ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – After nine traffic fatalities in Abilene in five separate events over the course of two weeks, emotions ride high in the Big Country for families of victims killed and first responders. The Abilene Police Department (APD) has an expanding crew of chaplains who will work behind the scenes to gather information, comfort loved ones and monitor their officers’ mental health.
At any fatal wreck, figuring out the details of the event helped bring a close to the case much faster. However, between making the area safe and speaking to witnesses, the first responders on sight can get tied up quickly.
“The details are really important to the officers, and sometimes it’s easier for the chaplains to get those details while the officers are focused on making the scene safe,” Gina Trevino with APD said.
Trevino works as APD’s Victim Advocate and Employee Wellness Coordinator, overseeing the assistance programs delegated to victims and family survivors of violent crimes and fatal accidents.
While she has only been there for about a year, she helps oversee the 20-plus years of service provided by APD’s chaplains.
“Every situation is different and needs different response,” Trevino explained. “We always want to make sure we provide follow-up support services, so those families can cope with their grief. And we’re giving them resources to do so.”
Chaplains are often overlooked on a scene, according to APD, as they stay behind the scenes and work towards figuring out the details from victims, and help make the police officer’s jobs a little bit easier.
While they also work to comfort and provide support to the victim’s families, their job is not always as easy as giving someone a hug and saying ‘it’ll be okay.’
“My son and I went over to the parents house and gave him the information, broke them the information about their son being killed in the accident,” Chaplain Bob Pipes said.
Pipes spent 40-years in ministry, along with another 10 serving as a police chaplain. He emphasized the importance of chaplains in the police department because of the amount of stress they deal with on a day-to-day basis.
“Just for them to talk about it is a great release,” Pipes said. “Tell us what happened, what they saw and what affected them the most.”
Pipes said officers will often approach them with their concerns. If not, they are so close the chaplains can usually get a read on them if a fatal case is bothering one of them.
Chaplain Robert Williamson also has 38 years in ministry and 16 years as a chaplain for both APD and the Abilene Sheriff’s Office. He said he has seen both ends of the spectrum regarding an officer’s mental health over that time.
“I’ve seen people who were on the verge of just resigning, they couldn’t handle it anymore,” Williamson explained. “They turn into people who became still a viable officer, and are doing what they trained to do. Seeing that big difference in their life is rewarding to me- to be able to see that.”
Williamson said a lot of their work is done doing ride-alongs with the officers, allowing them to speak what is on their mind in an environment where they are comfortable. He also said, when needed, their work begins outside of the office, contacting an officer’s spouse to see how they are responding to the events at home or even over a cup of coffee.
In their experience, both Pipes and Williamson said handling people who have experienced that level of trauma don’t require a lot of advice being given. Rather, they both referred to the book of Job in the Bible, saying when Job went through his hardships, it was the presence of his peers that helped the most.
They both said it takes fewer words and more ‘just being present’ with someone to make the most impact in their healing journey- whether that is a victim’s family or an officer.
Trevino said across the nation, many police and fire departments are shifting to having a similar chaplain program within their offices. She said with mental health issues rising, departments have seen a need for that level of support within, and plan to add to those services.
The Abilene Police Department is also expanding their chaplain program from two to four chaplains in order to give their officers the best shot at counseling they can receive.