Hyattsville Community Chaplains build bridge between community, police

Rev. Stephen Price wearing his Hyattsville Community Chaplains jacket. Photo courtesy of Stephen Price

BY HEATHER WRIGHT — One of the dangers of being a member of Hyattsville Community Chaplains on police ride-alongs is that one of your parishioners may think you’ve gone and gotten yourself arrested.

Stephen Price

The Rev. Stephen Price, pastor of First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, recounted a story of being out on a “death call” with the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD). Two or three police cars were at the scene, and Price was going between the police and family members. While Price was talking to a police officer, one of his parishioners drove up and asked, “Pastor, are you OK?” Price said, “I think they thought I was being arrested.”

Price was named Volunteer of the Year on Dec. 4, 2017,  at the City of Hyattsville’s Volunteer Recognition and Appreciation Reception. HCPD Chief Douglas Holland called Price “a godsend to the city of Hyattsville” during the reception and highlighted Price’s efforts, from spearheading a bake sale to raise funds for Sgt. Tony Knox’s tumor-removal surgery and recovery to forming a partnership with Community Crisis Services, Inc., to work on homelessness and domestic violence projects. Of particular importance, however, to Holland were Price’s efforts on behalf of the Hyattsville Community Chaplains.

According to Holland, in September 2016, the city’s Office of Community Services sponsored an initial meeting with clergy from Hyattsville churches, with a follow-up meeting in April 2017. Following those meetings, a core group of pastors — Price, the Rev. Nathan Hill of University Christian Church, the Rev. Cynthia Lapp of Hyattsville Mennonite Church, the Rev. Perrin Rogers of Triumphant Church and, eventually, the Rev. Eric Linthicum of Redeemer Lutheran Church  — began meeting monthly with Holland to get to know one another and discuss how they could work with city staff and HCPD in support of the community.

Thus was born Hyattsville Community Chaplains. Hyattsville Community Chaplains, said Holland, go on ride-alongs with officers and have an on-call schedule for situations in which a clergy person could be helpful, such as in the event of a death. The chaplains make crisis referrals to residents and are available to police or city employees who may need pastoral assistance. Holland described Price as the group’s “informal leader.”

Price’s background has prepared him for handling crisis situations. He holds master’s degrees in pastoral counseling and in sociology and criminology. Up until recently, Price worked as a private therapist and spent 30 years treating sex offenders in a variety of settings. Price said he attained additional training in trauma response and wrote the curriculum for the D.C. Baptist Convention’s emergency response chaplains. “My clinical experience makes me really concerned about and committed to things like the police chaplaincy,” said Price.

According to Price, the chaplain group was aware that places like Dallas, when faced with a riot, “succeeded in turning down the level of violence and hostility because they put their community chaplains out in the crowd.” The Dallas chaplains, Price noted, already had relationships with the police department and community members. “And we started to say, ‘You don’t get to do this by just showing up the day of a problem,” Price continued. “You do it by building ongoing relationships.’”

From the beginning, said Price, the Hyattsville Community Chaplains did not want to be seen as an “extension of the police.” Although Price said, “I love this police department,” and “I have great respect for all the [HCPD] folks I’ve worked with,” the group decided that its members weren’t going to “badge up.” The chaplains wanted the community and people from other police departments to be able to identify them, however, so they, in collaboration with HCPD staff, decided that they should wear jackets with a dove and the chaplain’s name on the front and “Hyattsville Community Chaplain” on the back.

The goal of the group, Price said, was to position themselves to “be a bridge between the community and the police department.” Although Price hopes there is never a large-scale riot or protest in Hyattsville, he said that if there is, “we’ve positioned ourselves where people in the community know something about us.”

As part of this positioning, when HCPD responds to a resident’s death, they may call in a Hyattsville Community Chaplain. Beyond offering comfort to survivors, the chaplain is available to explain police procedures. For example, when a crime scene van arrives, Price said, “sometimes it sends people into a panic.” He explains to survivors that the van’s presence is standard procedure, but that if there were any “foul play,” they would want to know that the police “did everything they could to find out [about it].” If survivors have other questions, the chaplain can “bridge back and forth” between them and the officers.

Price said he tries to do ride-alongs once a month, spending about six hours with two different squads on their shifts. During a ride-along, Price said, “you could have some major contact with the community, or it could just be a long, boring night.” Regardless, ride-alongs help him build relationships with officers, to whom he offers his and the other chaplains’ support.

Holland described the chaplains’ group as “a wonderful addition to our police department and one additional asset available to our community.”

In responding to Price’s volunteer award, Mayor Candace Hollingsworth said, “I couldn’t be happier that Pastor Price received this year’s Volunteer of the Year award; he is more than deserving.” She noted that among his other services to the community, Price “has helped all of us in moments of grief and sadness, either by offering prayer for the community at the Pulse vigil, consoling residents on their worst days, or counseling our officers on theirs.” Hollingsworth added, ”More importantly, he uses his involvement with us to encourage other members of the clergy to establish deeper and richer connections with Hyattsville. These are the things that leave indelible marks on a community, and that’s what volunteerism is all about.”

Going forward, Price would like the Hyattsville Community Chaplains to have more chaplains, including a rabbi and an imam, to represent their faith communities. Price said that their goal “is to represent the faith community without shoving our particular faith down anybody’s throat.”

So if you see the black jackets with the dove and the yellow writing, know that these chaplains aren’t being arrested — they are helping construct a bridge between police officers and their community.