News Articles

Despite erratic, traumatic days, police chaplain loves his work

ARLINGTON, Texas (BP)–The hours are erratic; often the job involves dealing with what has just happened to someone else. For chaplains, being there is the first responsibility.

The call comes at 6:30 a.m. His clothes are laid out with everything in the pockets so he can be ready in a moment. “I feel like a firefighter,” says chaplain Harold Elliott of the Arlington, Texas, police department. “Response time is very important.”

Arriving by 7 a.m., Elliott parks near the scene and begins gathering information into his “dead call book.” The deceased woman’s purse and cellular phone are handed to him. He takes out her wallet to find her license. Confirming that the picture on it is indeed that of the driver of the dark Mazda, he begins searching for other clues to her identity.

A payroll stub reveals where she may have worked; a phone bill gives important information, including her husband’s name and phone numbers useful in locating loved ones. She was alone when her car hit a concrete barricade, spun into the median of Interstate 30 and came to rest between two other barricades.

As Elliott searches her purse, the cellular phone in his hand rings. It is her husband. Elliott has no choice but to explain the situation over the phone and to inform the husband that his wife is dead.

“It goes against advice I’ve given in police chaplaincy classes and seminars,” Elliott says, “but sometimes you have no choice.”

Later, in the chaplain’s office, Elliott gives the man his wife’s belongings and asks about her parents. In only a few minutes, the woman’s mother will arrive for work. “I can tell you are a sensitive person,” he tells her supervisor over the phone, “and since you know her, it would be better for you to tell her. Have you ever done this before?

“Ask her to come into your office. If you want someone else there, that’s fine. Have her sit down. You have to be very straightforward, up front and just say, ‘I’m sorry, but I have some very bad news. I’ve had a call from the Arlington police department and your daughter was involved in a car accident and she is dead.’

“That sounds like the hardest thing that you could possibly say,” Elliott tells the supervisor, “but there’s no soft way. Every second of delay seems like a millennium. It’s not easy; it never gets easy. This is such a jolt, especially when it is an only child. This is going to be the most massive blow she has ever had.

“Be prepared for her reaction. She may faint, become hysterical, go into denial, blame you or want to fight. Don’t be afraid to give her a comforting touch. If there is someone who can drive her, send her home and get word to her husband.

“Her daughter is being taken to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. They don’t need to go there. After you tell her, will you call me back, please? I need to know that she has been notified. I appreciate it and know you have a tough job there.”

Elliott is one of 75 full-time police chaplains from various denominations in the United States and Canada; most departments have volunteers only. He was a pastor for 30 years, 22 of them at Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington. In 1974 he began volunteering once a week, usually riding with officers late Friday nights and early Saturday mornings. He became full time in March 1982.

Elliott’s ministry is one of presence. He feels that success in his ministry can be attributed to four job requirements that he follows faithfully: availability, accessibility, visibility and confidentiality.

One of the hardest things a chaplain must learn is to let go. “At first, I tried to do all the follow-up calls related to trauma deaths,” he says. “But I couldn’t keep doing that because I had no time for new cases and no time to be available to the officers. I had to learn to turn the families over to their own ministers, physicians, consoling friends and relatives. It’s important to do your best, then turn loose. I’m here if they need me, but I also have to move on. I have to be available for the 300,000 Arlington citizens, as well as for 451 police officers and 125 civilian personnel and police administrators.”

Normally, Elliott works Monday through Thursday with a double shift on Thursday, but he is on 24-hour call. There is no such thing as a typical day. “The only typical thing about my day is getting out of bed and, much later, getting back into bed. The only routine things I do are send birthday cards to personnel and write articles for the police association newsletter.”

But a boring day could be a good day, with no automobile wrecks to view, no trauma deaths to follow up on, no officers to counsel through a time of crisis. Good days are rare.

Recently, when Elliott arrived at the scene of a suicide, an officer told him, “You’ve got your work cut out for you today — and none of it’s good.”

It was an unusual sight. The woman had shot herself with a 30-06 rifle in her small bathroom. As Elliott describes it: “She had fallen into a very small space, between the sink and the wall, so that she was wedged into a lifelike sitting position. Instead of looking very dead, which she was, she looked more as if she had just somehow sat down in there and gotten stuck and would get up at any moment.” Her face had a startled expression, and she looked as though she would reach up and grab the officer’s leg. “I knew that was impossible,” the officer said, “but the feeling was there all the same and it was a great comfort just to have the chaplain there.”

