Of Cops and Compassion
By Chaplain John Knox
Last week my nine year old said something about a “cop” in a sarcastic tone of voice. I turned to him and told him very firmly that in the future he would respectfully refer to these men and women as “police officers.” He was a little surprised that his dad had gotten so “testy,” but of course he was too young to remember…
The shrill sound of my pager interrupted an otherwise peaceful and lazy Sunday afternoon. When I responded to the page, the dispatcher’s voice quivered slightly as she instructed me to report to the sergeant supervising a scene where a four-year-old had drowned.
My mind raced as I made the 15 minute trek across town. Among other things, I focused on the training I had completed a few weeks earlier with the Wichita Falls, TX police department. At the request of several officers, administrators had agreed to try a pilot volunteer chaplaincy program. Local ministers would take turns being on 24-hour call to respond to crisis situations.
I participated in the initial chaplaincy program offered by the police department for a variety of reasons. I felt the need, like most ministers, to be involved in the community in a meaningful way. The training was both extensive and enlightening. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the words of the dispatcher that afternoon. “Mr. Knox, we have a four-year-old drowning victim.”
I prayed for wisdom and a heart of compassion as the scene loomed in sight. The sergeant informed me that paramedics had not given up hope. They continued to perform CPR until the little boy, and the terrified mother arrived at the emergency room. I did what I could to comfort the family as prayers were answered before our eyes. Later that evening I talked briefly with a scared little four-year-old boy in a hospital gown adorned with little bears.
That spring afternoon in 1990 proved to be both a reality check, and an early indication of things to come. I went home and hugged by nine-month-old baby son a little longer than usual. I also came to the stark realization that perhaps I had gotten into more than I had bargained for. “Do I really want to be “involved” in the community to this extent?”
As I continued to fulfill the responsibilities of a volunteer chaplain, officers invited me to ride with them on their beat. I joined them for briefing, coffee breaks, and lunch meetings all hours of the day and night.
One crisp fall morning in October of 1992, an officer and I were attempting to take a quick coffee break when the dispatcher sent out a “blind call” for the first available unit. Someone had called 911 reporting a baby not breathing. As the officer I was with carefully navigated the patrol car through a busy intersection, he asked me, “Do you know how to do CPR on a child?” I barely had time to respond before both of us jumped out of the car and raced into the apartment.
The officer burned his hand, as he searched for any sign of the child in the unlit bathroom. I looked in the bedroom, and found the lifeless body of a twelve-month-old child. CPR was not needed. He was deceased. He had been drowned in the bathtub full of scalding water. The child’s mother was the perpetrator of this heinous crime.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t vomit at the sight of such a shocking and grisly scene. There wasn’t time. The yellow crime scene tape went up, and the tiny apartment in the housing projects was literally swarmed with investigators, and crime scene technicians in a matter of minutes. I do remember what the officer I was riding with said to me. “The next time someone tells you that all that cops do is sit in the donut shop, tell them about this incident this morning.”
The months went by at a rapid pace, and I slowly got over the initial shell-shock of life on the streets. I continued to ride with officers, and over time they became increasingly interested in using the services of the volunteer chaplains. We were called to the scenes of suicides, fatality car accidents, fires, and a host of other crises. We were also given the weighty responsibility of delivering death notifications. That job is never easy, and it will certainly never become routine.
One Monday evening in 1994 as I watched the 10:00 news with my family, reporters gave an account of a fatality car accident, which had just occurred in a neighboring county. I had the strange feeling that I was about to be responsible for breaking this terrible news to the survivors of the victim. The hunch proved to be correct. I met two rookie officers who were very relieved to see me, at a location not far from the victim’s home. The fears of the man’s family were confirmed as I identified myself as a police chaplain. The speech I had been instructed to rehearse had become all too familiar. “I am sorry to have to break this news to you, but…Is there anyone I can call for you?” This particular family handed me a list of names and phone numbers. It was an adult Sunday School roster. I asked the officers accompanying me to call several of the numbers, and within a matter of minutes, members of this lady’s church family enveloped her with their hugs, expressions of sorrow, and most of all, their presence. I slipped away to allow them some privacy in their grief, and quietly sobbed as I drove back to be with a wife who loved me, and two precious boys.
Unfortunately, not all the people we ministered to had such a report network. I will never forget the 28 year old lady whom I found curled up in a fetal position in the tiny conference room adjacent to the hospital ER in the summer of 1992. Her husband was dead on arrival after suffering an apparent heart attack. She had not even put her shoes on before boarding the ambulance that had attempted to transport him down a road that would hopefully lead to recovery. “Do you have a minister I can call for you?” “No.” Do you have friends I can contact?” “We are new to the area.” “I don’t know anyone…” They didn’t tell us what to say in situations like this in Greek readings or in exegesis courses, so I just held her hand, as we awaited the arrival of out-of-state relatives.
I have grown to love the officers, troopers, and support personnel in this field. Over time they have accepted me into their very private world. Some extraordinary friendships continue to form, as each of us fulfill our respective roles. They are indeed special people who indeed do a lot more than just eat donuts.
Ministry out on the streets continues me things that educational institutions cannot teach. I am learning to be more grateful for my family and friends. Life is truly just a mist… I am realizing how foolish it is to be petty or unforgiving. Life is far too precious to waste our energies in such a foolish and ungodly way.
I am now blessed to serve as chaplain in Region I for The Texas Department of Public Safety. I am also serving as chaplain for the Granbury Police Department. And the Hood County Sheriff's Office claims me as well. I have learned a lot in 18 years. I pray for my troopers and officers’ everyday. Why don’t we all pray for these special servants? After all, it could be your home they are racing to, to save a life.