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Police Department Chaplain: Uniform And Race Bias ‘Part Of The Tragedy’

Courtesy of Mark Shook

Members of the clergy have taken on important roles since the August shooting death of an unarmed black man by a police officer in Ferguson. That’s also true within the St. Louis County Police Department.

The department has 23 volunteer chaplains from 11 denominations who have focused on the needs of police officers and their families, program coordinator Rabbi Mark Shook told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. The chaplains often have an opportunity to talk with officers during breaks.

“This chaplaincy is what we call a ministry of presence: There if you need them but not intrusive,” Shook said. “We’re not going to hold hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ every 30 minutes with the groups that come in. At the same time, we’re there.”

Most conversations are quick and focus on the day’s tasks or events, and many focus on frustrations.

“Many of the officers resent the idea of collective guilt — that something that happened tragically and was awful in its own way has now cast aspersions on every one of them,” Shook said. “They don’t think of themselves as people who have committed crimes and have stepped on the rights of the community. They see themselves as serving and protecting the community and they don’t like the idea that they’re the ones that are receiving the brunt of the hostility.”

Those are the same feelings that many protesters have expressed.

“The issue of assuming that someone is either good or bad based on a uniform or based on skin color is part of the tragedy of this whole thing,” Shook said. “It doesn’t get any better because it’s going one way or the other. Both sides of this dispute need to recognize that the last thing we need is collective guilt.”

After the August shooting of Michael Brown and a similar incident in New York, Shook said police departments have tried to focus on training.

“I think there’s a realization that the microscope is now being focused on police-civilian interactions and the use of force,” he said. “And I think the long-run result of that is going to be efforts of changing, perhaps, the training of officers when they have a force encounter. Those are the things, the positive things, that can come out of this. But nothing positive can come out of it so long as we have to have officers stationed on the streets just to protect life and property, because they’re not getting the training. The good training and the good things that can come out of this can’t come out yet until we have peace in the community.”

Behind The Scenes With Police Chaplains

The St. Louis County Police Department’s response to events in Ferguson have stressed the department’s volunteer chaplaincy program, Shook said.

“It’s not an occasional request for chaplain presence, but an ongoing, day-to-day program that needs attention from the chaplaincy program,” he said.

One place the chaplains have not worked: Ferguson, which has an independent police department.

“We’re not supposed to go where we’re not invited,” Shook said. “There’s been a great deal of noncontact with Ferguson officers. Most of our chaplains are serving in a staging area in Ferguson that is solely dedicated to the Missouri Highway Patrol and the St. Louis County Police officers. Occasionally a Ferguson officer would come in and go out, but there hasn’t been a lot of interaction.”

In addition to interactions with county officers, which Shook said are a 50-50 mix of conversations about religion and psychology, the chaplains also work with officers’ families. That means not only spouses and children, but officers’ parents as well.

“They want to know that everybody that’s involved with their significant others, that everyone involved with them has their best interests at heart,” Shook said.

This is one area where Shook said technology has helped. Officers can communicate with their families via cellphones and text messages during breaks, for example. But the rabbi was not as positive about other technological advances, like social media.

“Anyone can say anything on social media, and there will be some people who will pick it up and believe that whatever’s said is absolute truth. It’s really hard to put things back,” he said. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle eliminates “time to take a pause and reflect,” he said, and corrections are lost in the shuffle.

When asked what others can do to help officers, Shook’s advice came down to two words: Thank you.

“When people say ‘Thank you for your service,’ you have no idea how important that is,” he said. “That goes an awful long way. It may not sound like much, but when someone comes up out of the blue and says to a police officer, ‘Oh, by the way, thank you for your service,’ that’s gold in the sense of letting people know that what they do, the dangers they face, are appreciated.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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