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How Police Chaplains Step In After Departments Cope With Officer Deaths


Many police departments have chaplains on staff or on call. They sometimes accompany police officers when they notify families of a death. They often work with young people in crisis. And yes, when something happens to one of their own, chaplains can provide a unique kind of support to police departments. Gary Holden is the founder of the Police Chaplain Program and joins us from his home in Vineland, N.J. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

GARY HOLDEN: Thank you, Rachel. Great to be here.

MARTIN: You've done this work for a while now. I understand you've been a police chaplain for about 15 years.

HOLDEN: Yes, correct.

MARTIN: And through that, you've had to minister through all kinds of situations. What is different about having to guide a police department through the loss of one of their own in the line of duty?

HOLDEN: Well, there's probably nothing more devastating than that. And so we call what we do, primarily in that regard, ministry of presence. Sometimes it's not just saying something. It's just being there and letting them know that we care. You know, I've been through a number of police funerals, and it's never ever easy, as you can imagine.

MARTIN: Your group has deployed chaplains to places like Ferguson and Baltimore where there's been so much unrest in recent years - days of rioting, emotions so raw. What - what's your role in those situations?

HOLDEN: We work with the community and the police department. So we're there to just pray with people, hug people - we do a lot of hugging just to let them know we care, and certainly with the department as well - but also to try to be a balance between the community and the police department and to be out there in the streets. We - we've become very proactive, just talking with people, you know, just letting them know that we're there for them, whatever their needs might be.

MARTIN: Have you, in those situations, been able to discern this trust gap between the police and the communities they're intended to serve? And what can chaplains do to help bridge that?

HOLDEN: Well, even - it even takes a while for a chaplain to build that trust because, in reality, we're an outsider that comes in. We do a lot of ride-alongs, so the officers get to know us. And I think, then, we have the grip of the community as clergy and as chaplains, so we can be that bridge. And when they begin to trust us, then that can help them have a better impact in the community. And then we can talk with the community about law enforcement, trying to educate the community more about law enforcement.

MARTIN: Is everyone always open to your message?

HOLDEN: Not always, no. Most are, but sometimes they're not.

MARTIN: I understand you have seen an increase in training programs...

HOLDEN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...And the desire for police departments to employ more chaplains. Why do you think that is?

HOLDEN: Well, we were getting a lot of calls even before Ferguson and Baltimore. But after that, it really began to take off. And even this week, we've received a lot of calls. And I think that more departments are realizing they want to do more with community policing. I know in our area, we've done a lot of door-to-door things where the officers go and knock on doors and just tell them about community events that are coming up, and we go with them. And I know other departments have been doing that as well.

So we work hand in hand. And I think departments are realizing that we can be that bridge, and we can help them do what they do, even do it more effectively. And then the word gets out, and others say, hey, we want to do this as well.

MARTIN: Chaplain Gary Holden, Thanks so much for talking with us this morning.

HOLDEN: Thank you, Rachel. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.