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Drew Baldridge

, Star Tribune

Police chaplains face the toughest duty

  • Article by: JOY POWELL
  • Star Tribune
  • September 21, 2012 - 6:08 PM

In the weeks following the killing of an unarmed man at a Woodbury motel, three officers who fired shots repeatedly have been offered counseling and the department remains on edge as a state probe continues into the officers' actions.

Early on Aug. 31, Mark Eric Henderson, 19, of St. Paul was shot by police who confused him for a man who had taken a group of hostages at a hotel. He also might have been shot moments earlier by the gunman at Red Roof Inn near Valley Creek Road and Interstate 494.

The East Suburban Chaplaincy Corps has been available to counsel any officers over the tragedy since then, Police Chief Lee Vague said.

It's common for police chaplains to offer pastoral support to those who suddenly lost loved ones, as an external outreach for the department. But the counselors help officers, too.

The incident in Woodbury comes as more departments, from Burnsville and Lakeville to Woodbury, are using chaplains as an internal tool to protect officers' mental health and help them stay in their line of work.

The corps' six volunteers take turns serving for a week at a time as chaplain for Oakdale, Woodbury, St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove, said Drew Baldridge, one of the chaplains. He's watched officers try to process raw emotions during debriefing sessions.

"I've been involved in a number of situations where young children have died, and I've seen how it has affected the officers very deeply," Baldridge said.

"You really see the worst part of society at times, and some of the most tragic calls as well," said Todd Johnson, Woodbury's deputy public safety director.

"Having an outlet to be able to share your feelings and be able to gain some additional perspective is something that not only our police officers value, but our firefighters and paramedics do as well."

Burnsville Police Chief Bob Hawkins and Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof have led the way as small departments turn chaplains to keep officers emotionally healthy and in the profession.

"We look at our officer wellness as a large package," Johnson said. "We want them to be physically well. We want them to be psychologically well. And for those for whom spirituality is an important piece, we also want to help them be spiritually well."

Dan Carlson, chaplain for the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said he and other law enforcement chaplains in Minnesota are working to standardize and accredit training.

They offer spiritual guidance and pastoral counseling help to members of the public and to the police departments in crises, he said.

In addition to Baldridge, also among the East Suburban Chaplaincy Corps are Rolf Olson, Greg Cooper, Cindy Klatt, Joe Cuoco and James Brown.

"When this most recent incident happened, we were praying not only for the officers, but we were praying for all the families involved as well," Baldridge said.

"We're not just all about the officers. Our hearts go out to these families. It's a tough situation. It doesn't just end with wrapping up detail. Some of these things last in people's minds for a long time."

Woodbury police had been called to the Red Roof Inn about a disturbance about 1:10 a.m. on Aug. 31. Through a window, officers glimpsed a man with a gun in Room 217. He would later be identified Demetrius S. Ballinger, 25.

The officers retreated and heard two shots. The door opened and a man, later identified as Henderson, walked out, according to court papers.

Henderson may already have been hit with a high-caliber bullet or two fired by Ballinger. Police said Henderson was not complying with their commands and they thought he might be armed. Three officers fired repeatedly at Henderson. He died soon after at Regions Hospital.

"This is a very tragic situation," Vague said. "This is a situation you hope and pray that you never have to deal with as a police officer. You hope there's never a time when you have to use deadly force under any circumstances." Vague said Woodbury has a policy that any officer involved in a shooting should individually speak with a counselor within a couple of days.

This was the second officer-involved shooting in the 65-officer Woodbury department in the past two years. In April 2010, police were called just before 11:30 p.m. to the 7200 block of Braemer Lane. They had been called there on domestic disputes more than 20 times in the previous three years. A Woodbury officer was shot and wounded, and he returned fire, killing 55-year-old Timothy Scott Hanson.

Police said the volunteer chaplains help in many ways, with the grimmest of duties.

"They work with us on death notification," Johnson said. "They assist us with families' crises. They'll counsel officers and their families. They'll visit sick officers and injured officers. They participate in funeral or memorial services. And they also educate our public safety staff."

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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