Police Chaplains Respond in Times of Greatest Need
In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, Michele Skalicky tells us about a volunteer unit within the Springfield Police Department that plays an important role for both citizens and officers.
Volunteers with the Springfield Police Department’s Police Chaplains Unit are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
"Most every time we're called out it's going to be related to some traumatic event so that we would be assisting the victims of crime, citizens of our community who have just lost a loved one due to crime, suicide, house fire, traffic fatality. We're able to come alongside and assist the citizens as well as the police officers," he said.
Bob Stephenson is a pastor by trade—his congregation is at Graceway Baptist Church at the corner of Golden and Weaver, and he’s been in pastoral ministry for 30 years. But he also gives his time to be available to provide comfort during some of the worst moments in someone’s life.
The Police Chaplains Unit has been around since 1972. There are currently eight chaplains serving—one woman and seven men, including John Tranbarger who’s been with the unit since the beginning. They represent various denominations including Baptist, Assembly of God and Presbyterian.
Requirements to become police chaplain include being an ordained minister and attending the Citizens Police Academy, a ten week program that introduces participants to the Springfield Police Department.
Stephenson got involved five years ago.
"I was looking to give something back to the city of Springfield and our police officers, our citizens, and it seemed like a great way to do that," he said.
Police chaplains help make death notifications, provide counseling and are sometimes asked to perform a funeral service. They’re there for people during life changing events.
"We come alongside and listen. We provide reassurance. Many times we're able to walk folks through the process of what happens next even as they're, for example, maybe they're still waiting for the medical examiner to arrive on the scene. They have all kinds of questions about 'what happens next?' 'Where do I go?' We'll always ask them if they have a spiritual advisor or a minister or church leader of their own, and if they do, we'll offer to call their own minister so that that minister can come alongside and render an even more personal level of care," he said.
And they’ll offer to pray with people. There’s literature they can share to help people through the process of what they’re dealing with. And they provide contact information if those affected by tragedy want to come to them for counseling.
The chaplains often have to deal with some very difficult situations, and that can be challenging.
"You tend to see and deal with things that you can never unsee or forget," he said.
Stephenson has seen a lot of tragedy during his five years as a police chaplain, but certain ones stand out in his mind.
"A quadriplegic was trapped in his van as he unfortunately died in a vehicle fire. I can think of a mom and dad who knew their son should have been home and wasn't and so they went looking for him and came upon the scene of an accident in which he lost his life. I can think about a mom and a dad who found their daughter deceased in her bedroom through an unfortunate drug overdose. I think about those families and many families like them, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was able to make a difference," he said.
Knowing they’ve been able to help someone enables the police chaplains to deal with the things they see. And the chaplains provide counseling and support to one another. They meet once a month to talk about the ministry they render to the community and to the police department. And they debrief.
"There's a great psychological benefit that comes just from talking about something with others who can relate and listen and provide encouragement," he said.
And they fall back on their faith. Without it, Stephenson said, it would be very difficult to deal with the things they see.
The chaplains’ work doesn’t go unnoticed by members of the Springfield Police Department. Police Chief Paul Williams says it’s one of those behind-the-scene things that people don’t think about that’s integral to what they do.
"And it's that trained person who's able to support and do something different than what we do. You know, we can make those notifications, but we're not the trained comfort provider and someone the victims can turn to at times for that guidance and comfort and a little softer approach than sometimes most officers are able to give," he said.
Dispatchers and police commanders have the chaplains’ schedules and contact information close at hand so they know who’s on call when the chaplains are needed. Williams says they’re called upon once or twice a week to help someone in the community or to provide an ear for a police officer who just needs to talk.
The chaplains were there when Officer Aaron Pearson was shot in January in the line of duty.
"The on-call chaplain beat me to the hospital, and I thought I was there pretty quick. I was in the ER with Aaron and his wife and the doctors, and the chaplain was right there with me," he said.
The chaplain stayed with Aaron and his family, and other chaplains were called in to provide comfort and prayer for other officers who had come to the hospital.
The police chaplains also host events each year, including a memorial service to honor law enforcement personnel killed in the line of duty nationwide and a fall barbecue cookout for all officers in Southwest Missouri.
The unit receives no money from the city or the police department. The chaplains’ congregations provide financial support as well as food and other help to the unit.
Stephenson loves what he does although he finds it hard sometimes to juggle his volunteer service with his job as pastor at Graceway. But he plans to serve as a police chaplain as long as he can.