A call to empathy: Police chaplains help community navigate grief and tragedy regardless of religion

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Don Reid remembers the day he decided to become a police chaplain.

It was decades ago, and his friend was killed in the line of duty in his home state of Indiana.

“It just hit me so hard,” said Reid, who now serves as a chaplain with the Newport News Police Department. “I thought, how can we ever repay the people that are willing to put on the uniform and go to work every night — not knowing if they’re coming home?”

When a violent crime or tragedy occurs in Hampton Roads, police officers and emergency services are usually the first to respond. Often, a chaplain responds to the scene with them.

After his friend’s death, Reid began working as a volunteer for a local department in various roles, including a parole officer. He’s since worked as a chaplain in law enforcement and hospital settings in other parts of the country.

Law enforcement chaplains work as an important intermediary. As a key piece of a team of first-responders, their job is to comfort family members or survivors who may have lost a loved one while deputies and officers work a scene. They also work with police officers individually, offering confidential mental health support and counseling. During their shifts, they ride along with police officers during their rounds, and it is their job to help lessen the impact of what bearing witness to trauma and tragedy can do to officers.

“(Officers) go from overdose, to suicides, to traffic accidents back to back for 12 hours,” said Geraldine Ford, a chaplain with the Portsmouth Police Department. “And they really see what (community members) go through every single day. That’s a lot.”

If an officer needs help after witnessing a traumatic incident, department chaplains get the call. Being a chaplain also encompasses helping officers with personal struggles, such as a death in the family. That can lead officers to seek out a specific chaplain to speak with if they’ve developed a rapport over time, said Saundra Cherry, another chaplain with Newport News police.

“Because you build relationships with the officers, they may call for (Reid), or they may call for me or they may call for somebody specific that they built a better, closer relationship with,” Cherry said.

Terry Braddock, a chaplain for eight years, leads a team of seven chaplains at the Norfolk Police Department and is the department’s first female senior chaplain. Chaplains who work with the team come from diverse backgrounds and include a Rabbi to best serve the department and community, she said.

“People just don’t forget when you are there, during their darkest hour,” Braddock said. “I always say if you call once, or if you show up once, that’s your duty, but if you show up twice, you just truly care.”

In addition to officers, chaplains are also called on to help community members on their worst days, said Braddock, describing one night that sticks out in particular.

“It was one of those middle-of-the-night calls, and a little girl had found her mother passed away,” she said. “They had to rule it out that it was not a homicide, which it wasn’t. I watched the fire department do their whole deal with the police department, and I watched everybody work together. As I was able to take the little girl out to the car, I held her there until family members arrived. It was cold, and I saw them in action. There’s a lot of work here, especially if there’s an investigation, to make this happen.”

For all levels of first responders in the United States, there are chaplains. That includes for police departments, fire departments, the Secret Service, FBI and other federal agencies.

The International Conference of Police Chaplains aims to connect chaplains across the nation, while also offering resources such as training classes. It was founded about 50 years ago, when a chaplain in the Washington, D.C., area struggled to find contact information for other law enforcement chaplains to assist with a death notification. Now, ICPC covers ten regions across the United States, and Virginia is included in Region 8, which includes about 700 law enforcement chaplains.

Jim Cook, a fellow-credentialed chaplain with ICPC, has served law enforcement officers for over 30 years. In addition to courses that help chaplains communicate and gain trust with officers, the organization also helps with community building and creating a resource in case chaplains are dealing with their own struggles with stress or trauma.

“It’s a really specific calling,” Cook said. “I’ve been in chaplaincy for over 31 years, and I have young people talk to me and say, ‘I’d like to go to chaplaincy,’ and my response to them is, if you can be happy doing anything else, go do it. This is a real commitment.”

Ford, who has been a chaplain for about a year and a half, said that before joining the department, she had served as a pastor for Blessed Hope Christian Center for about 20 years. Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence, she said, no matter the religious affiliation of those served.

“Sometimes, I’m shocked by how well people have received me. I would have never thought that they would receive me in such a loving way,” Ford said. “By the time I leave them, I’m determined to let them know that I care because I look at every situation as this could be my father, my mother (or) it could be my child.”

Eliza Noe, eliza.noe@virginiamedia.com