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Milwaukee officer deaths highlight importance of police chaplains

Posted at 3:46 PM, Aug 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-07 19:12:38-04

After two Milwaukee Police officers were killed on the job in the last two months, the department's chaplain continues to provide comfort to their families and colleagues. 

Officers Charles Irvine Jr. and Michael Michalski were both killed in the line of duty this summer. 

At Michalski's funeral on August 1, the crowd gathered at Oak Creek Assembly of God and heard Milwaukee Police Department Chaplain George Papachristou offer a unified prayer. 

"Almighty God, we come before you once again as a hurt and confused family amid the sorrow of losing a brother who made the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow man," Papachristou said as part of the prayer. 

One week later, he said he continues to comfort the families of both fallen officers, as well as MPD's rank-and-file at police districts all around the city. 

"You need to prepare yourself to be that rock, mentally and spiritually, for the person's family and for the department because they're looking to you for stability," Papachristou said. "They're looking to you for guidance, and you've got to insulate yourself and not show weakness - much like a police officer does on the scene of a crime." 

At the Milwaukee Police Department, Papachristou said his chaplaincy work is supplemented with mental health and peer support programming to make sure officers are healthy.

He said that makes for a safer community. 

"There's an expression that hurt people, hurt people," Papachristou said. "If any individual isn't functioning up to par, they have something going on that's causing them distress, they will take that out on their workplace, no matter what profession they're in." 

Attorney General Brad Schimel said there are roughly 530 law enforcement agencies around the state, but not all of them have a chaplain like Papachristou they can call on in times of need. 

The Department of Justice late last year began the process of a statewide program to train and certify chaplains, which has so far led to 293 certifications. 

Schimel said more certifications are in the works, as the training includes 12 courses split up over several free sessions. 

"I would guess we're going to hit about 400 (chaplains) when we're done with this," Schimel said. 

The Attorney General said the long term goal is to have a chaplain available to every law enforcement agency in the state. 

He noted chaplains help officers cope with many issues - not just line-of-duty deaths. 

"We lost, last year, four times as many officers to suicide as we did to on-duty deaths," Schimel said. "Officers have much higher divorce rates and much shorter lifespans than the average citizen." 

The training sessions around the state cover topics like communicating with officers, understanding law enforcement culture, and responding to officers who might be in crisis. 

Papachristou said the trainings get chaplains from different police departments on the same page when it comes to procedure, language and other support efforts. 

"In the past, many police departments would just reach out to a local priest or pastor," he said. "They'd just get out the phone book and start asking, 'Hey, do you want to be our chaplain?'" 

"Now, we'll be able to have a network of chaplains all trained in the same manner, speaking the same language, so that if we have a major crisis or catastrophe, we'll have a network that we can call upon to be there and rally around an agency, or even a city," Papachristou said.