by Alisa Roberts.
It was 8:45 a.m. on March 7th when LAPD Chaplain Shmuel Newman got the call. An officer had been killed on duty, could he come as quickly as possible? Newman had been on his way to work so he was soon at the scene. Officer Nicholas Lee and Officer Stephanie Glacia, had been on their way to an “unknown trouble” call when a dump truck coming the other way lost control and careened straight into their car. Officer Lee, a 40-year-old father of two, was killed instantly.
“That’s the scene I got to,” says Newman. “You couldn’t even tell it was a police car anymore.” He stayed at the scene, comforting the visibly-shaken officers, until the coroner’s van was ready to leave. “What really amazed me was that originally they wanted all of the Hollywood officers to regroup back at the station. I was standing next to the supervisor and he said, ‘They can take my stripes, but we left the station this morning with Nick, and we’re not going back without him.’ We all stayed there. They did an honor guard on scene when they took him out of the wreck. And then they did something that I don’t know if they’ve ever done before: They had all the units who were there do a formation back to the Hollywood Station with the coroner, and the whole station stood outside and saluted the coroner’s van as it headed toward the coroner’s office.” This particular display of solidarity was new to Newman, but as an experienced LAPD chaplain the feeling behind it did not surprise him. “The camaraderie is unbelievable,” he says. “The police department is truly a family.”
Shmuel Newman became a chaplain five years ago. “I had a friend, Buck Mossie, who was a sergeant in the police department. He came to my house for Rosh Hashanah, and after the meal he said, ‘I want to take you out on a ride-along and show you what we do.’” Newman had never been on a ride-along before. “My police ambitions died when I was about 12 after I stopped playing cops and robbers,” he jokes. But whatever he had expected from the experience, the reality was something more.
“I went out with him, and I was floored by the amount of responsibility and the pressure. They encountered so many different situations in just a few hours, from helping a little child, where the sergeant had to show compassion and warmth; to chasing a criminal, where he had to be tough; to helping a poor person cross the street and assisting an old lady who had gotten lost. It was an emotional roller coaster. There was no continuity from one scene to the next; it’s not like watching a movie or TV show. When you get a call, you don’t necessarily know what the job is, but you have to get there and be willing to do whatever is required of you.” And that was it for Newman.
“It really impressed me. I wanted to be able to give back. So I made a commitment that day that I was going to do something for the department. At the time they were looking for Jewish chaplains. My father is a chaplain for the Long Beach Police Department and my brother was a chaplain for the Santa Monica Police Department, so I said I would do it. I embraced it, and I never looked back.”
A chaplain’s work is nearly as varied as a police officer’s. “I’ve been able to help in many different ways – from getting kosher meals for Jewish inmates to helping Jewish officers who have experienced losses or family issues,” Newman explains. Unfortunately, for the past week it wasn’t just the Jewish officers who needed that help. That Friday deeply affected everyone. “When I got back to the station, I started talking to different officers who were visibly very disturbed, trying to cope. Obviously, Officer Lee was very well-liked in the station. There were a handful of officers who were breaking down. There were people who had just spoken to him in the morning. And in the minds of the officers, it could have been any one of them who got that call. It wasn’t like there had been an error on his part; any officer who would have been on the way to that call at that particular moment would have been dead. That was really difficult.”
Police Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti were both present later that Friday. They started by visiting the scene of the collision to pay their respects. They then came to the station and addressed the other officers. “You hear a lot about politicians, you hear people say that everything is politics,” says Newman. “But there were no video cameras in that room. It was just the mayor, the police chief, myself and the officers who were on the scene of the accident. The mayor spoke so beautifully, so heartfelt. He spoke about how, as leader of the city, whenever an officer is injured or hurt it weighs very heavily on him. The chief also spoke beautifully, really connected with the officers. It was absolutely amazing to see that kind of care. It meant the world to the officers; it made them feel important that the mayor and the chief, with everything that was going on that day, took the time to come back to the station and spend time with them. That really impressed me as well.”
It wasn’t the only impressive behavior to come out of the aftermath. Officer Glacia had miraculously survived the crash with only minor injuries, and was recuperating with her family. When her fellow officers discovered that her phone had been lost in the accident, they started a fund so they could replace her phone. Newman drove out to Pomona to deliver the new phone and he heard that the Mayor had called her that morning to see how she was feeling. She said, ‘I didn’t get a call from the secretary or someone in his office – the phone rang, and the Mayor was speaking and just wanted to know how I was doing.’”
And the outpouring of care didn’t end with the police force and the mayor’s office. That week, Newman got a call from philanthropist Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz. “When he heard what happened, he got in touch and told me that whenever an officer in California dies in the line of duty, he immediately gives the family $10,000. He wanted me to come get a check and make sure that the Office Lee’s wife got it so that she would have the funds to take care of the most urgent bills. There are many programs in place for the families of officers, who die in the line of duty, but it takes time to receive the money and at the same time events are moving very quickly.
