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Partners In Crisis

By Martha Duncan Overby

Last issue I had the privilege to write about Pastor Randall Beaty of the Searcy Church of the Nazarene and Police Department Chaplain for Searcy. In this issue that privilege is expanded to chronicle 75 years of service to our community by writing about the chaplains for our police, fire, and sheriff’s departments. Along with Randall, the first responder chaplains in our city and county are Chaplain Tom Martin of the Searcy Fire Department and Chaplain David Copeland of the White County Sheriff’s Department. All three of these men have served our community for around 25 years each. That is amazing!

Pastor David Copeland, White Co. Sheriff Chaplain

White County Sheriff Department Chaplain David Copeland had a leaning toward law enforcement already. He had an uncle in southern California who was a sheriff. In younger years he was interested in joining the military, until he received a definite call into the ministry. He was raised in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, attended school for the ministry, was a youth minister in Oklahoma for a time before coming back to Arkansas, eventually ending up pastoring Chapel Lane Free Will Baptist Church here in Searcy in 1986.

In 1999, Pastor David Copeland was called to the home of one of his church members’ relatives that was found deceased, and Police Chaplain Randall Beaty had also been called to the situation by the department. Just two weeks before this, Randall had taken the position as Chaplain at Searcy Police Department. Randall called David, asking to meet for coffee. He told David that the Searcy Police Department was wanting three chaplains instead of one and asked if he would be interested in the position. It did not take David long to make this decision. After three years at Searcy PD, he moved to the White County Sheriff’s office as a Chaplain in 2002.

From 2007 to 2022 David served as a part-time deputy in a judicial capacity. He would serve subpoenas and warrants, but mostly served as a court bailiff or transporting prisoners. He has helped on patrol at times. It was a common occurrence for him to be assigned to court and be called away for chaplain duties.

He shares, “This position has made me deal with people I would not normally deal with, and I am glad of that. I’ve come across people others may not want to deal with, and I’ve learned we all need to be treated like human beings, with a certain level of respect. It’s made me a better person.” In one instance a female murder suspect asked to speak with a chaplain. When he went back into the jail to speak with her, he explained, “Yes, I am wearing a uniform, but right now I’m here as a chaplain and whatever you share with me is confidential.”

A major duty for law enforcement chaplains is to assist an officer in making death notifications. Once the family is notified, the officer can leave, but David stays to help the family. He will contact their pastor and hopefully get more family and friends around them so when he leaves the home, they are not alone.

David has made close, long-term relationships with people he has met during crisis events. Although they may have met during a difficult time, they are glad to be in each other’s lives. He shared a saying he found years ago, “Everyone wants to be the sunshine in someone’s life. Why not be the moon to shine on someone’s darkest hour?” Not everyone feels called to that role. David does; in fact, he views it as part of his calling.

Chaplains must also provide support for our officers. David explained, “If you view society as a large, multi-story building, our officers must “ride the elevator”, so to speak. They must learn to deal with people on all levels of society.” Officers see, hear, and smell things most of us will never encounter. It’s especially hard on officers when a crisis situation involves children. An officer may carry the weight of what they have to do long after the situation is over. We really have no idea what our officers must contend with in their capacity to “keep the peace” and enforce the law. They tend to have a higher suicide rate and stress-related health issues. In past times, officers were more likely to bottle things up. David tells me the newest generation of officers is more likely to see the wisdom of dealing with these job stresses by seeking help. David is that listening ear to help “let the air out of the balloon before it pops.”

All three chaplains will work a Critical Incident Debriefing together. After an unusually bad situation, all the first responders are brought together with this three-man team to help them process what has happened. They need to know the sleepless nights and lack of eating are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Tom Martin, the Fire Department Chaplain, usually leads these debriefings with Randall and David. Those attending are there on a volunteer basis. It is not required, and they can participate at whatever level they are comfortable. Sometimes those in the debriefing are not handling the meeting well and walk out. David is the one who follows them out to see if he can help them deal with the debriefing process.

The value of these chaplains’ training and years of experience is acknowledged by departments outside of White County, as they are called to do debriefing meetings for other departments. David shares, “I appreciate Randall and Tom; we cover for each other if one of us is out of town. I believe we are a good team.”

