title Cops make a getaway

November 5, 2001 Issue Full Text

Police chaplains hope to build a retreat centre in the foothills

by Tim Callaway

LAST year Constable Kevin McInnes informed the Calgary Police Service he simply could not keep up with the demands of his part-time position as chaplain to the city's 1,300 officers. The spiritual and emotional needs he was encountering were demanding more time and energy than the full-time policeman had to give. His superiors responded by creating a full-time position that Const. McInnes, a Protestant, now job-shares with Const. Jim Amsing, a Roman Catholic officer.

"The stress level for police officers is quite high," explains Const. McInnes, a wiry 22-year veteran. "Accordingly, we see all the usual problems associated with that fact: divorce, domestic violence, suicide and substance abuse." Although statistics regarding the effects of stress on Canadian police officers are well-guarded, there is a growing body of evidence to verify what these officers assert. One former RCMP veteran says, "Drinking is a big issue in most police forces, but it's not talked about-it's the best-kept secret as far as the police community is concerned." The first comprehensive study of alcohol use in a North American police force, conducted by Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in 1989, found that more than one-third of the RCMP's employees drank over the level recognized by the World Health Organization as damaging to health-three drinks per day. Twenty percent of the constables who responded reported downing five or more drinks on working days. (The officer who commissioned the study was immediately given the golden handshake.)

Calgary police Inspector Bill Webb says stressors are increasing because, in addition to dealing with the traditional shift work, violence and grieving people, officers today face ever-changing laws and regulations and a higher expectation for conduct: "As society becomes more attuned to rights and freedoms, police are required to act in a professional manner under situations where abuse is being heaped upon them."

In 1999 the Calgary Police Association invested in a four-bedroom home in the city's south end. They named it Diakonos (Greek for "servant") House, and both police and RCMP officers from across southern Alberta may stay there. "There's a fantastic Benedictine sister who functions as a den mother at Diakonos," smiles Const. McInnes. "She makes everyone welcome, those facing divorce, substance-abuse problems, emotional issues, or those just needing a time out are welcome for as much time as they need. It's a place for quiet reflection or interaction, where officers can slow down and determine the next step they need to take."

The steady stream of officers to Diakonos House has spawned an even larger vision, a retreat similar to that run by the U.S. military in Spring Canyon, Colorado, where spouses and family can also attend for times of quietness, counsel and education. "The focus of the centre will be on building or repairing relationships, dealing with the unique stresses of law-enforcement life and reconnecting with loved ones," explains Const. McInnes. By 2005 the Diakonos Peace Officer Retreat Society (www.diakonosretreat.com) hopes to open the retreat and conference centre somewhere in the Alberta foothills. Says Const. McInnes, "We're busy establishing alliances to raise money within the business and church communities in anticipation of seeing the dream become reality."

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