Being a law enforcement officer has never been easy, but those difficulties have only been amplified in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd Jr. by a police officer in May 2020 — and few are better positioned to see the toll this has taken on their spiritual and mental well-being than chaplains.
Law enforcement members have faced a barrage of criticism related to questions of racial discrimination, diminished public support, and, in some cases, they have even faced attacks on their lives. As one of the chaplains for the police department in Minneapolis — the site of Floyd’s murder and the epicenter of the tumultuous response it generated — Deacon Carl Valdez has seen the impact.
Since Floyd’s death, Deacon Valdez said Minneapolis has been under the microscope of “race-based policing,” which adds tension for everyone in Minneapolis and decreases morale among police. Chaplains are called to live in those tensions, serving alongside police, even when they know people who have been racially profiled, he remarked.
“Officers have told me that they are now hesitant to make a traffic stop, even for a blatant offense, whatever the race of the driver or vehicle occupant,” said Deacon Valdez, who has previously written about the recent difficulties experienced by law enforcement members, such as children having nightmares that their police officer mother or father will die, spouses of police officers being harassed in their neighborhood, or Black officers being called traitors.
The statistics back up his observations. According to the FBI, intentional killings of law enforcement officers reached a 20-year high in 2021, when 73 officers died in felonious killings. That figure is a 59% increase from 2020. In 2022, 54 officers have been killed through October, which is lower than the rate of felonious killings in 2021, but higher than the preceding years.
In August 2020, Northern Illinois University psychology professor Michelle Lilly and Peoria, Illinois, police Sgt. Shawn Curry surveyed 1,355 active-duty U.S. law enforcement officers. They found that 47% had post-traumatic stress disorder, 29% had moderate to severe anxiety and 37% had moderate to severe depression. Fifty-nine percent said they felt trapped or hopeless about their job on a daily or weekly basis.
Chaplains are called to remind others of the presence and guidance of a loving God, who forgives and transforms, Deacon Valdez told the Register. That’s especially important at a time when those in law enforcement aren’t receiving support from some crucial corners.
“Despite many positive letters and notes that come in, officers still deal with a publicly unappreciative politically ‘liberal’ city, shifts that are inadequately staffed, causing slow 911 responses and an uptick in crime, and being under both the public and administrative microscope,” Deacon Valdez explained.
Nonetheless, he said that he still sees “smiles, a sense of humor, and a sense of duty to the job and to one another” among the officers.
“I admire their individual and unified strength. They trust one another.”
A Hard Job Becomes Harder
Father John Petrich is the president of the St. Louis County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy in Duluth, Minnesota. He began his police chaplaincy more than 33 years ago. In the past couple of years, as he has listened to police officers’ and deputies’ hopes and fears, he has found that some officers are looking to retire early or take other positions in the department.
“One officer said, ‘I come to work, and I am wrong; I stay home, and I am wrong; I do what I think is a good job, and I am wrong; I patrol my district, and I am wrong. Can’t win, no matter what,’” Father Petrich relayed.
Father Chris Carrara, a priest of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, New York, who has served as a police chaplain since 1995, said he has seen those trends, too. Law enforcement members typically feel supported by residents, but not statewide politicians. In his estimation, while politicians are justly calling for some needed changes in policing or the education and formation of police officers, they’ve failed to express appreciation and support for these people who put their lives on the line every day. In turn, law enforcement personnel feel a bit abandoned and worry whether they’ll be treated fairly. A hard job becomes even harder.
It's especially challenging in Oakland, California, Father Jayson Landeza, the chaplain for the city’s fire and police departments, told the Register.
Father Landeza noted that Oakland never had a whole lot of love for police in the first place. The Black Panthers rose out of Oakland because of the contentious relationship there between police and communities of color, he explained. Urban agencies are trying to improve these relationships, but George Floyd’s murder damaged that progress, he said.
Sometimes disdain for the police is even misdirected. In early November, Father Landeza was with a uniformed Oakland Fire Department crew when a man yelled out his apartment window, “F--- the police! F--- the police! F--- the police!” at them when they were out with a fire department ladder truck, in front of a fire station.
Father Landeza loves the people of the community and understands the anger, as he has been a priest at parishes whose parishioners are primarily African Americans.
“The African American community was treated horribly by law enforcement in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, but things have changed here in Oakland,” he explained. “But there’s still this lingering anger.”