Pastor Randall Beaty, Searcy Police Dept. Chaplain

Pastor Randall Beaty has been the Chaplain for Searcy Police department through five police chiefs.

In 1994 a rookie Searcy police officer had the difficult job of coming to the Beaty house to tell them that Diana Beaty’s parents had died in an auto accident. In 1999 when Randall had taken the position as a Chaplain, that same officer told him that he had been that rookie, and he was glad to have Randall on board as a chaplain. This officer told Randall that after he left the house that night, he drove by their home four times later that evening. I thought about that. Cooks cook, writers write, and police officers watch and protect. I believe that officer wanted to do more for the Beaty family, but what he knew best was to watch and protect. It was what he could do. With a chaplain to accompany an officer to a death notification, he knows when he leaves the house Randall will stay to do more, the more he cannot do. As David had stated, after the officer leaves, the Chaplain stays to call the family’s pastor or get family around them. That officer can go about his job without that pull on him or her to do more, because someone is in place to do that. Not every officer requests his assistance for these calls, but they know he is there if needed.

Assisting officers with these notifications is just one aspect of a chaplain’s job. I asked Randall about the Crisis Incident Debriefings that David talked about. Randall explained that this team of three chaplains have done these for Searcy Police and Fire Departments several times for our local ambulance service, most nearby volunteer fire departments in White County, and have even held these for Cleburne County.

This team of three chaplains is not really there as counselors but as facilitators to allow those who choose to attend, to open up and talk. The group is just asked, “What was your role in the incident?” As each person shares of his or her involvement in a crisis incident, the team becomes aware of who will need follow-up or who is not “getting past” the incident. This is extremely important. The goal is to “move past” the incident and not “get stuck” in their own reaction to the crisis. If they can’t, it may result in a later or long-term negative response in their lives. Even their families can become unhealthy if a first responder cannot “move past” that incident in their heart and mind. These Crisis Incident Debriefings last as long as the participants want to talk. They include all involved--police, fire, ambulance, and dispatchers.

To prepare themselves to offer this service to departments, all three chaplains have attended Crisis Incident Classes and have been certified in this training. Those classes can be intense, and they are graded. Also, in the summer of 2001, both David and Randall attended a twelve-week class offered by the White County Sheriff’s Office to be a Reserve Officer. This was done at the Searcy campus of ASU Beebe, known at that time as Foothills Vocational Technical School.

Randall talked about what he found challenging in the position of Police Chaplain. Since he has been with the department for twenty-five years, each time there is a change of chief he must meet the challenge of learning how the new chief sees his role of chaplain for the department. There is a need to flow with the chief’s vision of the department, and learn how the position of chaplain fits into that vision. Over time, one set of officers will retire, and there is a new group to reach out to and create fresh relationships. These days, it’s more difficult to find that time for riding along with officers. There are new techniques to learn with law enforcement support. What worked ten years ago may not work today.

Another challenge is finding the balance between family, church, and the department. In the last few years Randall has joined (and served as chairman for a time) the White County Domestic Violence Prevention Board. There was an eight-year span of time where all but one of the Beaty family vacations were cut short by the need to return home for a church member or police officer’s crisis situation. Randall shares if anything happens to a church member or officer, “My world stops; I will be there for them.”

While all this sounds exhausting to me, the most rewarding aspect of these responsibilities for Randall is the relationships he forms. He is all about connecting with people and meeting whatever need he can. If you have not created a connection in everyday life, people may not be open to you during that time of crisis. The consistency of being there day in and day out builds trust.

I asked Randall what he would like people to know specifically about chaplains. “Just know that chaplains want to be there to help people in crisis, to help the community, and step up in any way possible. These are not paid positions. There is no ‘hey, look at me’ attitude here, but a heart to help. If somebody is going to get bad news, I want to be there to give support at the time of their loss.”

Tom Martin, Searcy Fire Dept. Chaplain

Fire department Chaplain Tom Martin met his wife at Camp Wyldewood, and they married in 1974. They will celebrate 50 years of marriage this August. He has forty-five years in ministry at the Cloverdale Church of Christ and the Downtown Church of Christ.

