Chaplain says faith can help officers cope with Aurora shooting

Denver, Colo., Jul 24, 2012 / 03:23 pm (CNA).- A strong faith in God can play an important role for law enforcement officers struggling to deal with the aftermath of the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., said a chaplain who has experience ministering to those involved in tragic killings.

“There is a kind of spiritual journey that takes place,” said Gino Geraci, who serves as a chaplain for the Denver division of the FBI.

A Christian pastor, Geraci has had significant experience dealing with law enforcement officers and experiences of tragedy and trauma. He was a first responder in the 1999 Columbine high school shooting and to the recent movie theater shootings that left 12 dead and 58 injured.

Geraci spoke with CNA on July 20, shortly after returning from the Century 16 Theater in Aurora, Colo., where one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history took place.

Earlier that morning, during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” a gunman entered the theater, where he opened fire on a crowd of moviegoers.
 
Law enforcement officers subsequently arrested the suspect and worked to disarm his nearby apartment, which he had extensively “booby-trapped” before leaving.

In the coming days and weeks, Geraci will be offering prayer, encouragement, counseling and support to FBI officers who were involved in handling the shooting and its aftermath.

While officers “are trained to deal with tragedy and trauma,” the gravity of a situation like the recent rampage can be overwhelming, he explained.

For many officers, the events of July 20 may be “one of the most difficult experiences” they will ever face, he said, adding that the experience of trauma can also be “cumulative.”

“It’s impossible to not have it affect you,” he said, and these effects can be physical, spiritual and emotional.

In the aftermath of a tragedy such as a mass killing, officers sometimes exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as mood changes and difficulty sleeping, he explained. These symptoms may be short-lived, or they can become long-term.

“Over the next days and weeks, all of the agencies will require officers who are principally involved to talk to someone,” he noted.

This procedure is important because “police officers are first and foremost human beings,” he said, explaining that the officers are parents whose children go to the movies, and they cannot help but bring these facts with them as they deal with the senseless violence that took place on July 20.

Tragedies such as the Aurora shooting can prompt officers to ask big life questions that they may not have given much thought before, Geraci said. They may be led to consider the topics of evil, human existence and eternity for the first time or in a new way.

In the spiritual journey that follows, some people end up being strengthened in their faith, while others are left with “uncertainty and ambiguity” that can create problems in their lives, even occasionally leading them to commit suicide.

For chaplains, it is important to help the officers “understand and process” what they are experiencing, he said, stressing that “we want to be supportive.”

Faith can play an important role in helping with this process, Geraci added, noting that those with a strong faith often have an easier time getting through the difficult periods that follow a tragedy.

A belief in eternal life and a loving Creator can provide a perspective through which officers can comprehend the tragic events, he observed.

“You understand that there is a good God that you can trust,” Geraci explained.

“They have an anchor that they can go to.”

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