RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Don’t trust. Don’t feel. Don’t talk.
Advice like that is a recipe for emotional and spiritual disaster. Any law enforcement officer, though, knows that such advice could save his physical life.
“We struggle with the word ‘trust,’ every day,” Jack Poe, chaplain for the Oklahoma City Police Department, said. “But, this summit is a safe place. It’s a place where you can let your guard down for a while and relax. We’re all family here.”
Poe joined more than 150 law enforcement officers, firemen, federal agents, chaplains and their spouses at the fifth Law Enforcement Summit at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, N.C. LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored the summit.
That “safe place” sentiment was repeated throughout the event. Officers spoke of feeling free to let down their guard, express their emotions and cry with each other over tragedies they had experienced. One young officer said, “I’ve never been anywhere like this — all Christian brothers and sisters who understand what my life is like.”
A COP & A PASTOR
Paul Gilbreath looks like a cop. He’s tall. He has a piercing stare. But he’s also a pastor with a loving heart. Gilbreath is area commander of the Dallas region of Homeland Security, working in Immigration Customs Enforcement, and pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church in Lancaster, Texas.
Gilbreath led one of the many breakout sessions during the summit, and his discussion session — titled “When a cop is not a cop” — reminded the officers that they have to take off the game face sometimes.
“When the weapon is secured and the badge and the uniform are hanging in the closet; when you’re second-guessing the decisions you made during your shift and you can’t get that picture of that small child out of your mind; when you keep hearing over and over the echo of the radio traffic from the officer calling for back up ‘now’ and you know you can’t get there quickly enough — when all these things build up in your mind, how do you release it?
“Some drink. Others build up walls around themselves and become mean. Still others isolate themselves to a point that no one, not the wife or the children or the best friend, can penetrate,” Gilbreath said. “But you have to find a way to cope with the life of being a cop.”
Cops have a stress unique to their jobs that no others have, and the results of that stress can have outward signs such as lower job satisfaction, higher divorce rates, higher alcoholism and drug use and higher suicide rates.
“For every cop killed in the line of duty, three are killed by their own hand,” Gilbreath said. “The stress is a killer.”
While he reaches people in the pew in his growing church, Gilbreath said he believes that as a cop he has had the opportunity to influence and minister to people the church will never reach.
Derek Oeser, a sergeant with the Rutherford County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Office, and his wife Connie led a conference on balancing God, marriage and law enforcement during the summit. The Oesers cited these statistics:
— The life expectancy of a police officer in the United States is 57 years.
— The life expectancy of a criminal in the United States is 64 years.
— The national divorce rate for cops is 75 percent, 50 percent higher than the national average.
— 71 percent of spouses of officers believe the administrators don’t take family life into consideration when making policies.
— 51 percent of those don’t feel like they can say anything about it because it would hurt their chances for advancement.
— An officer under extreme stress is five times more likely to take his own life than to be shot in the line of duty.
SUMMIT MEETS NEEDS
“My experience as a law enforcement officer had taught me many things about how we, as officers, are affected by the everyday stresses of the job,” said Debra Yokely, a lieutenant with the Rowan County (N.C.) Sheriff’s Office and member of the steering committee that organized this year’s summit.
“When I became a supervisor, I noticed something I had somehow overlooked in myself,” she said. “When officers are struggling with issues outside their careers, their work is affected. A distracted officer is more likely to turn in incorrect or incomplete paperwork, ignore safety factors and have relationship problems with their superiors and other officers.
“As humans, we are tri-part beings: body, mind and spirit. We feed our bodies well and exercise for physical health,” Yokely added. “We participate in in-service training and take classes to keep a sharp mental edge. However, many of us totally ignore the fact that there is a spiritual part of us. If our spirit is neglected, it is unhealthy and our lives are out of balance. There is a very real part of us that cries out for God and His peace.”
The Law Enforcement Summit is a place for officers to be spiritually nourished and to obtain the tools to be at peace in a troubled world, Yokely said. The fellowship, praise and worship time, and the breakout sessions make the summit a life changing experience, she said.
Tim Eldred, chaplain with the Rutherford County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Office and leader of the summit’s steering committee, said, “These officers need this summit. They need a place where they can gather with Christian brothers and sisters and hear they aren’t alone in the struggles they face. They need a place where they can come and not look over their shoulders all the time. They need to relax.”
The 2007 Law Enforcement Summit will be April 3-6 at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center near Santa Fe, N.M.
“Churches can do a great service to the officers and spouses in their churches by sponsoring them to the summit,” Eldred said. “It’s an investment that can’t even be calculated. These officers need the appreciation and the support their churches can offer.”
For more information, visit www.lifeway.com/events. To sponsor an officer to the event, contact Ron Pratt at LifeWay at [email protected] or 615-251-2065.