Briefing Room: an interview with SBPD Senior Chaplain Donald Shoemaker

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Chaplain Don Shoemaker with his wife Mary at the Police Department’s awards dinner in 2007, where he received the Community Safety Award for raising funds to purchase automated external defibrillator units for the police department and the community.

By SBPD Capt. Michael Henderson

Hi Seal Beach! This week’s Briefing Room is being brought to you by Captain Michael Henderson. Capt. Henderson oversees the Operations Bureau, which includes the Patrol and Detective Divisions.

Additionally, Capt. Henderson supervises our Police Chaplain program so this week we are featuring SBPD Senior Chaplain Donald Shoemaker.

Capt. Henderson spent some time with Chaplain Shoemaker and talked with him and asked him to reflect on his 20 years as a Police Chaplain.

Q: Don, you celebrate 20 years as a Police Chaplain this October. What is noteworthy to you about this anniversary?

A: October of 2021 is a significant anniversary month for me. First, it marks 20 years of chaplain service to our police department. Second, it marks 10 years since the Salon Meritage shootings of October 12, 2011.

Q: Congratulations, Don! Tell me a little bit about how the Police Chaplain program at SBPD got started?

A: Let’s go back to the late 1990s. I had been the pastor of Grace Community Church for about 15 years. One of the best words of guidance I ever received was when my church’s board suggested I find some avenue of community service as part of my pastoral work. One day soon thereafter I was walking on Main Street and was introduced to Captain John Schaefer of the Seal Beach Police Department. We both brought up the subject of police chaplaincy. I had no experience or knowledge about chaplain work and had not served in the military, so I spent a considerable amount of time learning about being a chaplain. I did ride-alongs to meet many officers and pick their minds.

Q: So there was no Chaplain program prior. How did the program at SBPD get launched?

A: I wrote a proposal for what the chaplain program should be. It was accepted and in October 2001 Chief Michael Sellers pinned the badge on me and I was introduced to the City Council as the new chaplain of the police department. During my first year I undertook training to receive Basic Certification as a chaplain.

Q: What have you experienced as a Police Chaplain?

A: I’ve done many ride-a-longs and been called out day and night for a variety of reasons: accidents, suicides, unexpected deaths, death notifications and more. Sometimes I return home in the middle of the night and need to debrief—my wife is my best listener. I’ve conducted funerals for our department’s members and families and for the community. I’ve provided ceremonial services. One of the most unusual was a little ceremony and prayer for reopening a hotel room where a suicide had taken place. The housekeepers wanted this. I’ve enjoyed meeting all the members of the department—I’ve seen many come and go over the years. In fact, only two officers remain who were serving the department when I started. It has been a thoroughly fulfilling 20 years!

Q: I know that the Salon Meritage is very significant for you, please tell me how you were impacted.

A: The murder of eight people at the Salon Meritage in 2011 is deeply embedded in the fabric of our department and community, and in many of us individually.

I was just three months from retiring as pastor of my church when this happened—the most challenging incident in my 50 years of pastoral/chaplain work. Along with many other police personnel, I spent long hours serving our community through this terrible event and its aftermath. I spoke at gatherings, including one of the funerals.

In 2012 I conducted the community’s one-year remembrance and led the salon’s reopening event.

Each year, including this year, I go to the memorial to meet with family members who gather to observe the day and time of the killings.

Nothing has touched my career more deeply than this horrific event. Seal Beach is a close-knit community and I’m thankful for any service I have rendered that has helped us heal.

Q: What else can you tell me about the Police Chaplain program?

A: For 14 years I was ably assisted in the chaplain program by George Vogel, Chief Chaplain at the Long Beach VA Medical Center. He has now retired from both chaplain roles and I deeply appreciate the service he rendered us. This year and last have been frustrating. Covid19 shut down almost all chaplain services, but we have ways to bring services to those in need through creative means. (Authors note: While most chaplains are ordained clergy, chaplain work is non-sectarian and serves everybody regardless of their religion.)

Q: Congratulations again on your 20-year Anniversary Don! Is there anything else you wanted to say?

A: I thank the chiefs of police under whom I’ve served for their confidence in me. I thank the Seal Beach community and the department for giving me opportunities to serve you. By God’s grace and strength I will continue.

Briefing Room: an interview with SBPD Senior Chaplain Donald Shoemaker