God's Squad: Baltimore County chaplains seek spiritual solace for cops and firefighters

It was a day that Rev. Herbert Watson Jr. will never forget.

As a longtime coordinator of the Baltimore County Police Department and the Baltimore County Fire Department chaplains, Watson has learned not to be surprised by tragic events.

He said that in August 2013 he was jogging and saw police cars and media trucks as he returned home from his run.

Watson went to the scene and spoke to the officer in charge to see if he could help.

He was told help was not needed there but that he should go to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The officer who was shot was Jason Schneider, a member of a tactical unit who was serving a search warrant at a residence on Roberts Avenue in Catonsville, Watson said.

Shortly after Watson arrived at the hospital, Schneider died.

Watson then asked Schneider’s grieving family if they wanted him to say a prayer.

“They did,” he said. “But I didn’t want to impose myself on them. I just wanted to be on standby if they needed me.”

Situations like that are all part of the deal for the unpaid volunteer corps of 11 chaplains, a diverse group of men and women with one mission, whose mere presence can help lighten the mental anguish of those who enforce the law or fight fires and sometimes get caught in the emotional — and actual — crossfire when things go terribly wrong.

They minister to cops and firefighters across Baltimore County, offering spiritual comfort in good times and bad and are called on to help regardless of their own religion or the religion of the people seeking help.

According to Officer Jennifer Peach, the Baltimore County police information officer, the basic role of the chaplains is to respond when they are asked for help by law enforcement officers or other first responders.

“They are called to help during any major tragedy,” she said. “There was a house fire that killed a mother and two of her children. The whole community was upset, and the chaplains were to support community members and police and fire personnel. They are there to make themselves available for those in need.”

Watson is the linchpin of the religious personnel who serve in the county — and beyond — when called upon.

The Methodist cleric emphasized that he is a “facilitator” among the ministers, cantors, deacon and rabbi in the group rather than “running the show.”

As the coordinator, he is the moderator of monthly meetings to ensure that the members keep in touch with one another and the precincts to which they are assigned, although the chaplains do not follow a set schedule or work regular shifts.

Besides Watson, other chaplains in the group include Deacon Hugh Mills Jr., Cantor Nancy Ginsburg, Cantor Melvin Luterman, Rabbi Norman Lowenthal, the Rev. Darron McKinney Sr., the Rev. Harry Schill, the Rev. Joseph E. Skillman Jr., the Rev. James Lane, the Rev. Paul E. Palazzi and the Rev. John Bennett.

Watson, 66, who ministers to the Wilkens and Woodlawn precincts, said that it is important to be visible among the officers without being intrusive.

While he said that he has not been as diligent in visiting the stations as he used to be in the earlier years of his three decades of being a chaplain, showing up for roll call and stopping by and “checking in” and occasional ride-alongs are part of his role.

Just being a member of the clergy living in the vicinity makes Watson an asset to police, he said, as was the case when he witnessed a serious accident at Winters Lane and Route 40 recently. Watson also noted that there was a bus stop accident in Woodlawn on July 20, 1995, in which he self-deployed when he heard on the news that there were fatalities including children.

Watson helped the accident victims after identifying himself at the Route 40 scene until police and emergency medical personnel arrived.

“I just happened to be riding home,” he said about the incident. “I got out to help and did what I could do until others came to the scene. I tried to calm people down so that the police and EMTs could do their jobs.”

The chaplains are called upon to give console to anyone in need, including accident victims and their families, in addition to cops and firefighters.

Watson admits to having a negative view of the police while growing up in the Perkins Homes public housing project in East Baltimore, where Broadway was the dividing line between the mostly African-American residents and the residents of Eastern European heritage.

After graduating from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) and the Garrett–Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., Watson returned to his hometown and volunteered as a chaplain in the Essex and Dundalk precincts.

“I didn’t do too well with police at that point in my life, but I wanted to see if it could work out — and it has,” he said. “People may not always like them, but cops want to come home to their families at night live everybody else. People don’t really understand what cops do. That’s why we have citizen academies, so people can learn how difficult thing can be for them. The cops are supposed to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ’t’ perfectly — and that’s just not possible.

