For a veteran police chaplain who ministered to first responders after the 9-11 attacks on the Pentagon in 2001 and after the Washington Navy Yard shootings in 2013, this has been a heartbreaking week of sorrow and loss, following the fatal shootings of five police officers and wounding of seven others on July 7 in Dallas, preceded by the police shooting of an African-American motorist in St. Paul, Minnesota, the day before, and of another black man by police outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store one day before that.
“Like the entire country, we all woke up this morning in shock with the loss of the police officers (in Dallas), as well as the other shootings earlier this week by police officers,” said Msgr. Sal Criscuolo, chaplain for first responders in Washington for the past 30 years and pastor of St. Patrick Parish downtown.
In the midst of the Dallas tragedy, as sniper fire was directed at them from above during a protest against the police shootings elsewhere in the country, the police officers continued to do their job, the chaplain noted. “Last night we saw the heroism by officers under fire. Their first responsibility was getting people out of harm’s way while they themselves stayed in harm’s way.
The priest noted how such a tragedy hits home for police officers, wherever they serve. “Yesterday we graduated 46 new men and women for the Metropolitan Police Department.” He noted that last evening, they were probably out celebrating with family members, friends and loved ones, and heard the news about the Dallas shootings, and the new officers and those who care about them were probably wondering if that could happen to them.
“Police live with this every day. These kind of tragedies bring it to light,” he said.
Speaking of the work of police officers and first responders, he said, “I honestly believe they’re called by God. It’s a vocation, a commitment of going above and beyond. Like Christ himself, you might be called to sacrifice your own life to save the life of another.”
Addressing the recent shootings by police that have led to protests across the country, the priest said,“We need to realize in all professions we have good and bad. We have that in law enforcement. The majority of (those) men and women are good.”
Msgr. Criscuolo said members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department are well trained to deal with demonstrations and to work in the community, and have been doing community policing for years. “They’re encouraged to talk with everyone on their beat, to make friends with them,” he said.
The priest said the previous night’s events in Dallas offer a reminder of how daily, police officers put their lives on the line, “leaving their loved ones, not sure if they’ll come home at night,” as they work to keep their communities safe and drug-free.
He commented that when problems arise, people – even those demonstrating against police – will still dial 911, seeking their help.
Regarding the fatal shootings by police of the two men in Louisiana and Minnesota, Msgr. Criscuolo said: “It’s heartbreaking, and I get so angry. I ask, ‘What are you thinking?’”
Police officers involved in unjustified shootings have been rightly convicted by courts, he said. But the chaplain said that sometimes the court of public opinion wrongly convicts officers without knowing everything that happened in a situation, and people make judgments based on a brief video clip without seeing what happened before.
“Police officers don’t want to be associated with officers who shoot unarmed, innocent victims. They’re just as angry and frustrated as (the rest of) society” at those tragedies, he said.
When asked whom he’d be praying for at today’s Mass at his parish church, the priest said, “I’m definitely praying for all victims of gun violence. So many in our community are being gunned down by others.” He said he’d be praying for all those victims, and their families.
The priest added, “We don’t need assault weapons on the street… We need to come to our senses, and so do our politicians.”
“I’m praying for all police,” he said, adding that now they’re all concerned, and all on guard. Today in Dallas, Washington, and across the country, “They reported for work…They’ll be wearing a black band over their badges in support of their slain brothers and sisters in Dallas.”
The priest said he felt sorrow for the slain police officers, for those killed in recent police shootings, and for all their surviving family members. “The families of all victims, police officers and civilians, are all the same. They’ve lost a loved one. They’re devastated,” the chaplain said. “All lives matter. All the loved ones left behind matter.”