Police officers turn to God in stressful job

Police officers turn to God in stressful job


Driving to the autopsy of an 8-month-old girl killed by her mother's boyfriend, Omaha Police Sgt. Nicolas Yanez pulled over and prayed.

"I didn't think I would make it," Yanez said of feeling sad and overwhelmed. "Being the father of two daughters myself, it was difficult. I really had to pray: 'why am I being put in this position?' I decided God wanted me to do this job, and he would give me strength."

That kind of prayer life sustains Yanez, a member of St. Mary Parish in Bellevue, and countless other police officers - Catholics and those of other faiths - in squad rooms in Omaha, Nebraska,  across the archdiocese and around the country.

For many officers in the archdiocese it is a private faith practice, shared at critical times though not organized in any way. But it helps officers treat everyone - including suspects accused of horrendous crimes - with dignity and respect, Yanez said.

"Basically, it's treating people the Christian way," Yanez said. "You don't want to abuse your authority. You don't want to mistreat people. It doesn't mean we'll compromise our safety. But we can do it in a way that is not demeaning, and not brute force."

Faith often is part of training police officers, said Brenda Urbanek, deputy director of training with the Nebraska Law Enforcement Center in Grand Island.

Studies indicate a strong faith helps people weather stressful situations and recover from them more quickly, she said.

"It's something I bring up in training, in one of the first classes for recruits," Urbanek said.

Although there are no chapters in the Omaha archdiocese, the importance of faith to police officers also is reflected in national, ecumenical organizations that have formed to support them, including the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers (FCPO) and the Centurion Law Enforcement Ministry, which is affiliated with the FCPO.

"I think if you asked officers, many would say faith is a big part of their lives," said Lamar Moore, executive director of the FCPO.

Moore and Steve Norden, chairman of the public relations committee of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, said they didn't know what percentage of police officers around the country claim a religious faith. But U.S. Census data indicates about 80 percent of adults lay claim to a religious community, and about 75 percent are Christians.

Police officers probably track with the general population, but the intensity of their job might drive the number of religious claimants a bit higher, Norden said.

"The reality is police work brings one into contact with some of the worst elements of life," Norden said. "Some grow deeper in their faith because of that, some become more jaundiced."

Child abuse, homicides, robberies, drug trafficking, gang violence, sexual crime - it can be a long and difficult litany of crime and punishment.

Omaha Police Sgt. Jeff Baker, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, said it took more than a year, but family and friends, faith and frequent confessions helped him learn to forgive after Robbie Hawkins shot and killed eight people and wounded four before killing himself four years ago in the Von Maur store at Westroads Mall in Omaha.

"I was the third man in the door that day," Baker said. "The scene was the worst I have ever taken in during 23 years as a police officer. I had a murderous feeling toward Robbie Hawkins."

Trying to understand the demons that drove Hawkins also helped, he said.

"I had to confess a lot of times," he said. "And during confession, I believe there is a grace you receive."

Now, Baker said, he prays for Hawkins.

"The moment that bullet passed through his brain, I hope and pray that he had a moment of repentance, and now he is in heaven on his knees, praying for those he hurt and the families of those he killed," Baker said.

To help keep faith foremost in his mind, Omaha Lt. Gregg Barrios takes time about once a week while supervising officers on patrol to visit a church and light a candle, pray or attend Mass.

"If I can keep God in my life, at work, at play, I can be a better police officer, a better father and a better husband," said Barrios, a member of Church of the Holy Spirit Parish in Plattsmouth.

Yanez said faith enters conversations among officers who are struggling, and even when police question suspects.

"'What do you think God was thinking?'" Yanez said he might ask a suspect during an interrogation. People with some religious feeling often reflect, he said, and sometimes confess to a crime.

"'I won't do this for you,' they might say, 'but I'll do this for God.'"

Yanez, who now works at police headquarters and helps investigate crimes on the north side of Omaha, wore a medal of St. Michael, the patron saint of police officers, while working on the street as part of the narcotics unit several years ago. Suspects would sometimes comment on the medal, he said.

"I'd tell them I'm a Catholic and I believe I'm here to protect people from what you're doing," Yanez said, adding that it was time he got back to wearing that medal.

Sgt. Alan Reyes, 43, said his Catholic faith has helped him through 17 years as an Omaha police officer, including his own crisis - chemotherapy 12 years ago for cancer of the lymph system - as well as challenges at work.

Early in his career, Reyes said, a suspect died while he and other officers were trying to arrest him. A grand jury investigation found for the police, and a wrongful death lawsuit against the officers failed.

But it was stressful, said Reyes, a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Glenwood, Iowa.

"I prayed to God, to let him have the worry," he said. "I had to realize that we're not always in control. That's difficult overall for police, not to be in control."

The kind of faith that helped Reyes also gave Yanez the strength he needed to get through that autopsy two years ago. As chief investigating officer, he had to be there in case it produced any clues - and the autopsy did provide critical information, Yanez said. In the end, the suspect pleaded no contest to child abuse resulting in death. This month, he was sentenced to 22 years to 25 years in prison.

"It was amazing the strength I had through this," Yanez said of the fruits of his prayer. "It was very difficult. But I was able to be professional and remain on track with the task."

Printed with permission from the Catholic Voice, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb.

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