Cops, Cons and Grace: I Volunteer So That I Can Keep Breathing and Keep Believing

Article excerpt

In my retirement I spend most of my time writing. I have written a few pieces about the failed leadership of our church, but most of my writing is about my oldest son, a police officer who took his life four years ago. I have learned about cops and suicide, and I have learned about pain and grace. I try to write four days a week, but on Tuesdays I don't write. I volunteer.

I spend part of each Tuesday at the San Francisco Police Department doing suicide prevention training. For the last year I have been speaking to 25 cops every week who are required to go through 40 hours of advanced officer training every two years. Two hours are devoted to behavioral health issues, including alcoholism, substance abuse, marital issues, depression and suicide. I am given 30 minutes to tell these officers about my son and how he lost his way, about the high rate of police suicide, and about current research in this area. I tell them that if this can happen to my son, it can happen to any officer. I remind them that the very things that make them effective and safe on the street can destroy them in their personal life, and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. I think they are listening, first because they respect me for doing this, and second because SFPD lost three officers to suicide in 2010. A number of officers have told me that I have helped them.

When I finish the training and I am back in my car, I usually fall apart because I have not been giving an academic lecture, but rather talking about the suicide of my son, my firstborn, my rock. I sit in my car revisiting the horror of four years ago. And yet at the same time, because I do this training to honor my son and hopefully to help other cops, I feel God's grace working in me, not eliminating the pain, but allowing me to feel some satisfaction and a sense that life is still worth living. I am always amazed at the intimate, symbiotic and still for me, mysterious relationship between pain and grace.

When I leave the police department I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. Every Tuesday night for two hours I co-lead a spirituality group with 18 inmates. I have been coming into San Quentin for more than seven years as a volunteer, going to Mass with the men on Sundays and being with a group of them on Tuesdays. I have never been in a place where God's presence is more tangible.

Most of the men I have come to know have been convicted of second-degree murder and were sentenced to 15 years to life. They have not received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. On the contrary, their sentences specifically include the possibility of parole. Many of them were convicted in their teens or early 20s. According to the sentencing guidelines, if they fulfill all the criteria for rehabilitation, they could be paroled in 12 to 15 years. Most of the men I know in this situation have served more than 20 years, and in some cases more than 30 years, because parole boards and governors have been politically reluctant to release them. Unlike fixed-term prisoners, where the recidivism rate is 70 percent, the recidivism rate for these inmates when they are released is 1 percent.

The men I have come to know, these "lifers," are men of deep spirituality, full of insight and remorse for the crimes they have committed and the great harm and pain they brought to others. …