Chaplains take on expanded role in Minneapolis police precincts

Credit: Rev. Joan Austin is one of three chaplains assigned to Southwest Minneapolis' 5th Precinct. Photo by Michelle Bruch

Minneapolis Police Chaplain Joan Austin was in the squad with an officer last year when they received a call to meet an emotionally-disturbed woman at a school.

“The officer asked me, ‘Are you ready?’ I said, ‘Yep, I’m praying right now,'” she said.

Austin talked to the woman, gained her confidence and rode with her in the ambulance. A month later, she received an award of merit for the way she handled the incident.

“I was just doing what I was sent to do,” she said. “You do a lot of good with just your presence. Sometimes that means you don’t have to say anything.”

Chaplains have become an expanded part of the Minneapolis Police Department since the summer, with a few chaplains embedded in each precinct in the city. The change is designed to enhance relations between police and the community.

Assistant Chief Matt Clark said the chaplains also support the officers — one chaplain visited an injured officer in the hospital, he said.  

“They’re out caring for officers as much as they are caring for the community,” he said.

5th Precinct Inspector Todd Loining said it’s been helpful to have the chaplains’ calming presence on hand. In one incident, a juvenile intentionally overdosed and survived. The parents were extremely distraught, he said, and Austin was available to spend time with the family.

“In one of the cases, a woman just collapsed in the police chaplain’s arms,” Loining said.

Austin works in youth ministry at Macedonia Baptist Church, and she has worked as a chaplain since 2011. In the prior chaplain program, she primarily visited families to notify them of a death of a loved one. Under the new program, she’s met officers for 6:30 a.m. roll call, shadowed them on ride-alongs, and assisted cops handing out Nickelodeon wristbands on National Night Out. 

“I’m really happy with the way that it’s going. In the ride-alongs, you get to see things in a whole different perspective and get to know the officers,” Austin said. “For all the bad that we hear, there is some good.”

Austin also said she appreciates the diversity among the chaplains themselves.

“It’s good for the community to look and see themselves represented in the chaplain program,” she said.

Deacon Carl Valdez at Incarnation Catholic Church/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús applied to work as a chaplain to address some of his Latino parishioners’ fear of police.

“I’ve always been kind of a bridge person,” he said. “I’d like to be a visible image of trust.”

Many church members are not documented, he said, and they worry that a routine police stop could lead to deportation hearings — it’s happened in the past, he said. For those reasons, even victims of abuse will not file police reports, he said. He said some parishioners wonder if officers stopped them because of the color of their skin.

Valdez has traveled on 17 ride-alongs since July, and said he’s found officers to be compassionate toward people they pull over. He said one officer expressed surprise after a traffic stop that so many people didn’t have driver’s licenses. In response, Valdez explained that an undocumented immigrant isn’t allowed to have a Minnesota driver’s license. (Bill amendments moving through the state legislature would make it easier to obtain a license.)

Valdez likes to tell stories about local residents’ families back in Mexico and Guatemala. He tells of families splitting up to travel to the United States, farmers pushing ox-drawn plows while grinding seeds into the ground with their heels, and a family living in a small cinderblock house surrounded by empty produce crates during a drought. He said he understands why people cross the border to find work.

“I’m not about to tell an officer you can’t give this person a ticket, but I can tell stories,” he said.

Valdez said he would like to see Latinos in Minneapolis take a more relaxed view of police, and see more Latinos become police officers themselves — “to have that face in a blue uniform,” he said.

“I’d like police to also see us for who we are,” he said. “I want there to be that human connection, much like I’m making myself with officers. I really like them.”

Rev. Travis Norvell of Judson Memorial Baptist Church moved to Minneapolis from New Orleans. In New Orleans, retaliation for reporting to the police was common, he said. Norvell and other clergy met with local police and the U.S. Department of Justice to consider using churches as safe houses for communication with police.

Upon moving to Minneapolis, Norvell sought to continue working with police. He said he’s gained a broader view of the department while working as chaplain, and said he’s impressed with Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s instruction that officers treat the community like family.

“I’m interested in what their jobs are like,” he said. “I have a deeper appreciation for who they are and the work they do. It’s a pretty stressful thing. … You think of police as a monoculture. They are more diverse than I thought they would be. The men and women I’ve talked to are thoughtful, engaged and committed to their jobs.”

Norvell said his preaching tends to revolve around racial justice, environmental justice, economic inequality and peace. On a cold Sunday morning prior to Martin Luther King Day, Norvell stood in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park and read King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Thirty other people joined him and took turns reading the letter in its entirety, which includes the quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Norvell said much of the legal foundation is already in place to solve injustice.

“Relationships are those issues that need to be repaired,” he said.

None of the chaplains interviewed for this story expressed worry about their personal safety, though Valdez mentioned the February shooting of an officer responding to a burglary call in North Minneapolis.

“I suppose any one of us could have been standing next to him,” Valdez said. “I haven’t thought about that.”

Former Eden Prairie Police Chief and Pastor Dan Carlson trains chaplains across the state, including the new chaplains in Minneapolis. He teaches the chaplains to focus on building relationships, rather than promote a particular faith. He also helps chaplains understand their role in the department.

“[Policing is] a hard job, and sometimes people don’t see the nuances of it. They see what the media throws out there,” he said.

In the wake of Ferguson, Carlson said chaplain programs are one positive community engagement tool available to police.

“I don’t know if it’s growing, but it’s clearly more visible,” he said. “I have been getting quite a few calls with people wanting training.”

Austin is optimistic that the chaplain program will help build trust.

“We are making strides. We have to continue, we can’t stop. Eventually things are going to come together,” she said.

During a March 23 ride-along, Austin watched Officer Justin Schmidt conduct a field sobriety test for a woman who rear-ended another vehicle at 31st & Lyndale. When he handcuffed her and placed her in the squad, Austin asked if she could have a word with the woman.

“I felt like she didn’t need to be alone,” she said.

Austin learned that the woman was prepared to enter treatment. The woman asked Austin to wipe her eyes, and thanked her for being there.

“I pray that everything works out for her and that she finds some hope in her situation,” Austin said. “Everybody is looking for hope.”