A History of the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy

In 1975 a group calling themselves an ad hoc committee for development of a “Greater Sacramento Police Chaplaincy” met to discuss the feasibility of founding such an organization. The intent of the organization would be to provide ministry for police families in times of personal crises. The members — pastors, businessmen, and two department representatives — saw a great need in law enforcement going unmet. There were no employee assistance programs, peer support groups, or specialized help in law enforcement. The members of this group were Harold Ungland, George Scripture, John Block, Harry Straite, Dwight Burchett, Lee Toms, Bill Bailey, and Bruce Thayer.

This group began looking for a chaplain. While the search was on, two members of the committee, Bill Bailey and Bruce Thayer, recruited two officers and formed the Christian Centurion Quartet. The quartet traveled from church to church sharing the vision for this special ministry.

In 1977 the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy was first incorporated as the Greater Sacramento Police Chaplaincy. Gary and Bonnie Benjestorf were called to the ministry and arrived just prior to June 1. Gary’s background as deputy sheriff and pastor seemed ideal. The effort was kicked off with a luncheon at First Baptist Church and was the beginning of what was to be an annual event for many years.

A house was donated for the Benjestorf’s living quarters by First Baptist Church (24th & L) and a car was loaned by Snider Volkswagen. There was $300.00 in the chaplaincy checking account and lots of faith in the hearts of the Board and the Benjestorfs.

The first year was active in work but little ministry. The natural strong walls that keep
“outsiders” out of the police world were strengthened by a recently departed psychologist who, after winning the confidence of officers, wrote a book about their sex lives.

By the end of the first year, the Benjestorfs almost believed that they had made a mistake, yet three things held them firm: their faith in God, their confidence in the Board’s will to succeed, and the nature of police officers.

It wasn’t as if there was nothing accomplished. Countless briefings were attended and rideĀ­alongs made. There were fifty-two speaking opportunities presented by churches and service clubs. Funding remained a concern. The budget was only $12,000.00 that first year but cash flow was a problem. To keep payday on time, three members of the board, Harry Straine, Charles Collings, and John Block, signed personal notes with the bank on an eighteen-month basis — the understanding with the bank was that any money clue at the end of that eighteen-month period would be paid by the Board Members themselves. Seventeen months later the Chaplaincy emerged in the black and never returned to the “in the red” status again.

By the middle of the second year, the chaplain’s enthusiasm was even more tested. Though an office was now provided in the credit union lobby (glass front, fishbowl office), the officers continued the cold “once over11 stares and other non-verbal signals. Attendance at briefings began to be a chore, but walls were steadily being eroded and opportunities for ministry began to emerge gradually.

During the course of the third year, a mighty wind, in the form of an in-the-line-of-duty death, blew. Christopher Boone from the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department was killed on a stake out. Chaplain Benjestorf was to officiate at the funeral. As he spoke, the walls fell as officers saw that he understood their plight. After the funeral, which was attended by some 5,000 officers, the phone began to ring. The cold stares turned to handshakes and even hugs. A new challenge was born. The chaplain was immediately overwhelmed. It would begin a pattern that would last for many years. Sixty and seventy hour weeks were common. Phone calls came in at all hours of the night. Famine had turned into a feast with too many leftovers.

A secretary was suddenly needed. Bonnie Benjestorf stepped forward. Due to lack of funds, Bonnie was paid for some of her. time and volunteered the rest. She was also able to share a ministry with officers’ wives on numerous occasions.

The volume of work, phone calls, and 24 hour call status prompted the formation of a volunteer chaplaincy corps to help with the visibility of the Chaplaincy. There still was no employee assistance program of consequence as late as 1982.

Visions of one day serving agencies statewide began to dim as the work load grew. A masters’ program in counseling was dropped by Chaplain Gary and he had to remain content with the Clinical Pastoral Education that he had received.

By the end of the fourth year ( 1982), the chaplaincy board concluded that more help was needed. Plans to expand past California State Police, which was finally added in 1983, were put on indefinite hold. The organizational name was changed to Sacramento Law Enforcement Chaplaincy to more effectively identify the organization. The chaplain’s office was moved upstairs in the credit union to a one-man office and very small secretary station.

Plans were put into action to hire a second chaplain. Through a major effort on the part of Board Chairman Harry Straine, business people were approached to make a commitment of $1000.00 per year for three years to fund the new position. Capital Christian Center caught the vision as well, committing $30,000.00 for the second position. These efforts bore fruit as Chaplain Mark O’Sullivan was added to the staff in July of 1985. Mark and his wife, Patti, were ministering in the volunteer chaplaincy effort in Placer County and were eager to launch into a new and exciting career ministry.

The addition of Chaplain Mark did not lighten the load, with the exception of on-call time shared with Chaplain Gary. With an additional chaplain came more visibility. More visibility meant more support, but it also meant more calls for service. More calls for services with two full-time chaplains created a demand for more hours for the secretary. Bonnie began working regularly a twenty-hour work week.

The volunteer corps was expanded and more thoroughly trained to meet the needs of officers. The goal was to make these folks qualified to be an interchangeable part with the two chaplains sharing emergency response time. In addition, a volunteer fire chaplaincy was established with Cordova Fire District with Jim Voss designated as chaplain.

