Police Chaplain Proud to Protect Their Own

The following article was published in the Chicago Tribune, Monday, December 14, 2015.

When Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich called together religious leaders last week to pray for justice in Chicago, one of his priests made a conscious choice not to attend. Doing so, he believed, would betray the flock he serves and protects.

Chicago Police Chaplain Dan Brandt says the furor that has erupted over the video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald and the clergy-led protests calling for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel are "anything but Judeo-Christian in nature." The skeptical eye that Chicago police now face is unwarranted and unjust, he says.

He believes that Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald 16 times, was simply doing his job.

"You're trained to shoot until the threat is gone," Brandt, an archdiocesan priest, said in an interview. "I propose that Van Dyke was a hero. How many lives were saved by him stopping that armed offender from getting any farther, from doing more damage than he already had done?"

While Brandt concedes that he's expressing "a pretty unpopular opinion," he and other police chaplains insist that Chicagoans shouldn't lose sight of what officers face every day. The clergy who counsel, comfort and console Chicago's law enforcement want the public to pause a moment and consider those who keep their city safe.

"They're the face of normalcy, decency and order rather than chaos," Brandt said.

On Wednesday, after an impassioned apology from the mayor, protesters streamed through Chicago's Loop calling for his resignation. A line of police officers at Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street allowed the group to march down the Magnificent Mile, similar to demonstrations the day after Thanksgiving.

The Rev. Chrysanthos Kerkeres, a Greek Orthodox parish priest who answers when Orthodox Christians on the force call for help, said like doctors in an emergency room, chaplains don't distinguish between victims and assailants. They're all hurting. They all need help.

"I feel terrible for the young man who lost his life. And I feel terrible for the police officer who may or may not have lost a great part of the rest of his life," he said.

Kerkeres has responded to two police-involved shootings since he started volunteering as a chaplain in 2010. One officer, on the same day of the incident, called for the sacrament of confession and asked Kerkeres to pray with him for the victim.

Officers go through cycles of guilt even when suspects give them no choice but to pull the trigger, Kerkeres said.

"Both police officers were devastated," he said of the two shootings. "There was absolutely no doubt that the police were completely in their authority to fire their weapons. Even so, when you're a decent human being built from good moral fibers, that's a tough thing to do. ... It's a long road ahead even when it's justified."

Rabbi Moshe Wolf, who has volunteered as a police chaplain for more than two decades, said protesters have a right to voice their concerns, but he says the protests over the last two weeks weren't entirely peaceful.

"When you hurt people's businesses and you go out and cause damage to others, are you really helping your cause?" he asked. "Are you helping your cause if you send a policeman to the hospital?"

Chaplains say they see firsthand the toll the job takes on police day after day. From pulling passengers out of wrecked cars and moderating hostage situations to chasing armed suspects and retrieving human body parts from a lagoon, they say Chicago police officers in just the past couple of months have performed bravely in many life-threatening incidents and been confronted with truly disturbing images.

In Chicago, chaplains are notified after every police-involved shooting. In addition to spiritual guidance, officers are offered employee assistance, professional counseling and peer support groups. They also must attend a daylong class, offered monthly. There, they share their story with others and address any post-traumatic stress they might suffer. Brandt commands their attention for two hours.

"There's one thing I want them to take away," Brandt said. "They did what God put them in that situation to do. They did what they were trained to do. They did what they swore to do — to protect innocent life. They are good in God's eyes."

Since the release of the McDonald video, questions about deep-seated issues such as a code of silence among officers, union contract restrictions, a failure to properly investigate shootings and a reluctance among prosecutors to charge police, illustrate a system that has failed to hold police accountable.

But Kerkeres, whose brother is a Chicago police officer, said there is a danger in blaming one officer's alleged wrongdoing on systemic problems. The public tends to cast blanket blame on the entire force, he said.

"We tend to all want to be the judges," he said. "That's not a good thing to do."

Likewise, Wolf said it's not fair for one or two incidents to take away the pride that comes from the policing profession. The officer deserves his day in court, he said.

"As in any other profession, certain things do come up that you need to let the legal system or the system as it is deal with," he said. "I think it's unfair to paint the profession as a broken wheel that needs to be fixed."