ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — By day they are police officers and therapists, teachers and clergy, jewelers, mechanics, court reporters and municipal workers.
Whether white collar or blue collar, their common calling is to serve as chaplains with the Albuquerque Police Department, assisting officers and the community by bringing calm and comfort to people whose lives are suddenly rocked by accidents, suicide, violent crime and the other tragic indignities of life in a big city.
The 27 volunteers in the APD’s Volunteer Chaplain Unit are all ordained as ministers in their respective denominations, says Chaplain Commander Briane Dennison, the only sworn APD officer in the unit. The members rotate daily as the on-call and back-up chaplains. When an officer in the field requires the assistance of a chaplain, the request is made through APD dispatch, which relays the information to the on-call chaplain.
The Chaplain Unit was established in 1969 to “provide counsel and guidance to persons in crisis in the Albuquerque community, and to provide spiritual support to department employees and their families,” says Dennison, 40.
That support may come in the form of providing hospital visitations, funeral planning, informing next-of-kin about deaths, delivering eulogies, and offering invocations at law enforcement functions, says Dennison, who is also an assistant pastor at the Pentecostal God’s House Church in Albuquerque.
Dennison joined APD in 1995 and was on the job about 18 months when he responded to a robbery, where he and another officer were forced to shoot and kill the suspect.
That incident, combined with the death of Dennison’s mother and a bad accident in his police car, left Dennison “feeling spiritually lost until one day God spoke to me and told me to rely on his strength instead of my own,” he recalls. “In February 1998 I received Jesus Christ into my life and from then on my life completely changed.”
Dennison took preparation classes from the Word of Life Bible Institute and became an ordained minister. In 2004 he became an APD chaplain.
“I’m a police officer and still have the same law enforcement sensibilities, but my focus is to make sure my fellow officers and APD civilian personnel are supported in a way that they can be effective and do their best job,” he says. “By taking care of them, they will take care of our community.”
Lessons about humanity
The stenography machine, a primary tool of the trade for freelance court reporter Debbie O’Connor, allows her to use a type of shorthand for recording depositions and other court-related proceedings.
Faith becomes her primary tool in her role as an APD chaplain and as a minister at Unity of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, a Christian/New Thought church.
Ordained since 2001, O’Connor became an APD chaplain last fall, something she’d been interested in doing for a long time. O’Connor says she sits with a person or family to “get them through the moment” while police officers and medical investigators perform their duties. “I can do some grief counseling or pray with them, if that’s what they want. The family takes the lead.”
O’Connor, 56, recalls an incident in which a man in his 30s was killed in a car accident. The man’s wife had died the previous year from illness, and he and his mother were raising three middle school age children.
“I had to go tell the mother that her son had died. I counseled her on the best way for her to tell her grandchildren and then I stood at her side as moral support. She pulled it out of herself and was able to be strong for those kids even as she was dealing with her own grief.”
O’Connor says she took away an important lesson about humanity. “I’m so impressed with the resiliency of people,” she says. “They are even more resilient than they know.”
‘A perfect fit’
Respiratory therapist Terry Berry, 53, says his decision to become an APD chaplain three years ago was sparked, in part, by his brother’s death in an industrial accident in 1991.
Although APD had chaplains at the time, they apparently were not called. A police officer and a manager from the freight company where his brother worked showed up at the brother’s home to deliver the news to the victim’s wife.
“They said, ‘there’s been an accident and your husband is dead.’ Then they just pretty much turned around and walked off. It was devastating and I thought, something needs to change, something has to be better and there must be something that I can do.”
He enrolled in the ministerial program of the non-denominational Universal Life Church and became an ordained minister in 2006, and later an APD chaplain.
“I always had an interest in police work, and combined with my interest in ministerial work it just seemed like a perfect fit,” says Berry, who lost his wife of 36 years to brain cancer last September. “It was her wish that I continue with the Chaplain Unit,” he says.
When Berry is called to assist police officers at the scene where someone has died, he says, “I let them talk and cry and offer them scriptural support,” as well as provide information on what happens when the police finish their investigation and the Office of the Medical Investigator arrives.
“At the end of the day you feel like you’ve made something bad a little better,” he says. “We’re not there to preach or save them, just offer them support.”
A full-time rabbi at Albuquerque’s Congregation B’nai Israel, Arthur Flicker, 63, says serving as an APD chaplain for the last eight years has been “a good way to give back to the city, which throughout its history has been open to the Jewish community.” It also adds diversity to the chaplain unit, he says.
When a chaplain is called to a scene where there has been a death, there are usually numerous police officers on hand securing the scene, conducting an investigation, maintaining order and offering comfort to people, Flicker says.
“The presence of a chaplain can have a calming effect, and can allow some of the officers to attend to other duties.”
Often, more than one chaplain is required, as in the case of a young woman who took her own life in the home of her parents. Because the victim was to have picked up her father at the airport, another chaplain was contacted to go to the airport and work with aviation police to find the father and notify him of the death and then transport him to the home.
“Then I got yet another chaplain to notify the dead woman’s sister here in Albuquerque and bring her to the house. Finally, because the family was Catholic, and at their request, I got another chaplain, a Catholic deacon, to go to the house and attend to them. It was truly a team effort and it points to the dedication and volunteerism of the members of the unit.”