Reimbursement from God: Police chaplains in Richmond

on November 23, 2014

George Epps was sitting in his church in East Oakland when he got the call from Richmond police. It was 2009 and the all-too-common had occurred: a shooting in South Richmond.

Epps put on his uniform and walked to his car. Big yellow letters on the back of his jacket said “POLICE CHAPLAIN.”

Epps was briefed on the details. A man had pulled his car up to the stoplight at the intersection of Cutting Blvd. near Harbor Way. As the red light glowed in the dark overhead, another car pulled alongside. A gun emerged from the second car’s window and a loud bang echoed over the intersection. It was over in an instant.

“Half his head was blown off,” Epps said.

It was crowded when Epps arrived. Almost 150 people had gathered at the scene of the shooting.

Yellow police tape encircled the area, with the victim’s car idle in the middle. The body was slumped in the driver’s seat. Epps had seen it all before. He got to work, talking to the crowd.

Some people were distraught, crying. Some watched in shocked fascination. In the middle of it all Epps was trying to find “the key person” to talk to – someone calm that could help him relate to the scene, help him control and understand it. That’s one of the hard parts.

***

As a police chaplain, Epps has to bring a delicate touch to every crime scene he visits, mediating between the police and distraught bystanders.

It’s not easy to explain to a family member that they cannot enter a crime scene.

“It’s hard to tell a grieving mother she can’t hold her son’s hand one last time,” Epps said.

But gracefully navigating the spiritual and emotional chaos in the wake of someone’s killing is just part of the gig.

“It’s the chaplain’s job to do a dance between the police, victim’s families, and bystanders,” said Michelle Milam, the crime prevention coordinator at the Richmond Police Department.

Richmond Police has 17 chaplains it can call on through the RPD Chaplaincy Program, which recently held an event at the Hilltop Community Church to interest more people in the job.

To become a police chaplain one either has to work or live in Richmond, as well as lead a faith group or congregation. One must also have a clean criminal record.

Besides assisting cops at crime scenes, chaplains can deliver death notifications, and offer guidance and counseling for the families of victims, as well as police officers.

“(We) have to deal with the extreme and the less extreme,” said Don Sutton, 54, a police chaplain in Richmond for 10 years. “We listen to them, offer them counseling. Police have to deal with a lot, and sometimes they need someone to talk to themselves.”

Epps echoes Sutton’s view about the police.

“They’re human too, and they put their lives on the line daily for the community,” Epps said.

A chaplain’s role can seem less clear-cut than a police officer’s but essentially they deal with people on both sides of the police-public equation. They provide a comforting, trustworthy presence, and offer counsel and spiritual guidance in tough times, be it for a cop or a civilian.

Because of this, chaplains are not employed by Police Department, but people often mistake them as officers of the law. Some of them are ex-police, like the RPD Chaplaincy Program’s president, Al Martinez, who was a Richmond cop in the ‘80s.

Even though they aren’t cops, chaplains receive training usually reserved for law enforcement. This training includes evasive driving and firearm practice – in case an officer is injured and they need to step in – radio communications, and crime scene evaluation. The Richmond Police Department and the International Conference of Police Chaplains provide the training.

The chaplains in Richmond are volunteers. As pastors in their daily lives, they have a sort of rock-solid faith that comes in handy when dealing with people in their toughest times.

***

The intersection at Cutting Blvd and Harbor Way teemed with people. Police officers scoured every inch of the scene while curious bystanders crowded the yellow perimeter line. In the middle of the chaos, Epps made sure no one crossed the police tape. Minimizing the risk of crime scene contamination is vital.

Then Epps found his key person. Or rather, she found him.

An older woman walked up to Epps. Her calm demeanor stood in stark contrast to the hysteria around her. She introduced herself as the grandmother of the victim.

“I tried to talk to him. I told him things would end this way,” the woman said to Epps.

As it turned out, the victim had been a drug dealer. To Epps, this explained why several men had tried to cross the police tape to get to the vehicle. He managed to stop them.

“There could have been something left in the car,” Epps said. “Something they didn’t want the police to see, like money or drugs.”

The victim was a father. Several women cried and screamed at the intersection.

“Four or five young women had had children with this man,” Epps said.

***

Dealing with this sort of high-strung situation takes patience, understanding, a calm demeanor, and knowing how to comfort people. Epps and Sutton both say being pastors helps them in their role as chaplains. But it’s not easy.

Occasionally, the job becomes overwhelming, so the chaplains often work in pairs.

Epps recalls a time he was called to assist a younger, less-experienced chaplain. The new chaplain, while visiting a family where the father had died, “became spooked, and couldn’t handle it.” A crying girlfriend and distraught children had become too much for the man. Epps arrived and assisted his colleague, and the family.

One time Sutton and a fellow chaplain had been called to the house of a woman who had lost her baby to crib death. The woman was in complete shock when they arrived.

“She was just staring into space and didn’t say anything, but we stayed with her, tried to comfort her, and prayed for her,” Sutton said. After spending five hours with the near-catatonic woman, they finally left.

Dealing with grief-stricken people, crime scenes, death and suffering on a continual basis can take its toll. Thus the chaplains meet once a month to talk about their experiences. They pray together and offer guidance to one another to deal with the stresses of the job.

Epps says the hardest part of the job “is seeing people in their darkest moments.” But it has its rewards too.

Three months later, the woman who had lost her child called Sutton.

“She said she was thinking about me a lot, and how she had appreciated how we stayed with her,” Sutton said. “For me, the reward comes when people say thank you. It can bring tears to your eyes.”

For Epps, it’s about serving others. He has volunteered as a chaplain for 14 years, and has no plans of quitting anytime soon.

“I do it to give back to the community,” Epps said. “I will continue doing it as long as I make a contribution.”

Despite the demands of the job and lack of monetary compensation, the chaplains say they definitely get something back: their reimbursement comes from God.

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