Baltimore police build chaplain corps to help heal relations with community

The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore is aiming to create perhaps the largest group of city police chaplains in the country.

There was a moment during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray that made plain to Bonnie McCubbin the challenge she faced as a police chaplain in Baltimore.

The 29-year-old pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Hampden was handing out free lunches to children in Sandtown-Winchester when an ambulance sped by, sirens blaring.

A young girl began to cry.

Whenever they go off, the girl said, somebody gets hurt.

"We couldn't tell her that she was wrong," McCubbin said later. "That's her experience."

McCubbin comforted the child. But it would take more than that, she knew, to root out the girl's fear of sirens. And it would take still more to prevent that fear from turning into mistrust — or hostility toward police.

As the Baltimore Police Department works to improve relations with the community, commanders are rapidly expanding their chaplain corps. Once a handful of clergy, the all-volunteer group now numbers some 100 spiritual leaders from across the city. Commanders want to recruit twice as many.

The expansion began before Freddie Gray died in police custody last year, but his death, and the protests that followed, gave the effort new urgency. A year later, with relations between police and the community still frayed and violent crime surging, the department says the chaplains' work is as important as ever.

The chaplains — Christians, Jews, and at least one Muslim — mediate between police and protesters, console trauma victims, and work to maintain the morale of police officers.

They represent only one element of a broad effort to improve relations. But given what the department calls the "relational equity" the chaplains have earned in their communities, their diplomacy is hoped to be especially effective.

Police say their work has already had an impact.

"They can help address social issues before they become police issues," said Major Richard Gibson of the Northern District. "Maybe this can prevent [people] from falling into the [criminal justice] system."

A dozen chaplains stood outside the Baltimore Circuit Courthouse in June when Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. of murder and other charges in Gray's death. Some congregated in West Baltimore later that day.

"Our sole job was to promote peace," said Hassan A. Amin, an imam at the Johns Hopkins University.

The expansion of the chaplain program is the work of Lt. Col. Melvin Russell.

Russell, who runs the department's Community Collaboration Division, said there have been police chaplains in Baltimore going back at least to the 1970s, but their role was mostly ceremonial — they spoke at police graduations and other events.

"It was an underutilization of their assets," Russell said.

Russell, an assistant pastor at New Beginnings Ministries, began revamping the program in 2014. He established a "chaplaincy academy" to teach members about police work, and mapped out a plan to create a robust roster of chaplains who would blanket the city.

Baltimore's police chaplains are all volunteers, McCubbin said. The department expects them to serve 20 hours a month. The majority, McCubbin said, are men.

Russell said he hopes to eventually have six chaplains in each of the city's 36 police sectors — or 216 total.

Naomi K. Paget, a professor at Gateway Seminary who has written about chaplains, said she'd never heard of such a large chaplain unit in a municipal police department.

The New York Police Department employs two full-time and eight part-time chaplains, all on salary. The District of Columbia has two volunteers. Philadelphia has around 80 volunteers.

Russell said chaplains can help younger officers in particular to engage with the people they encounter on the job.

"They don't know how to, just because of the era they grew up in," Russell said. He said social media might limit some officers' interpersonal skills.

McCubbin was a member of the inaugural class of Russell's chaplaincy academy in the spring of 2014. She joined around 30 other spiritual leaders in learning how officers decide to use force, the psychological toll police work takes, and how to talk to families in the aftermath of violence.

They had barely completed their training when Freddie Gray died last April. McCubbin and her peers went out into West Baltimore, she said, where they talked to residents, prayed on street corners, and marched with other clergy.

The unrest brought home to McCubbin the need to repair the relationship between the police and city residents. No incident since has required such urgent mediation, she said, but she continues to try to bring the two sides closer.

On a recent afternoon, McCubbin joined Officer Manolo Munoz on patrol in the Northern District.

Munoz has served on the police force for 15 years. In that time, he said, he has met many neighborhood residents.

"If I'm not going through a lot of calls, if I'm just sitting somewhere, I'd rather be in the businesses," he said. "That's how I meet people."

But he spends most of his time in his patrol car, he said.

As they drove through Hampden, Roland Park and Charles Village, McCubbin pointed out homes and shops, and told Munoz about their proprietors.

She hopes that introducing Munoz and other officers to more locals will help them communicate more effectively in times of discord.

Paget said chaplains have been successful at this work.

They "provide a sense of calm in the middle of that chaos," she said. And "the work that they do has been proven to mitigate so much of the distress that officers have."

A central part of the chaplain's job is to offer support to officers, Paget said, whether it's emotional, spiritual or psychological.

McCubbin said officers have sought her counsel on a range of topics, from domestic issues to problems on the job.

Chaplains are a crucial resource for police officers, Paget said.

"When officers don't have a safe place to talk, they just keep pushing that stress down," Paget said. "At a certain point that stress might just blow up."

McCubbin tries to make herself a visible presence at the Northern District police station on West Cold Spring Lane in Woodberry.

Before her ride along with Munoz, she attended roll call at the station.

"I'm so grateful for the hard work that you do everyday," she told a roomful of officers who'd just arrived for their shifts. She invited them to call her anytime; officers scribbled down her phone number in their notebooks.

"Just being there" is important, McCubbin said.

But chaplaincy can encompass more harrowing tasks.

The Rev. Andre Humphrey, a chaplain from East Baltimore, offers counseling and support to victims' families in the aftermath of violence.

Humphrey, who also leads the private Trauma Response Team, has been doing this work in the city for decades.

In 2004, he responded to the Park Heights apartment in which three children were killed, one of them decapitated.

Humphrey said he spoke to the children's family and offered his condolences and help.

Humphrey said his work is motivated in large part by the murder of his own son, Andre Boone, by Boone's stepfather in 1997.

"That's something that I never got over," Humphrey said. "I made a conscious decision that my son's death not be in vain."

But the incident also makes Humphrey a somewhat reluctant partner of law enforcement. The man who shot his son was himself a former Maryland state trooper.

And the deep-seated divide between the police and his community makes it even harder for Humphrey to find common ground between the two sides, he said.

McCubbin said she sometimes feels torn.

"I am called by my profession to be with the least and the last," she said. "But as a chaplain I am called to stand with the officers."

Given the city's ongoing bloodshed, she stressed the urgent need for chaplains to strike a balance.

"I find it to be very important to walk that line," she said. "To speak truth and power to both sides."

jcoburn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jesse_coburn

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