When a crime happens in Richmond, police officers often call for a different type of backup -those armed with bibles and faith instead of guns and Tasers.
The ordained elders serve as chaplains with the Richmond Police Department, ready to offer solace to families and communities often in the most vulnerable situations- murders, fires, suicides or car accidents.
The 18 volunteers come from various denominations and ethnicities, but are bounded by a common thread to serve.
“This is an aid that helps police officers in roles they are really out of place with,” said Al Martinez, president of the chaplaincy program and a retired Richmond police officer.
“Police officers are trained to take action and get out,” Martinez said. “But when a family or community is left devastated by a murder, the need is still there. We are there to console them and show them to a local church or facility.”
After a stray bullet struck a one-year-old in Richmond’s Iron Triangle last March, Martinez was dispatched to Children’s Hospital Oakland. He said he didn’t know what to expect.
“You have to ready your mind prayerfully, spiritually and tactfully,” he said. “You’re being prayerful but you think the worse, because this is a baby,” he added. “When we arrived, we prayed for them (the family) and the mother embraced me real tight. We were there to support in anyway we could.”
Richmond’s chaplaincy program dates back over 20 years and began as a bridge to connect the community and the police department using area clergy.
The program continues to expand and the department is accepting applications from ordained elders. Chaplains must either live in Richmond or have a church in the city, and pass a criminal background check.
The volunteer community leaders are on call 24/7, despite their church responsibilities and fulltime jobs. When a police officer or firefighter requests their assistance, the chaplains are dispatched to various neighborhoods throughout the city.
At crime scenes, they offer spiritual support and counseling — sometimes recommending a mortuary — and provide follow-up calls in the days after the incident. The ministers respond in pairs of two – both for spiritual assistance and safety.
“The chaplains are a caring and compassionate ear that can also explain the process of crime scene investigation when they (victims) are in a very traumatic situation,” said Michelle Milam, a crime prevention manager with the Richmond Police Department.
Aside from crime scenes, chaplains attend community meetings and go on ride-alongs with police officers to familiarize themselves with residents and the city’s various neighborhoods.
But crime victims’ relatives aren’t the only ones that need spiritual guidance. Officers and their families also seek advice, prayer, or rely on chaplains as a non-judgmental resource.
“This is a high stress profession and sometimes people see real horrible things or the stress of the job just takes a toll on officers and their families,” Milam said. “The chaplains are there to be a support, and they can confide in a chaplain in confidence.”
For Martinez, being a chaplain is another way to help the residents in the city he’s called home for nearly 40 years. He’s currently a postmaster for the United States Postal Service. His office sits in the core of Richmond’s downtown, giving him easy access to some of the same neighborhoods he once patrolled.
“We are not police officers and for us to have the opportunity to come into their world and assist them, is very delicate,” he said.