“Police ministry is very fulfilling because it is life or death quite often. It’s the real deal,” related Chicago Police Chaplain, Father Dan Brandt, in a somber tone.
Chaplain Brandt is the Directing Chaplain of a five-member unit within the Chicago Police Department (CPD), and a Priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. He oversees four full-time police officers who are also ministers and one part-time civilian. Chaplain Brandt is not a CPD employee. His position is funded by donations.
According to Chaplain Brandt, his team ministers to over 12,000 CPD police officers and their families, over 8,000 local retirees and several thousand civilian CPD employees. With levity in his voice, Chaplain Brandt said, “I like to brag, we probably have the largest parish in the United States.”
The Chicago Police Department is one of the largest police agencies in the United States, second only to the New York Police Department, according to websites, lawenforcementEDU.net and answers.com. The city of Chicago is plagued with violence, and the department’s own statistics through the 2018 Thanksgiving holiday weekend, reveal 511 murders, 1,946 sexual assaults, 8,746 robberies, 10,661 burglaries, and 2,174 shooting incidents to list a few of the stats.
For officers across the country, in both large and small departments, seeing people on the worst day of their lives, on a daily basis, can be draining and discouraging.
When talking to Chaplain Brandt about this topic, he responded, “These officers see more in eight hours than most folks see in a lifetime, as far as the evil side of humanity.”
Chaplain Brandt related another sobering statistic, five CPD officers committed suicide in the past four months. And in November, days before Thanksgiving, CPD Officer Sam Jimenez was shot and killed while on duty responding to an active shooter at a local hospital.
The Chaplains’ Unit helps comfort and support the officers and the families involved in these tragedies. The officers in the Chaplains’ Unit have a wide diversity of faith backgrounds which is truly a great asset according to Chaplain Brandt. In addition, each CPD chaplain has completed post-graduate studies and gone through the rigors of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) which has prepared them for the work they do in their chaplaincy role. The chaplains have vast police experience and have held various positions within the police department before being selected to the Chaplains’ Unit. Each of the four chaplains has between 15-20 years of police experience.
Chaplain Brandt expresses his thoughts this way, “They, in their roles as police officers and ministers, have the unique opportunity to work with police officers who are going through unique issues quite unique to police officers and members of the law enforcement family. Police officers ministering to them have a gift in being able to relate, being able to say, been there, done that.”
To help create a bond with the officers and create an awareness that the Chaplains’ Unit is there for them and their families, Chaplain Brandt works a double shift with fellow chaplain and veteran police officer Bob Montelongo once a week. They respond to radio calls for service and assist as a backup unit for the patrol officers.
While slipping his bulletproof vest on, Chaplain Brandt put it this way, “Bob and I hit the streets usually about noon and stay out until 2-3-4 in the morning. We work a double, 15-16 hours. Then, once on jobs, once at calls, we are able to connect with the police officers who are given that job. It gives me an opportunity to be in their world and on their terms and at their comfort level.”
I observed this interaction first hand when I did a ride along with Chaplains Brandt and Montelongo.
In one instance, patrol officers stopped an SUV with four suspected gang members. Brandt who was driving his unmarked police car told Montelongo, “Let’s go, we’re only a few blocks away.” It was obvious the patrol unit was relieved when we rolled up to assist as a backup unit. The chaplains helped conduct the traffic stop and assisted in obtaining identification from the occupants. After the occupants were checked for any warrants or probation violations, they were all released without incident. It was then that Brandt and Montelongo had the opportunity to meet the other patrol officers on the call. It was the first time they had ever met each other. The patrol officers thanked them for the backup, and Chaplain Brandt then had the chance to tell them about the Chaplains’ Unit. During the exchange, the officers were given a pocket notebook. The front of the notebook has the CPD badge, and the back has information on how to contact the Chaplains’ Unit with the added inscription, “Your partner has your back, but we’ve got your soul.” Before the night was over, we assisted several more officers responding to calls for service, visited several Southside Chicago police district stations, talked to officers, desk sergeants, and commanders, all the while handing out notebooks making connections and “Planting seeds” as Chaplain Brandt likes to say.
NO TYPICAL DAY
When asked about a typical day, Chaplain Brandt chuckled, saying, “Much the same as in police work, the chaplains’ ministry is not much different. There is no typical day for me.” He did, however, give a glimpse into his weekly routine. He makes regular visits to the hospitals visiting officers injured on the job and retired officers at nursing homes and making home visits.
Additionally, he celebrates a police mass on a regular basis at the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls and at other parishes. Every month he publishes an article for the Fraternal Order of Police. He regularly attends roll call briefings at the district stations and visits with officers experiencing difficult marriages, and completes referrals for officers who need additional professional counseling. Then, of course, there are funerals and wake services. Chaplain Brandt said, his chaplains with the help of 30 volunteers, conduct approximately 20 wake services a week. After pausing for a moment, he added, “Plus, the Chicago Police Department has 57 officially recognized organizations that request that we attend some of their functions.” Although this list is not complete, he related, “We have a football team, the Enforcers, a hockey team, the Stars, a baseball team, and a golf league that are all policeman. We have two bagpipe bands, and they are very active, a car club for car enthusiasts. Then there all the ethnic groups like the Polish American Police Association, Italian American Police Association and groups like that. Also, there are associations like NOBLE, the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives. Plus, there are the detective, sergeant, lieutenant and captain’s associations.” All of these groups and many more, have different events and request a chaplain to attend to give the invocation or a blessing. Another example Chaplain Brandt described, “The motorcycle club likes to have the bikes blessed every spring, same with the car club and things like that. So, attending all these events really ties up my evenings. When I was in the parish, all I had to do was walk downstairs to the church hall. Now, I’m going all over, the Northside, Southside. Sometimes, the Northside and Southside in the same evening. So, it’s pretty demanding.”
In his free time, Brandt likes to tinker with cars, collecting challenge coins from around the world, and occasional travel. His police ministry has taken him places that other priests would likely never go. Another exciting opportunity came his way when he was asked to appear on the NBC hit television show Chicago PD where he plays himself, the police chaplain. He has made four appearances on the show so far.
A SPECIAL KIND OF MINISTRY
Unlike his fellow priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago, his ministry has taken him to crime scenes, and he has seen, first-hand, the ugly side of life. He has ministered to police officers when there is no earthly explanation for why tragedies have occurred. He has had the unpleasant task of being present when telling the family of a police officer about the injuries the officer suffered and then conducted the officer’s funeral. He has flown in CPD helicopters, and patrol boats in Lake Michigan. He admits, ministering to police officers is both a joy and challenge that he readily accepts and cherishes. Although there sometimes are no words to explain to officers why senseless violence continues to happen in Chicago, he is there for them. When asked how he gives officers of the CPD hope, he explained it this way, “At the end of the day, my biggest job is to remind these officers, whom I serve, that sure, they report to those in white shirts. They report to sergeants, lieutenants, and captains and so on, to whom I also minister.” Adding with emphasis, “But, at the end of the day, I want them to remember when they go home at night, who they really worked for that day. They are doing God’s work. And, quite frankly, in some of the neighborhoods they serve, they are the only face of God that our good citizens get the opportunity to see.”