In 1986 after appeals to the Board of Supervisors and City Council, funds were raised to move to the current office space at 1023 H Street, Suite B. Then Board Member Bob Erickson rented the space to the Chaplaincy for approximately 40% of its worth.

The United Way Campaign had begun taking off. First started in 1980 with $5,000.00 net raised, the support steadily grew by leaps and bounds. With the help of Captain Brian Collins of the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, the annual contributions swelled to $77,000.00 in 1991. This pattern of giving continued to keep the giving curve at 66% support from the officers and their affiliated organizations and 33 % from individuals and churches.

By 1987 it was clear that yet more help was needed. The funding process and consumption of time involved became a significant barrier. Hopes of expansion began to grow even more dim. Thus, expansion efforts were limited to the State Police and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department.

In that same year, Chaplain Mark and Patti answered a call to return to Placer County to resume their ministry there. It had become a fu!Hime position to assist police officers in that county. It was an opportunity for Mark to expand his own personal ministry. Chaplain Mark had done well as chaplain and was awarded the Sacramento Police Department’s life saving medal for his actions in the rescue of a man who was going to commit suicide.

Tim Thompson became the second staff chaplain. He had worked in connection with the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy to establish volunteer efforts in El Dorado County and with the State Police. Upon his joining the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy full-time, volunteer chaplain and Board Member Max Kell became chaplain for the State Police.

In 1989 the chaplaincy hosted the 16th Annual Training Seminar for the International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC). I ,ater called a benchmark conference by ICPC leadership, the conference was attended by over 300 chaplains internationally. The farthest travelers were from New Zealand and Belgium. Chaplains Benjestorf and Thompson were thoroughly pleased with the results of the conference.

Chaplain Tim continued to contribute to the Chaplaincy ministry. His contribution went beyond the normal chaplaincy duties. He was instrumental in the formation of the Peer Support group at the Sacramento Police Department and later at the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department. He assumed the responsibility for training the volunteer corps and developing that corps with a portion of the volunteers specifically trained and designated as Critical Incident Response Team Chaplains. These CIRT chaplains would then serve as on-call staff members and be qualified to respond in emergencies.

This effort was especially timely for one afternoon in 1991, three Asian youths took hostages at the “Good Guys” electronics store. To that point, it was the largest hostage crime in United States history. The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department called for help with the hostages’ families. Under the leadership of Chaplain Gary, Tim and Chaplains Kelly Birch and Mike Messner responded. Their efforts were rewarded by the Department with the presentation of Sheriff’s Unit Citations, an honor usually reserved for Sacramento Sheriff’s Department employees. This was followed up in February 1992 with Chaplain Gary receiving a bronze medal for distinguished service. Once again, this is an honor reserved for Sheriff’s Department personnel.

Some months prior to Chaplain Thompson’s eventual departure in March of 1993, the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors deliberated as to the task of breaking the funding barrier and thus advancing the overall cause and mission of the Chaplaincy. It was decided that, as tough as it might be, Chaplain Thompson’s position would be eliminated and the position of administrator created. This administrator would handle office projects and funding challenges. Chaplain Thompson went back to El Dorado County to further develop their chaplaincy and serve Folson Police Department.

The decisive meeting of February was followed by a second landmark meeting on March 4, 1993 at which Capt. Matt Powers of the Sacramento Police Department was called upon to facilitate the further goal-setting for the Chaplaincy. While not all of the ideas exchanged in this meeting were adopted as policy, it became clear that a number of changes needed to take place. The most outstanding changes were the affirmation of a need for an administrator, the expansion of the Board to represent a greater portion of our community that we serve, and an overhaul of our operating practices.

Later in 1993 two incidents shook the city and further affirmed the necessity for the Chaplaincy with the Sacramento Police Department. The first involved a random shooting in the state building on N Street. Only the gunman was killed and no one was injured, but terror reigned for several hours. The chaplains were called to assist both officers and employees from the building. The second incident involved another shooting spree in the City Library. The chaplains were called upon to debrief employees and make one death notification.

These incidents reflected not only the acceptance of the Chaplaincy, but confidence in the chaplains’ abilities to meet the need by city and county leadership. The chaplains were written into the standing operating orders for both departments for emergency call out purposes as early as 1979.

1993 continued to be an eventful year for Chaplaincy growth. The budget for the Chaplaincy was at $138,000.00. Reaching to fulfill the plans set in the March meeting, Michelle Fortik was added to the staff as administrator September 1, 1993. The part-time secretary position was upgraded to full-time. On April 1, 1994, Melinda De Bord was hired as the Chaplaincy’s first full-time secretary.

Through the years special aids were developed by the Chaplaincy in service to the agencies. A crisis information packet was developed to provide a one-source book in the event of a loss of a family (an idea developed by Chaplain Mark). All pertinent data was recorded in that booklet. It was well accepted in both agencies and even sold to chaplains nationally. Other materials developed included informational brochures for potential donors, and booklets for use by chaplains to assist officers involved in traumatic situations. But more importantly, hundreds of ministry opportunities were provided from line-of-duty deaths, to requests to stop by for a cup of coffee and talk.