Chaplain is there for officers to lean on

The stereotype of the stoic law enforcement agent, able to indifferently deal with any situation is popular, but untrue. "We're not different than anyone else, psychologically," said Hubbard County Sheriff Gary Mills. Over time, the cumulative pr...

The stereotype of the stoic law enforcement agent, able to indifferently deal with any situation is popular, but untrue.

"We're not different than anyone else, psychologically," said Hubbard County Sheriff Gary Mills.

Over time, the cumulative pressure of routinely dealing with traumatic situations can be difficult for someone in law enforcement to handle.

When this occurs at the Hubbard County Sheriff's office, Mills places a call to Phil Stuemke.

Stuemke, a veteran of 36 years in law enforcement, serves as one of the chaplains for the office.


As a chaplain, Stuemke said he "has access to many doors most people don't have access to." While he remains a layperson, he provides counseling to the law enforcement staff "as a man of strong faith.

Joining the force

Stuemke began serving as chaplain for the sheriff's office in 2001, at the behest of Mills.

Prior to his appointment, Stuemke worked 29 years in law enforcement in the Twin Cities, including two decades as a training instructor for cadets.

Mills and Stuemke met shortly after Stuemke officially retired and relocated to Park Rapids in 1999. At their initial meeting, Stuemke said, he expressed his willingness to be a resource for the sheriff's office.

Stuemke also works as a licensed boat and water deputy and court bailiff. He served as interim police chief of Park Rapids for four months during the search for current police chief Terry Eilers.

The chaplaincy position means a great deal to him, Stuemke revealed.

"This badge is extremely special to me," he said, holding up a badge designating him as an official deputized chaplain.


An understanding ear

When confronted with a crisis situation, law enforcement officers are trained to respond in a restrained manner, said Stuemke.

"Officers become mechanical at the scene to get the information needed for an investigation," he explained.

Stuemke added the impassive mentality may protect officers at the scene, but does not remove the natural human reaction.

The impact arrives "later, when you sit down to reflect how you feel personally," he said. Officers routinely suffer from a condition called critical incident stress.

Staff members suffering from critical incident stress typically act out of character, Mills said. Side effects can include problems with alcohol, disproportionate conflicts with staff members and other people and unexplained abuse of sick time.

Critical incident stress occurs from the accumulation of repressed emotions during the handling of traumatic, sometimes horrific situations, Stuemke said.

"We have the same feelings, the same thoughts as everyone else," said Mills. "We cry, have remorse... we need to talk about tragic things that happen."


Mills added the condition generally doesn't occur from specific incidents, but from routinely dealing with traumatic situations.

"Sometimes an officer will finish up at one violent crime scene only to be dispatched to another," said Mills.

Law enforcement officers are notorious for holding their feelings in, but every officer needs to confide in someone, Stuemke insists.

Stuemke compared the way officers sometimes handle stressful incidents to throwing objects into a closet.

"One day, the closet door doesn't close any more. Then, everything comes pouring back out," he said. "We will have to face those things eventually."

People commonly believe most violent crime occurs in urban areas, Stuemke revealed, but incidents in rural areas can be just as intense.

"We've had our share of homicides, terrible accidents and child deaths," said Mills.

Situations in smaller precincts are compounded by daily contact with the public deputies serve. In traumatic situations, Mills said, it becomes more difficult to cope with an incident when an officer knows the person involved personally.


Part of the difficulty in coping with traumatic incidents involves a lack of acceptable outlets, Mills said.

The confidentiality involved in many case situations prohibits officers from speaking with the general public, Mills said.

Stuemke said his extensive background in law enforcement gives him an advantage when helping deputies. The ability to identify with a situation makes officers more comfortable sharing their experiences with him, he said.

"Phil has brought forth the opportunity for officers to talk in confidence. Most officers don't have that opportunity," said Mills.

Consequently, while Stuemke is only scheduled for regular chaplain duties one out of 12 weeks, he insisted on being available to handle situations with the sheriff's office staff at any time, said Mills.

Stuemke participates in cathartic debriefing sessions with staff members, helping them bring closure on difficult issues.

The human factor

Another important duty all chaplains perform is assisting the office with death notices and victim support.


Mills said notifying loved ones of a death is one of the most difficult experiences in the profession.

"Nowhere in the years of training officers receive does it tell us how to do that," said Mills.

Chaplains take some of the pressure off the situation by their presence, he continued. By sitting and talking with family members, chaplains help reduce the uncertainty of the situation and ease the transition.

The presence of chaplains is ecumenical and not representative of any denomination, chaplain coordinator and St. Joseph's Area Health Services chaplain Randy Hachfeld added. "They are not there to judge. They are to be a presence for the victims," he said.

Hachfeld said one of the most important functions of a chaplain during these situations is the mere presence of a caring individual.

"I don't have all the answers, but I am a person with a lot of experience in law enforcement procedures and deep faith," Stuemke said.

Making an impact

Mills said he is proud of the difference Stuemke makes on the force.


"I've seen the work he's done and the difference he's made. I may not have heard everything the staff shares, but I know they share a lot," Mills said.

Mills expressed appreciation for the ability to have Stuemke as a resource officers can come to and confide in.

"In big business, when people retire, companies still use them as consultants to make use of the accumulated experience," Mills said. "Why haven't we made this a standard practice in law enforcement?"

Mills added it takes a great deal of investment in a person to train them as an officer. He said he feels the investment is worth maintaining.

"As a sheriff, I want to make sure my staff is okay," said Mills.

Despite the praise, Stuemke remains modest about his contribution to the force.

"I'm really not unique or special," he maintained. "If I can do a little bit, then I've been able to achieve what he (Gary) has asked me to do... I'm just thankful to be able to do this."

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