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On the Other Side of the (Crime Scene) Tape: A Trip to Sanford, Florida

Let me begin by stating what this article is not about.  It is not about local political shenanigans involved in a high profile case.  It is not about media folks bent on distorting truth and creating their own false narrative.  It is not about politicians who insist on making statements without knowing the facts.  It is not about political gadflies who seem to only land so that they can dish up the dung of their own dysfunction on the rest of us only to do it again and again.  I can’t help but think of the wise saying from Proverbs as being apropos:  “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.  Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?  There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 26:11-12 ESV)

Lest I digress too quickly and too deeply into that mire, let me quickly say the question I was seeking to answer was:  “What does it mean to be a resource mission and ministry to the Law Enforcement culture?”  How can we be that vital back up for the peace officers whose vocation often puts them between a rock and a hard place?

At Peace Officer Ministries Inc. (POM), through our training, we emphasize that the chaplain must gain understanding of the unique culture of law enforcement.  I often joke with officers that I meet, “I’m not a wanna be ... I’m a has been!”  It’s a way to let them know that despite the fact that I am a retired peace officer who has walked in their shoes, I am not here to do their job or get in their way.  I want to provide, in some tangible way, the emotional, mental, and spiritual back-up that they should have.  I want them to get through their shift – through their career – not only alive but well.

On February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida a citizen shot another citizen.  At that point that’s all anyone knew for sure.  We know that in the aftermath that there has been much speculation which has fostered highly emotional reactions to this case.  This has included the obligatory charges of corruption to be thrown at police officers responding to someone else’s mess.  See what I mean about ‘a rock and a hard place’?!

Not long after the incident and the ensuing maelstrom, I was contacted by Rev. Ed DeWitt, Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (LCMS).  His congregation works in the Sanford community in various ways to include his chaplaincy for the police department.  Pastor DeWitt had attended POM’s annual training and wanted to see how his congregation could be a positive light for the peace officers in the middle of the turbulence of this high-profile, shooting case.  We talked about some of the things his congregation was already doing and was ratcheting up for the peace officers there.  We also spoke about POM responding for some assessment and, when necessary, follow-up.

Chaplain DeWitt had been working with the Sanford Police Department for about three years.  As this whirlwind gained momentum, the police department was more than happy to have the back-up.  Since it was the week between Palm Sunday and Resurrection Sunday (a busy time for us pastors), we decided that POM would come in for that aforementioned initial assessment.  Detective Chad Montgomery of the Greensboro, NC PD and member of POM’s board of directors responded with me. 

Chaplain DeWitt briefed the command staff and on our arrival we were welcomed and in fact given great access to the department.  And more, the command staff was relieved to have the offer of help and support for themselves and their officers.  They too seemed to be relaxed a bit when they discovered our law enforcement background.

A note to chaplains here:  Persevere in being present for the officers you serve.  Don’t get discouraged when it seems that the officers could care less about what you are doing.  (Some couldn’t care less!)  The trust that Chaplain DeWitt fostered as he utilized his training and experience paved the way for POM to be well received and for us, with him, to hopefully bring a little peace and sanity to what the officers were experiencing.    

Now, I want to be clear here.  The officers of the Sanford PD were completely professional.  I do not want anyone to think that we were walking in on a bunch of emotional wrecks.  Nevertheless, I do know and have experienced the abrasions one can get on their soul doing this work and how high profile cases can exacerbate this erosion.  Again, we want to minimize that for the well-being of those who serve and protect us.

This is why we began by getting out in the field with the officers, riding along with some of them.  (I even ended up on an equivocal death scene, helping to bag the body and thinking, “I thought I was retired from this!”) 

We wanted to assure the officers we were not there to investigate anything or make judgment on them or their work.  We expressed that as part of the law enforcement family, we were there for them.  Not surprisingly, some officers did not want anyone riding with them nor were they ready to share what they were processing emotionally, physically and/or spiritually.  And so, we did not push.  (Another note to chaplains!)  My hope and yes, prayer, is that officers will take full advantage of the chaplain who appropriately makes himself available. 

Some of the officers who did want to ‘vent their spleen’ so-to-speak, said that some of the officers who were hesitant to speak to anyone were some that needed it the most.  Their demeanor had changed and their stress level rose as a result of the hurricane of events around this case.  One officer commented on the fact that for the first time since being in their new building they had to use the parking lot’s security gate; he said, “Headquarters feels like Fort Apache.”  Just because officers can be ‘trained paranoids’ does not mean that they remain unaffected when they sense a greater separation and feel under siege.  There is also a heightened sense of responsibility for all of the attention that has been brought on their agency.

On the good side of a situation like this is that fact that it often helps the officers to get a sense of being a closer knit group – maybe closer than they had been before.  In this case, despite what media outlets have shown, officers did express that many in the local community have shown support for the department and that has been very important to the officers.

I’m not sure that I have completely answered the questions, “What does it mean to be a resource mission and ministry to the Law Enforcement culture?”  How can we be that vital back up for the peace officers whose vocation often puts them between a rock and a hard place?  But, I think I have an idea from God’s Word.  As chaplains we want to “bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of (the Ultimate Peace Officer) Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:6)

Chaplains – persevere.  Officers – let those Chaplains help bear your burdens.  We’ll all be the better for it.

(Special thanks to Detective Chad Montgomery (Greensboro, NC PD) not only for taking personal leave to do POM work for those officers in Florida, but also for contributing to this article.  You can find more info about POM at www.peaceofficerministries.org and www.facebook.com/peaceofficerministries)

Stay safe and watch your six!

Rev. Frank C. Ruffatto

Executive Director, Peace Officer Ministries, Inc.

 

About The Author

Rev. Frank C. Ruffatto is a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) pastor (Point of Grace Lutheran, Cornelius, NC) and retired police detective (Prince George’s County, Md. PD) He is also the Executive Director and Chaplain for Peace Officer Ministries, Inc. (POM) a 501(c)3 non-profit, international law enforcement chaplaincy ministry whose mission is to “Serve Those Who Protect and Serve Us.”

Chaplain Ruffatto has an A.A. in Liberal Arts from St Leo College, a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies (Behavioral Science/Theology) from Concordia College, Bronxville, NY and a M.Div. from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.

Chaplain Ruffatto has performed “boots on the ground” ministry for P.O.M. in Nicaragua, Alabama, and assisted with the LCMS relief efforts in American Samoa. Locally, with Point of Grace, he has worked with the Cornelius Police Department’s Christmas-adopt-a-family projects, National Night Out events, and other ad hoc activities.  Additionally, his combination of police/ministry education and experience provides a practical application to the POM police and chaplaincy training at Concordia Seminary.

 

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