Learning to understand the culture of law enforcement and the unique pressures officers experience on a day-to-day basis is an important part of being an interfaith law enforcement chaplain. At first, it may seem that the culture of law enforcement and that of religious communities have very little in common. However, members of the clergy may have more in common with law enforcement officers than is immediately obvious. These similarities provide the foundation on which to build a relationship of understanding and trust.
“On” all the time
Members of the clergy understand something of what it means to be on duty all the time. You could be shopping in the produce section of a supermarket and unexpectedly find yourself in a conversation with someone in your community about an important life topic. Members of the clergy cannot disconnect with “I am not on duty at this time,” because doing so would likely be against their nature and possibly cause irreparable damage to their relationships in the community. Law enforcement officers have a similar life experience throughout and cannot easily step out of the problem-solving role that members of the public may project onto them. Family, friends, and neighbors may also have a difficult time seeing an officer off duty. Being “active” all the time is a source of stress because it does not allow the individual, outside of their professional role, to have experience. When a chaplain understands this, he can help the chaplain to be present for an officer without contributing to the demands that have already been placed on him. Being “active” all the time as a law enforcement officer comes with added stress, that of being constantly on the alert for potential danger. Not being aware of this can cause a chaplain to misinterpret an officer’s normal hyper-alert behavior as distant or unapproachable.
- Do not be overly casual or overly friendly when communicating with law enforcement officers. Let the officers set the tone and therefore let you know what is appropriate for your interactions.
- Be courteous, friendly, and professional.
Some clergymen wear garments that distinguish them from the public and even those who do not wear any particular identifying clothing or symbols of their office may experience being cut off from society. This may be in the form of expectations the public has of the clergy: to have an impeccable personal life and impeccable demeanor at all times, and never to deviate from an inhuman standard of perfection. Similarly, law enforcement officers are apparently under constant scrutiny. Their insignia, uniforms and weapons make them stand out from a crowd that expects perfect courtesy and impeccable demeanor. Sometimes the individual behind the uniform gets lost in all expectation. The pressure to present yourself perfectly can have the effect of dehumanizing a person and causing a deepening gap between their on-call personality and who they really are. When a chaplain understands this about an officer, he can help the chaplain be present for the person behind the uniform with patience, letting the officer lead with instructions, conversation, and requests, and most of all, have a great ability to listen to the officer. with the least possible judgment.
- Avoid expressing personal opinions on issues of social behavior.
- Listen, often and carefully
Professional, not personal
Regardless of an officer’s opinion of local laws, private faith, political parties, or personal preferences regarding social trends, he or she has to apply the law with sustained professionalism toward everyone. Officers interact with people from all walks of life and mindsets and beliefs, and must be able to function fairly and equanimously in this diverse environment. An interfaith law enforcement chaplain will undoubtedly have a strong conviction of personal faith and deep spiritual practice. Regardless of the chaplain’s private faith, he or she will be serving officers and members of the public from all religious or non-religious traditions; at no time should you proselytize. An interfaith law enforcement chaplain has to apply compassion and service with sustained professionalism to all.
- Do not bring anything into the conversation that has not been requested. Testimonies of faith, regardless of tradition, should not be included in the discussion with officers unless specifically requested.
- Be respectful of what the officers want to talk about and follow their lead. Include in this the ability to respect an officer’s desire to speak on any subject.