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In Times of Need, Police Chaplains Are on the Scene

March 17, 1994|MARY GUTHRIE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When two police officers were shot in a Torrance hotel recently, one of the first calls the officer in charge of the case made was to the Torrance Police Department's chaplain corps.

Within minutes, Dean Mayeda and three other volunteer chaplains were on their way to the Holiday Inn. "I got down there and it was sort of chaos in the lobby," said Mayeda, a minister at Hope Chapel Gateway, a Christian church on Maple Avenue.

Palos Verdes Estates Police Capt. Michael Tracy and Sgt. Vernon Thomas Vanderpool had been shot when a gunman burst into a room where police were meeting.

Mayeda and another chaplain accompanied Torrance Police Chief Joseph C. DeLadurantey as he informed the other officers that the two had died.

To help them deal with the tragedy, Mayeda and Richard Olsen, deacon at Little Company of Mary Hospital, led the officers in prayer.

"One thing I learned is that just the fact that we were there made a big difference," Mayeda said. "People said, 'You guys took an unholy situation and made it holy again.' . . . It was good to be there for them."

Husband-and-wife chaplains George and Nancy Johnson of the Cathedral of Life Foursquare Church on Prairie Avenue, meanwhile, went to the hospital to comfort the dead officers' families.

The chaplains are among eight volunteer ministers who are on call 24 hours a day to help Torrance police with everything from notifying people that a family member has died to calming down couples at domestic-violence calls. While much of their time is spent helping officers deal with the public, the main purpose of the chaplain program is to lend an understanding ear to overwhelmed officers.

"I have found them to be as valuable a component in running a police department as any other element," DeLadurantey said. "To me they have become as important as a car or a gun or anything else."

Torrance created the Chaplain Corps in December, 1992. Of the first six trained in the city, three remain. In January, the city swore in five more clergymen. The Police Department advertised openings in the program, then tested and trained volunteers. All religious denominations were welcome to apply, but all the current chaplains are Christians, said Sgt. David Smith, who coordinates the program.

The department doesn't require that volunteers serve a fixed amount of time, just that the chaplains trade off carrying a beeper so one is available at all times. Mayeda said in his first year he was called out about 10 times. In addition, each chaplain decides how much time to spend at the station getting to know the officers.

"We don't want to demand too much of them because of those times we call at 3 o'clock in the morning. But we have yet to have anyone say, 'No I can't make it, I'm too tired.' It's always, 'What more can I do?' "

One of the new chaplains is Wayne Holbrook, an assistant pastor at Believer's Family Fellowship on 237th Street.

Two of Holbrook's brothers work in law enforcement, one for the Los Angeles Police Department and another for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"I always thought I would be a cop," Holbrook said.

As a high school student, he worked in the LAPD's Explorer program. After he earned a two-year degree in police science, Holbrook began working with young people and later went to divinity school. Now, he said, he can use his knowledge of police officers and his skills as a minister.

But even with background, Holbrook said, he realizes it will take time to develop relationships in the station house.

"We can't come in and expect to be buddy-buddy right away," Holbrook said. "That's something that will take time. We've got to let them know we're not here to be Bible-thumping."

The chaplains' work with officers de-emphasizes the differences between religious groups, Smith said.

"They drop that at the door," Smith said. "Officers talk to them as a chaplain, not as a Baptist minister or whatever."

Detective Ron Ruby, who helped organize the chaplain program in Torrance, said its members fill a void.

"Police officers are basically caring people, even though sometimes they appear to be very hard," Ruby said. "When these tragedies happen, the officers feel that they have to deal with the facts and get the situation resolved . . . but it does take an emotional toll on the officers."

The officers who have been counseled by the chaplains have had nothing but positive things to say about them, Ruby said.

People in law enforcement need a place to talk about their experiences, said David W. DeRevere, director of the International Conference of Police Chaplains and a chaplain for the FBI.

"We teach our police officers that they are in charge. The cop is supposed to be able to handle it. What do they do when they have a problem?" he asked. "If a chaplain can be available who has earned their respect and trust, then a cop has someone to turn to."

Smith said the department also contracts with professional counselors in particularly difficult situations.

Torrance gives its chaplains 20 hours of training as reserve police officers. They study radio procedures, report-writing and techniques for restraining suspects. Experts give them some points on relating to police officers.

"You really understand what the officer goes through," Mayeda said. "I see it as empathy training."

Although they do not carry guns, the chaplains spend time on the firing range learning how to handle a weapon in case an officer drops one in a scuffle.

"They could use the gun to protect their own lives if they had to," Smith said.

The chaplain's equipment is limited. On ride-alongs they wear a bulletproof vest, but most of the time their uniform is a blue wind breaker similar to what police officers wear during a raid. Big yellow letters across the back read: "CHAPLAIN."

"I just hope that people that see (the jacket) don't misread it for 'CAPTAIN,' " Holbrook said.

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