He calls Poplar Bluff, MO home, because he graduated from high school there but lived in many places in the US. He and his mother lived with her parents, as his father was in the Air Force and often stationed out of the country. His grandfather was a Church of Christ minister for sixty-five years.

He came to Harding College in 1970, married, and stayed in Searcy. Two daughters and five grandsons later, he retired from full-time ministry at the end of 2020. Beginning in 1982, Tom served on the Center Hill Fire Department not only as a firefighter, but later as chief for a total of twenty-three years. In 2000 Searcy Fire Chief, Bill Baldridge, asked Tom if he would serve as chaplain. Chief Baldridge said, “I want these men and women to know they can come to you with anything and have complete confidentiality in what they share with you.” He was willing to send Tom to any training classes he needed.

I asked Tom about his participation in the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefing sessions. Tom, like Randall and David, has attended training for this, and each describes the training as intense. One of the things the team has learned over time--if anyone says they are “fine” in regard to a critical incident, it is a red flag. They’ve come up with an acronym of the word “fine” as: Fouled up, Insecure, Needy, and Emotion. In other words, a “fine” response when asked how you are handling having to do your job through a critical incident, means you are not really dealing with it in a manner that will lead to “moving past the incident.” Tom tells me David Copeland has come up with an additional question for this response, “How are you doing, really?”. This question frequently opens the door for communication.

Death notifications and incidents involving fatalities are challenging. Sometimes it is hard to find out who to contact in the case of a fatality or injury. Once again, as David and Randall have shared, in a time of loss, you want to contact someone’s pastor, friend, or family member.

The hardest crisis events for everyone are those involving a child. Most of the fire, law enforcement officers, and EMT staff have families and children, so they have great empathy for a family that loses a child. This team of chaplains is also the unofficial chaplain team for NorthStar EMS, our local ambulance service.

Tom and his family have great empathy for those who lose their home by fire, as they went through that loss themselves. In December of 1984, their family’s home, west of Searcy, was lost in a fire. They had great support from church, friends in town, and the fire department family. When there is no such support for an individual or family, they refer them to the Red Cross or 100 Families here in Searcy. The experience of that loss has helped Tom tremendously to understand how to be there for others. Tom says, “Sometimes just being there is all you can do, but it can make a difference. We can’t always “fix” things for others, but you can stay by their sides as they walk through their challenge.” These three chaplains cover for each other. If Tom is out of town and a fire occurs, it may be David or Randall that shows up to the incident instead of Tom, and vice versa.

Someone asked him, “As you work to support others, who supports you?” Actually, there is an Arkansas Fire Chaplains Organization, where peers can listen to you and help advise about situations they may have gone through and what worked in the way of providing help to others. Tom spoke about the support of his wife, a retired Arkansas Children’s Hospital APRN cardiology nurse. Honestly, with these three chaplains being on call 24/7, it’s like being in the military - to some degree, their whole family serves, because all their lives may be impacted by the chaplains’ responsibilities.

Like David and Randall, Tom’s great enjoyment serving as chaplain is the relationships he has formed. When new hires come aboard, Tom introduces himself, gives them his number and lets them know as they go through their schooling and learning the department, he is there as they may need him. He is in his office each Thursday but also makes the rounds of the stations just to “check everyone’s pulse.” It’s a family thing. Tom has known some of the SFD firefighters since they were infants, or since they were in his youth group, or in school with his daughters years ago. He sees them marry, start families, watches their children grow, play sports, graduate, and go on to college. He has married them, and buried them, and their family members.

In Summary

The camaraderie of shared experience and long-term commitment makes for a unique bonding in this group of firefighters, law enforcement, and their chaplains. Tom explained, “As chaplains, we want to be present for all who may need us.” This is what struck me as a common attitude of the heart with these men. They feel called to be there for people through the hard, sometimes unbearable events and situations. Whether it be for the departments they are assigned to, or the public in general, they feel called to areas most of us would choose to avoid. Maybe it’s because we don’t have their training, but personally, I think it’s because we don’t have their hearts.


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