Newman continues, “The station wanted to thank Mr. Rechnitz in person. I called him but he said, ‘No, that’s not necessary. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. They sacrifice their lives for the community, this is the least I can do. I don’t need a personal thank you.’” Newman explains the reverberations of this one act, “When you see situations where people go above and beyond, it really touches a soft spot for everybody. It’s especially meaningful for the police department to see that somebody in the Jewish community wanted to immediately get a check to the Officer’s wife, to make sure that she knew people cared. It’s not just the money. It’s proof that she’s not alone, that her husband didn’t die for nothing. It really helped her deal with her pain.”
That kind of support and solidarity is what the Chaplain Corps is all about. Newman was at Officer Lee’s funeral, standing outside the chapel and then at the grave, in support of the officers. “They really appreciated it,” he says. Officer Lee’s death was not only sudden; it was the first on-duty death of an LAPD officer in six years. So what do the chaplains do for the officers when something this awful happens? “For the most part, just having a listening ear or a friendly face to tell you its OK means the world to people who, as part of their job, need to separate themselves from their emotions. They have to be able to keep their emotions in check and be professional to do their job. And it’s hard to switch that off and on. That’s where the chaplains are able to help the officers.”
The unexpected is undoubtedly the theme of this work. But most of the time, Newman has the experience to turn events to his advantage. That’s certainly the case with another project he’s working on now. He went on a mission to brighten up the officers’ workday with a treat. “A lot of time when I go by the station I’ll get two dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, just to bring put a smile on the officers’ faces. I decided to get in touch with the head of Krispy Kreme, to see if he would be willing to donate his day-old donuts to the police department. I figured it was a match made in heaven. He was very supportive, and said he would see what he could do. About two weeks later I got an email they would do it.” But that wasn’t as simple as it sounded. Donating the donuts required a change to the Krispy Kreme daily operation. Rather than throwing the day-old donuts away, they would now be putting them aside and packing them which required a daily collection. “They told me I have to be there once a day to pick them all up, seven days a week. So I thought, OK, I can’t go on Shabbat but I’ll find someone, we’ll figure it out. Next he says – and this threw me for a loop – ‘OK, so we’ll see you every morning between 5:00 and 6:00 to pick up 175 – 200 dozen donuts.’ I said, ‘What?’ I had this image in my head of everyone in the department gaining 40 pounds.” But 2,000 unplanned donuts didn’t derail Newman. “I figured that the offer was good and I had to use it. I called up the LA Mission and I spoke to the woman who handles the food donations. And she was so excited. She said, ‘You know, we just lost our contract, and we feed 1,750 people a day. Having donuts to include with the meals we give to the homeless is a godsend.’”
Another project currently in the works also started with a phone call. “I got a call from a woman in the community who had a young daughter at Kaiser going through cancer treatment. So I asked if her daughter would appreciate a female officer visiting her in the hospital. The little girl was so happy. The officer showed her all of her equipment and her badge and talked about being a policewoman. It was a surreal scene to see this little bald girl and this female officer, who had walked in so professionally but melted almost as soon as she saw this little girl.”
Newman said that he drove back to the station with plans for a new program “I realized that the officer had changed in that room. It really brought her a better understanding of her own humanity and the awareness that we never know what tomorrow brings. And I felt that it was a valuable thing for her in her police work to have had this experience. So I called up the Children’s Hospital in LA. They have a program called Literally Healing, where volunteers read books to sick children. So we will be starting a program soon where once or twice a month an officer will go to the hospital and read books to the sick children.” Though the project is waiting to launch until the end of flu season, it has already spread across the city. “I felt that this was something that speaks to everyone. So I called six different divisions: West LA, Wilshire, Olympic, Northeast, Hollywood, and Air Support. I called each Captain and told them what I was doing and every single one said, ‘Say no more, count us in. Whatever you need, we’ll do it.’ So now I have six divisions who will be sending officers once or twice a month with a chaplain to the hospital to read books to the sick children there.”
As usual, Newman is thinking about the officers as well. “I think it does just as much, if not more, for the officers as it does for the children. To connect and see the smiles on their faces. Some of the kids in the children’s hospitals come from low-income homes and they may only remember police from when they’re arresting someone. They don’t get to see the police sitting and reading to them, helping them with whatever they’re going through. This gives the child an experience and helps them build trust in the police. And the police are more in touch with their own humanity. Because I don’t care how tough you are, when you see a child in critical condition, it melts the heart of anyone.”
The Chaplain Corps, which boasts chaplains of nearly every religion, helps get programs like these off the ground. There are over 20 chaplains currently in the department, and Newman serves as the lead chaplain in West Bureau and Air Support. He is just as committed today as he was on his first night 5 years ago. “I feel that the police department is, in many senses, misunderstood by the community. For many people their only interaction with a police officer is getting a traffic ticket.”
Newman summarized his job by adding, “From what I understand, Officer Lee swerved to save Officer Glacia’s life. So he took the brunt of the impact and his partner walked away with scratches and scrapes. The Officer’s last act of living was to save a fellow officer. And that exemplifies what you see every day in the police department: they’re willing to put their lives on the line to protect the people in this city.” It’s not surprising that we are pleased to volunteer our time in any way we can.”