Premature resignations and retirements are common in Oakland, too. Some people who seriously considered entering law enforcement decided against it, Father Landeza noted. In high-crime areas, police don’t respond to many relatively minor crimes, like car break-ins, because the workload is spread across so many fewer officers. They must prioritize responding to major crimes, like homicides.
Father Landeza reminds officers that they have a noble mission and calling in giving their lives in service to the people of their communities and their country.
A Supportive Presence
According to Deacon Valdez, chaplains recognize the challenges and strengths of police officers, even though they don’t have the same role. They do their best to support them.
“As in any job, we don’t know how much we provide, but we trust that our presence speaks,” Deacon Valdez said.
It’s a perspective shared by Father Carrara, who described chaplaincy to emergency services as largely a ministry of presence.
“You’re just trying to shed a little light just by your presence,” he told the Register.
Father Carrara tries to get to know law enforcement members’ needs. When the timing is appropriate, he preaches the Gospel more directly. He has learned that the measure of success isn’t how many officers a chaplain can convince to attend church. Instead, it’s whether they will trust a chaplain enough to discuss their problems when they’re struggling — when they see the chaplain as “one of them.”
“Police officers are very protective — and they have to be — as far as who they let in and who they don’t let in, because they see and hear things that are confidential,” he said.
Part of gaining that trust is becoming comfortable being around people when they’re at their best and their worst — and with the language that’s part of officers’ lived experiences, especially in patrol cars.
“It’s not church language,” he quipped.
Law enforcement typically have a great respect for chaplains and will moderate their language when chaplains are near them. When they don’t, Father Carrara takes it as a sign that he has been accepted.
In addition to supporting law enforcement personnel, police chaplains like Father Carrara also serve civilians they encounter in the line of duty. While he is attentive to specific needs and sacraments for Catholics, he serves anyone who needs to talk, regardless of faith. Four priests and one deacon are chaplains for the diocese, which is the largest and least populated one in New York. They’re sometimes called in to aid victims of vehicle crashes and provide spiritual direction and individual or marriage counseling.
Father Carrara has seen in the past couple of years an increased focus on officers’ mental health and programs offered for suicide prevention. Employee assistance programs are striving to provide peer counselors.
Law enforcement personnel are always under stress, and when there’s less support — or even hostility — toward them, mental stress increases, he said.
“The vast majority of our police officers are strong individuals with a higher level of integrity,” Father Carrera said. “That being said, most people feel better when they are supported and worse when they are not.”
Deacon Valdez and other Minneapolis Police Department chaplains go on ride-alongs, attend police roll calls and take advantage of any time they have to chat with police. They may accompany an officer who must tell a family that a loved one has died. Chaplains are usually on scene, caring for family members for anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours, after a death occurs suddenly. That way, officers can focus on processing the scene while the medical examiner is on his or her way. Chaplains explain what families’ next steps are for handling the tragedy.
Father Carrara finds the civic duty that law enforcement members perform — despite the challenges and dangers they face — inspiring. Regardless of the difficulty of the 911 call they need to address, or what mood they’re in, law enforcement will respond to the scene.
“There’s a lesson in there for each one of us, I think,” he said.
Preaching the Faith
In Father Carrara’s area, young officers’ and deputies’ church attendance resembles that of their peers; they often have less experience with organized religion compared with older generations. Chaplaincy ends up being that connection, he said. For example, Father Petrich’s conversations with patrol officers in their squad cars have led to baptisms and weddings.
The Church’s Blue Masses may also be a fruitful point of connection. In his diocese, Father Carrara chairs the committee for these Masses, which support police, fire and rescue and corrections services and their families.
Father Landeza reminds officers that there are people who want to support them. He recommended that Catholics pray for officers and seek the intercession of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of law enforcement, to reflect on how they can help. Father Carrara suggested praying a Rosary after Mass for the safety of emergency services personnel.
“My reminder to all is that police, regardless of where they live, are part of our communities,” Deacon Valdez said. “The changes that communities demand of police also need to reflect the changes that each individual in those communities is willing to make in him or herself and in their respective organizations, including those who wear a badge. May we be guided by that loving God.”
Mary Stroka is an award-winning journalist with experience writing for statewide news media, nonprofits and government bodies. A wife and mother of two, she currently lives in Gillette, Wyoming, where she reports on local news. Her smaller adventures have included studying foreign languages, like Italian and Spanish.