The Metro Nashville Police Department’s longtime chaplain is leaving, after serving in that role for more than two decades and as an officer for nearly 33 years.
James Duke became an ordained minister and a chaplain in mid-1990s, after an arrest attempt turned into a near-death experience. A woman trapped his arm in a car window and dragged him alongside her car for several minutes. In an interview with The Tennessean, Duke says the physical and emotional trauma changed him and made him want to go into ministry.
His job as a police chaplain often involved its own kind of trauma: rushing to the scene of a crime and notifying the deceased person’s family. He explained how he approached those conversations in a 2016 interview on WPLN’s podcast Movers & Thinkers.
“While I’m on the way, I’m sort of getting into the meditative mode, trying to prepare myself. Then you knock on that door … and normally start out, ‘I’m sorry, I have some disturbing news to share with you,’ ” he said.
“Then you just have to tell it. You can’t beat around the bush. You can’t use some soft words. You don’t say, ‘They passed away,’ or ‘They’re gone.’ You say ‘was killed’ and ‘is dead.’ ”
Duke also served as a support to other police officers who’d experienced trauma on the job and tried to reduce the stigma associated with seeking out counseling. Still, he said, the work he did carried a burden and often required him to “numb out” during moments of crisis.
“There’s nowhere in the city of Nashville or Davidson County that I cannot drive, that I can’t say, ‘I saw a body here, I saw a murder here, I saw a wreck here,’ ” he said in 2016. “Every time I go to these streets, it’s there.”
Listen here to the conversation with James Blake and other crisis responders as they describe how they keep calm under pressure.