MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Maplewood Police Department appointed its first police chaplains this month. On March 20, the Maplewood Township Committee unanimously approved a resolution appointing six clergy members from Maplewood and South Orange and police chaplains.
Resolution No. 72-18 appointed to this new position Rev. Rick Boyer of Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, Rev. Brenda Ehlers of Morrow Methodist Church in Maplewood, Pastor Valencia Norman of the First Presbyterian and Trinity Church in South Orange, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, Rev. Bernard Poppe of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood and Rev. Terry Richardson of First Baptist Church in South Orange.
“There has been a call from the community for openness and transparency within the police department,” acting Police Chief Jimmy DeVaul told the News-Record. “Over the past months, I have made it my priority to restore the faith and trust in the department. Openness and transparency is part of the process.”
Confidence in the Maplewood Police Department was badly shaken when recordings were made public of officers interacting with black youth following Independence Day fireworks July 5, 2016. The recordings show Maplewood police being overly aggressive with the rowdy teenagers and being ordered to push the black youth into Irvington, despite the majority of the teens in question being Maplewood residents.
“The department will be changing to a ‘community first’ model,” DeVaul said. “We will put the needs of our community first by listening and becoming involved in our community events. Our officers will no longer drive around as strangers in the community. I have been very clear with my officers that I expect the public to be treated with dignity and respect — including those persons under arrest. I will not tolerate officers’ abuse of their authority.”
According to DeVaul, the members of the Maplewood-South Orange Clergy Alliance who are now police chaplains are an integral part of this culture change within the department.
“My command staff and I met with our Clergy Alliance and asked them to be part of making real change within the department,” DeVaul said. “This is where the inception of the police chaplains program began. We recognized the need for an internal and external influence within the department. If we want to change the culture, we have to change the way officers think and treat members of the public.”
DeVaul said the chaplains will have their own office at Maplewood Police Headquarters, where they will be able to speak privately with police officers. The goals for this program, according to DeVaul, are for the chaplains to get to know the officers on a personal basis; be a presence in the building that will have positive effects on officers; be available to help with serious notifications, such as death; assist juveniles and their parents in need of intervention; be part of the department’s juvenile restorative justice initiatives; be part of critical incident briefings; be available to speak with officers in need of counseling or other services that the chaplains can provide; be on call for any additional department needs; provide guidance and advice to supervisors; and make recommendations and assist with department training.
“The chaplains will be appointed annually but the Township Committee on the recommendation of the chief of police,” DeVaul said, adding that the ordinance makes it easy for area chaplains to participate and that the ordinance does not limit the number of clergy members who can participate at any given time. “Members of the Clergy Alliance are all welcome to be part of the program. Some members of the Clergy Alliance are unable to volunteer just by the nature and level of commitment necessary to be a chaplain.”
For the chaplains who will be participating in the first year of this program, this opportunity to further serve the community is welcome.
“Simply collaborating and partnering to address some of the issues that affect all people in our township, I am pleased, under Chief DeVaul, to even take this vision a little further on how clergy can partner with its community here in Maplewood,” Richardson said at the Township Committee meeting. “I am pleased to help with that vision that all citizens are considered equal and they’re appreciated both from a secular township perspective and from spirituality and morality.”
For Norman, who has been a Maplewood resident since 1992, working with local police departments has always been part of her faith for her, having worked closely with Cranford police during her time as a pastor there.
“Maplewood has been home and this is why when the opportunity presented itself to begin work with the police department, I was very excited, because I could dig roots into a place that is home for me,” Norman said at the meeting. “From a congregational standpoint in South Orange, I know that we are one town.”
According to Olitzky, serving as a police chaplain is a natural extension of his work as a rabbi in South Orange.
“I believe that every house of worship is at fault if you just focus on where you reside as the address of your building,” Olitzky said at the meeting. “When you serve and pastor in time of need, not just to residents but also to law enforcement, I believe we help to rebuild that trust that we’ve often talked about, especially since this past summer, in these Township Committee meetings.
“Our hope is that we help law enforcement understand the divinity and divine spark of every resident of Maplewood and help our law enforcement be more accountable through our role as police chaplains,” Olitzky continued.
Ehlers believes it is vital to nurture the soul of Maplewood in addition to keeping the community safe.
“I’m grateful to be a police chaplain because the spiritual care of our community is as important as our physical and psychological/emotional care,” Ehlers told the News-Record. “This is especially important work for our town because it strengthens connection and trust in all our relationships.”
For Poppe, it all comes down to community and compassion.
“I’m pleased to be among the clergy that have volunteered and will be — or have already been — included as police chaplains,” Poppe told the News-Record. “I think it’s important that there be links and communication among agencies in the town that are connected to a wider network of residents. Offering pastoral care to officers and being available to them as a resource for the pastoral care of people they encounter in need or victimized by criminal behavior, adds a dimension of compassion to our common life together. In times of national tension, the care we offer each other is crucial for our safety and well-being.”
Boyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Though officers will not be required to speak with the chaplains, DeVaul believes conversations between officers and chaplains — all of which will remain confidential — will be beneficial to the officers and by extension the community.
“Our officers never had the ability to speak with someone and totally be anonymous,” DeVaul said. “Officers tend to keep things close to the vest. They are expected to be tough and not show emotions. Our officers have personal problems just like anyone else.”