By Chris Moon
These are not easy days to be a police officer—or a police chaplain.
The effects of COVID-19 and the racial tensions that have swept the country have made the jobs of those who try to keep the peace and those who minister to them difficult.
“It has affected us quite a bit,” said Bob Heath, a chaplain with the Joplin (Mo.) Police Department.
Heath has served as a police chaplain for 28 years. He also is the bookstore manager and purchasing agent at Ozark Christian College and the pastor of Diamond Grove Christian Church.
He also serves on the executive committee of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, which trains chaplains across the country.
Heath said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a bigger obstacle to his chaplaincy work in Joplin than have the racial protests that have broken out nationwide.
When the new coronavirus began to spread, police chaplains in Joplin were kept away from officers for the sake of the health of both chaplains and officers.
“They do a very good job at protecting us,” Heath said.
But the separation from the officers hasn’t necessarily been a good thing, Heath said.
The pandemic has increased the stress for officers. They don’t know on any given call whether they will be interacting with someone who has the virus. Many officers, he said, have children at home. And they carry around extra anxiety as a result.
“The last thing they want to do is take it home to their wife and kids,” he said.
This is a common factor in policing across the country, said Richard Hartman, director of public relations for the International Conference of Police Chaplains.
Police officers, he said, encounter traumatic scenes almost daily—and conflict is built into much of what they do. Chaplains are trained to help those officers process what they are seeing every day.
Hartman said the idea is for chaplains to bring a calming presence into each scene.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has made things difficult because chaplains in many cases aren’t allowed to ride along with police officers during their shifts because of social distancing rules. Face-to-face contact, which is so important in ministry, has been curtailed.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has raised the stress levels for police officers who must live with the reality that any scene they enter may result in infection.
And added to all of that is pressure on the entire law enforcement profession that has resulted from widespread allegations of police brutality and calls to “defund the police.”
At a recent ICPC training, police officers were asked whether they would recommend the profession to their friends. Eight out of 10 officers said no, Hartman said.
“The issue today is it’s a scary proposition to be a police officer,” Hartman said.
But there is hope. The police seem to be drawing more attention from churches.
Hartman is a chaplain with the Fort Wayne, Ind., police department and a pastor at a Lutheran church there. He said five of his pastor colleagues in the community have reached out to him in the past several weeks to ask how they can better support the police community.
MORALE ‘PRETTY LOW’
The same is true in Joplin, where Heath serves. He said people have come to him and asked how they can help.
Some have bought gifts and food for the officers. Others have written checks to underwrite the work of the chaplains within the department.
Heath said “morale is pretty low” in the department even though not a lot of angst has been directed at the police department in Joplin—at least not when compared to other cities in the country.
Still, Heath said he is cautious as he moves about town, knowing there may be some pent-up tension toward officers and those associated with them because of the national dialogue about police brutality.
“The police have a pretty good relationship with the community, but you always have those little pockets of resistance,” he said.
Heath said his job simply is to listen to the concerns of officers through all the difficulties.
“My primary goal is to represent Jesus as best I can,” he said.
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.