“I have discovered there is a higher percentage of police officer who have integrity than I had originally anticipated.”

Rabbi Norman Lowenthal, who joined the group in 2009, said that chaplains also assist with recruitment and outreach, helping with diversity training at the police academy and participating in ride-alongs with patrol officers. They also make regular precinct and firehouse visits and attend and participate in ceremonial events.

“On occasion, officers and firefighters will ask if the chaplains keep conversations confidential; since the answer is ‘yes,’ they may feel comfortable to discuss or confide in us leading to serious discussions,” said Lowenthal, a Pikesville resident and a social worker at the Talmudical Academy.

Lowenthal also said that he provided needed assistance to detectives and the State’s Attorney’s Office during an investigation into an assault and robbery where the victim only spoke Hebrew. His continued relationship with the victim and his translation services helped lead to the successful prosecution of the perpetrators, Lowenthal said.

In addition, whenever the Pikesville Precinct has new officer orientation, Lowenthal gives a presentation on community awareness and Jewish culture that helps the officers relate to the concerns of the community. He added that he has also given similar presentations for the Fire Department.

Lowenthal said that he has had the opportunity to counsel employees, regardless of their religion, over difficult personal and professional concerns, act as an ambassadors to communities for the police and fire departments and offer direction and explanation when citizens have questions regarding the departments.

Melvin Luterman, 80, a Jewish cantor from the Ohem Shalom Congregation on Park Heights Avenue, also has a healthy dose of respect for the police and fire personnel he has served for nearly a decade.

He said that he stops in the Pikesville and Franklin stations “a couple of times a year” to reach out to officers and firemen.

“I have learned that they are really very caring people,” he said. “They try so hard to make people feel better, like at a car when there is a fatality. Sometimes it can be really bad and they still have to deal with it. People say, ‘I guess you get used to seeing death,’ but you really don’t. You never get used to it. And the cops and firemen don’t either.”

Luterman remembered being called to the scene of a farm where a man backed his truck too close to a power line and was electrocuted.

By the time he reached the site, the man had died.

“He was not Jewish, but I said prayers,” Letterman said. “Not Jewish prayers, just prayers. Prayers are prayers.”

Presbyterian minister Harry Schill, who has been retired for four years from Havenwood Presbyterian Church in Lutherville and is assigned to the Cockeysville precinct, said that he had a similar circumstance when he was called for an apparent drowning.

The difference, though, was that the victim was among a group of teens and young adults who tried to swim across a broad expanse of the Loch Raven Reservoir.

“(The rescue team) couldn’t find the body,” Schill said. “They had to give up once it got too dark, and they started again in the morning. We were with the family the next day when the body was found. It was terrible. I talked with surviving boys and the family. They were devastated.”

Schill, 67, said that an important part of the job is to be a liaison between accident victim’s family and police.

“Sometimes the family will talk to you and sometimes they don’t,” he said.

Like Watson, he was called upon when an off-duty cop, Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero, was shot and killed in 2000 at a jewelry store in Pikesville.

Schill met with the family at the slain officer’s funeral a few days later.

“I wasn’t there to proselytize,” he said. “I was there for grief counseling.”

Schill said that being a chaplain for a tragedy like that one has had a profound impact on him.

“It has given me a sense of how fragile life can be and how quickly things can change,” he said. “It made me question why some things happened the way they did.”

On a lighter note, Schill noted that he officiated at a service for a beloved fire department dog that had died.

“I didn’t know what to do, but I went to the pet cemetery,” he said. “An honor guard was there, and I talked about how we should cherish all of God’s creations.”

Hugh Mills Jr., a chaplain also assigned to the Wilkens and Woodlawn precincts, said that his most memorable moment as a chaplain came when he was called upon to aid an adolescent whose grandmother had died suddenly, and the 12-year-old child was left alone in an apartment in the Cockeysville area.

“I met a Baltimore County police officer who was with the child and had requested a chaplain,” Mills said. “We stayed with the child until additional relatives arrived to make sure he was taken care of properly.”

He added that being a Catholic does not affect how he ministers.

“The idea as a chaplain is just to help anyone in need, regardless of their religion,” he said.

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