The effects of seeing so much death build up. Police officers need a caregiver who can help them deal with death in a more psychologically healthy way. When an officer shows signs of experiencing too much at a scene, such as fixation on the grisly details, Elliott can provide a distraction by talking about other things, or he can urge the officer to take a break, get some air outside or come and talk.

“It’s important that I experience what the officers experience,” Elliott says. “They know I have been there with them; they know I fully understand what they are going through. I am much more accessible if I am in the field with them, rather than behind a desk.”

His experience includes working fatal accidents, murders, suicides, two major airline crashes, countless fires and morgue duty following the Branch Davidian episode in 1993 in Waco, Texas. Two years later he was asked to go to Oklahoma City after the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed. Elliott and his wife, Norma, stayed only a week because death was too close to them. They had suffered a personal trauma only two-and-a-half months before.

On Jan. 30, 1995, Elliott left home early to go by the post office on his way to work. At approximately 6:20 a.m., he was driving by his youngest daughter’s home when he saw police cars. Elliott soon was told gently by a fellow officer his daughter was dead of a gunshot wound.

The case remains unsolved. The medical examiner ruled it “undetermined.” It was either an accident, a suicide or a felony act. The truth may never be known. As is the case with many parents, the Elliotts do not want to believe that Tina committed an act she knew would give her parents grief. She had read a book he has written on suicide, “Ripples of Suicide,” and had played the role of the girlfriend, Tina Foster, in Elliott’s film, “Suicide Is Not Painless.”

“There are things that do not add up; things that are not reconciled,” he says. But the Elliotts, along with son Kenneth and daughter Sherrie, have decided to take no vengeance, to seek no further. “We know the department did all they could. And we must move on in the living of our lives.

“When we were going through that, we experienced such an outpouring of love and care from the department. One officer brought 36 rolls of toilet tissue. Why toilet tissue? I thought at first. But that gift spoke to our most basic needs. The officer was so sensitive in recognizing that with the hundreds of people who might come to our home to express condolences, we could be in need of plenty of toilet tissue. ‘I didn’t know you cared so much,’ I often said in those days. They responded that they were returning a little of what I had given to them.”

Elliott is visible by participating in the officers’ day-to-day routines, such as riding with them on patrol. It is one of the few times he is armed. When an officer stops a motorist, Elliott goes to the right side of the car so he can see the driver and passengers. So far, he hasn’t had to fire his weapon. “I don’t care to be armed; guns are heavy and in the way.”

One of the things Elliott enjoys is speaking to civic organizations, school groups and national audiences. He speaks about 500 times a year. He is on the after-dinner circuit and is a regular guest on COPE, a call-in program on the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission’s “ACTS” program.

Elliott continues to serve as an interim or supply preacher and officiates at weddings and funerals. He teaches police chaplaincy and conducts seminars. In addition to his 22-minute docudrama, “Suicide Is Not Painless,” which looks at a teen suicide from the precipitating incident through the family’s recovery, he has produced “Fatal Mistake,” an hour-long panel discussion by experts.

No chaplain becomes an immediate member of the police family. “Police are a very closed group, and it takes time to build trust. But when they are ready, they will invite you into their lives.”

Cultivating relationships with administration, officers and civilian personnel means never taking sides. Elliott does not get involved in administrative matters. He is often a sounding board and, as such, must remain neutral. When someone comes for a talk or counseling, Elliott does not take notes or record the sessions. “They know they are in a completely confidential atmosphere and that I will not reveal anything.

“An officer came through my open door, slammed it shut and grabbed the back of a chair. ‘Chaplain, quick, tell me why I shouldn’t just quit!’ Two days before, that same officer had sat in my office telling me how much he enjoyed his work. Now he was ready to give it all up.”

Elliott let the officer talk as long as he needed to. In the end, he did not resign. “I helped save this officer’s career,” says Elliott, “and the citizens and community saved the services of a fine officer.”

Elliott limits counseling to four sessions because, with that limitation in mind, officers get to the heart of the matter more quickly. If more time is needed, both must agree. Usually the four meetings are enough.

Elliott never preaches or uses religious terminology with them. “That is the best way to be turned off and tuned out. I used to wonder about my role here. As a pastor, the responsibilities were well-defined. But as a police chaplain, I wrote my own job description. I am out among the streets, the crowds.

“Whenever I think about how I am serving the Lord, the Scripture that keeps coming to mind is Matthew 25:40, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.’ I am not here to evangelize, per se. I am here to let them see the sermon, not hear it.

“When I retire in five years, I want to turn around and come right back as a volunteer just as I was before I came full time. I love this work. I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing.”

    About the Author

  • Sandra J. Williams