then FTO’s may have provide more of what probationary officers need such as correct values, discretionary wisdom, and perhaps less negative socialization that can lead to embitterment, misconduct, and citizen complaints.

At times of high officer stress when high lethality/high acuity calls are taken the probationary LEO is apt to require greater support and guidance from the FTO. It is during these critical incidents that post hoc peer support and defusing may take place.  Training LEO’s should be permitted to openly discuss and express the impressions they experience to calls that may be more violent, and outside of the daily norm for what he or she has been doing.  In doing so, the impact of these high stress exposures may be mitigated and emotional resilience may germinate. The responsibility of FTO’s to reassure and invigorate trainee coping skill and mindful processing of critical incidents cannot be under emphasized.  FTO’s understand that healthy police officers must be permitted to express horror when something is horrible and feel sadness when something leaves a mark. They will become better equipped in the long run if allowed to fully appreciate the emotional impact that calls for service will elicit in them.  The stigma of high reactive emotions from high stress incidents, i.e. homicide or suicide, is reduced when officer share the call narrative and its allow for its normal human response.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.
2019

REFERENCES
Caldero, M. A., & Crank, J. P. (2011). Police ethics: The corruption of noble cause (3rd ed.). Burlington, MA: Anderson.
Fielding, N. G. (1988). Competence and culture in the police. Sociology, 22, 45-64.
Getty, R, Worrall, J, Morris, R. (2014) How Far From the Tree Does the Apple Fall? Field Training Officers, Their Trainees, and Allegations of Misconduct. Crime and Delinquency, DOI: 10.1177/0011128714545829, 1-19.
Haberfeld, M. R. (2013). Critical issues in police training (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
McCambell, M. Field Training for Police Officers: The State of the Art (1987). DOJ: NIJ, April.