Chicago cops find solace in God ‘in times of stress,’ growing public distrust

By Allison Ledwon

In the following story, details such as the names and ages of the police officers have been withheld to protect their privacy and personal safety.

A  South Side police officer, like most young adults graduating from college, was looking for a stable but fulfilling career.  He thought he would find it in the role of a Chicago police officer.

“My initial thought was that it would be a rewarding career of helping people,” the officer said.  But after bearing his badge for some time, he made the discovery that the job is not what he thought it would be.

“You thought that you were going to help people and you find out when you get there, not many people tell you thank you” he said. “It’s still rewarding because you know secretly that people needed you and wanted you there, even if they didn’t tell you thank you. However, we’ve come across one of the weirdest times in the United States’ history that we’ve reached the spot where the police are actually the bad guy now.”

According to Pew researchers, 51 percent of police officers nationwide, like the South Side officer, are frustrated by their jobs, while 81 percent say they believe that the public does not understand their occupation. This, according to the study, is likely tied to the recent high-profile fatal encounters between black civilians and police officers both nationwide and in Chicago.

The October 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald and the subsequent November 2015 release of video evidence added to the distrust of the Chicago Police Department. Public opinions across the nation are questioning the morality and ethics of the police.

With their morality and ethics under fire, police officers turn to various forms of spirituality and religion. According to a 2016 study reported in The Police Journal, some sort of spirituality affects the way officers view crime, the criminal justice system and their methods in their work.

For many officers, like the North Side officer, religion can be like a multi-tool knife: a tool that is able to provide everything needed to do a job well in one convenient package.

“Religion gives you a good moral compass which is needed in law enforcement which in turn helps you make sound decisions based on what’s right and what’s wrong” he said.  “For me personally, you always have God to turn to in times of stress, whether it be prayer or meditation.  It eases your fears and you believe that He’ll take care of things.”

Stress management is one of the skills officers are not often taught in the police academy, according to Bill McCarty, an assistant professor of criminology law and justice at University of Illinois at Chicago.

McCarty said that “while the academy does a good job of teaching tactics,” they need to do more work on “the emotional side of becoming an officer and the challenges tied to it.”

“Religion seems to be the one coping mechanism that remained relatively steady” McCarty said. “It seemed less malleable to the rigors of the academy.”

McCarty also noted that religion seemed to be a much popular, wide-spread coping mechanism in rural police forces, in comparison to urban police departments.  But this may not always be the case.

Mount Greenwood is a predominantly white neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago where over 21 percent of the population works in some form of public administration, including the police force. Thus, the congregation of St. Christina Catholic Parish in Mount Greenwood reflects that same makeup, according to Rev. Tom Conde, the pastor.

“There’s stuff that happens at work that you can’t bring home” Rev. Conde said of police work. “Are they really going to tell the wife and kids what they ran into that day? That’s a hard thing. Bad day? OK. Bad week? Fine. But when it’s an unending string of stuff?

“That becomes a very important emotional difficulty. They have to find a vent for some of this along the way. God love them, they are prayerful people. They come to church and they pray.  They don’t just show up to say that they were there.”

Bob Montelongo, a police officer, a Catholic deacon and one of the CPD chaplains has served on the force for 20 years.

“We’re just people too” Montelongo said.  “The clothes we put on: the shirt, the pants the hat, it doesn’t change who we are. But you see a lot. You have to talk to somebody about it and you have to be careful about who you talk to about it.

“We as chaplains say you need your faith. We don’t care what your faith is; if you have faith in Mother Nature, then go to Home Depot and buy yourself a bush and pray to your bush.  Do what you have to do; talk to your bush.  You’re going to need that vent.”

Rev. Conde said: “I’m amazed at all they do and all that they are able to take. You know the old line from Scripture about turn the other cheek: they do it 17 times a day. There are plenty of folks from other religions who are on the force,  too, but they really put the best of Christianity forward on a day-to-day basis.”            

Officers repeatedly emphasize the importance religion plays in their understanding of morality and ethics in their job. Secular, academic sources support this conception.

“Most of the literature on police decision-making focuses on norms, specifically on what’s fair and on who should be punished, or they focus on pragmatic concerns meaning [the officers] ask questions like ‘Does this result in bad publicity?’ Or ‘if I don’t do this or if I do this will I get recognition?’” said Loretta Stalans, professor of criminal justice and criminology and of psychology at Loyola University Chicago.

“Most rookie officers come in with the justice mindset,” Stalans said. “Religion plays a role in how we define fairness.”

Religion, though, can pose some contradictions to the job the police have to do. According to a West Side officer, a long-time veteran of the police force, the possibility and the reality of fatally shooting a civilian can weigh heavily on officers.  But, he adds that religion helps officers cope.

“I’ve had to take two lives during my time on the street,” he said, “and both are still crystal clear. It’s like I’m looking out the window.”

“I’ve had some issues with it even though I can justify my actions” the West Side officer said.  “I have to believe that God will forgive me because I quite possibly could have saved other people’s lives.”

Montelongo noted that, especially in the current climate of police and community relations, sound decision-making is more important than ever.

“The decisions that you make out there are important because they are life or death and it’s going to affect you and your family” Montelongo said.  “In four seconds you make a decision, you act on it and the next thing you know you could lose your home, you could be sued for millions. And they’ll take months and months looking at your decision. Looking at different views.”

“A good way to look at this is the NFL,” Montelongo said.  “You know how they have all those cameras that are flying around? Even with all those cameras, on certain plays, they have to stop, look at all the different angles and get the right answer.  We don’t have that luxury.”

Photo at top:”Normally you would think that you see so much that you would start to doubt your belief in God, like how did God let all this happen” said Bob Montelongo, Chicago Police chaplain and deacon at St. Daniel the Prophet Church in Garfield Ridge (pictured). “But you have to believe in something.” (Allison Ledwon/MEDILL)