Once a Beat Cop, Now a Chaplain
Michael Shochet is there when the police need backup. The moral and spiritual kind.
When Fairfax County police chaplain Michael Shochet counsels officers who have been through trauma, he knows just how intensely the experience can sear them.
Shochet (it rhymes with rocket) can still close his eyes and hear the bullets from his own past.
After growing up in a Jewish enclave in Baltimore and winning a plum job at a hometown television station as a reporter—where one of his colleagues was a young Oprah Winfrey—he followed his fascination with police and fire stories into the Baltimore Police Department academy. Then he spent a year and a half as a beat cop. But one night in particular still lingers in his memory. For years it came to him unbidden when he tried to sleep.
He had carried his shotgun as he followed three fellow officers into a housing project, searching for a fleeing suspect. When the man opened fire and hit one of the officers above his protective vest, Shochet pulled his friend to safety and ripped off his own shirt to stanch the bleeding. The officer lived, but he wasn’t the only one with scars.
“It’s 30 years away and it’s vivid. That’s what trauma does to you,” says Shochet, 55. “When something like that happens, it’s not about just the person who gets shot. All of us were traumatized.”
Now a member of the Jewish clergy, Shochet is on his third career, and his experiences in journalism and law enforcement have dovetailed unexpectedly. A cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church (where half the congregation is from Arlington), he says his television skills come in handy when he’s writing sermons and setting up live-streamed services. His police experience comes into play when he is counseling families through grief. As a cantor, Shochet specializes in music, but he also does pastoral work.
Plus, that’s not his only job. He also runs the Fairfax County Police Chaplain Unit, which has 11 chaplains representing various faiths. And he manages the 40-chaplain Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, which helps the public during emergencies and tragedies. In this role, Shochet works from the county’s emergency operations center during major events and rides along with police officers. He also teaches courses at the police academy on how to deliver death notices to families, and safeguards that police can take to protect their own spiritual health.
He warns that the “toxins of the street” can morally bankrupt an officer. (Case in point: One mentor of his in the Baltimore force later was arrested for robbing banks.)
The Rev. Ike Hendershot, chairman of the deacons at the nondenominational Expectation Church in Chantilly, says Shochet’s innovative ideas have transformed the Fairfax unit into a leading program. “He is very hard to ruffle,” Hendershot, a retired Secret Service agent, says, describing Shochet as “friendly, engaging, serious, yet loves a joke, someone who is a good listener.” His biggest fault may be that he takes on so many jobs, Hendershot adds, because he wants to be helpful.
Shochet spends about 1,500 hours each year volunteering as a police chaplain and another 20 hours as a CIA chaplain.
Meanwhile, at Rodef Shalom he has created four choirs, runs the bar and bat mitzvah coming-of-age program for youth, and visits hospitals and other places where congregants need him. With 1,700 families, the Reform congregation is the 11th-largest synagogue in the United States.
In March, the synagogue will honor him at a concert featuring student cantors he has mentored over his 20 years there. The American Conference of Cantors recently gave him a lifetime achievement award.
Shochet lives near McLean High School with his wife, Denise. Both their sons are musicians; one is in college and the other is working in Los Angeles.
Earlier in his career, Shochet says he had hoped to become a police public information officer, but no job materialized to take him off the streets of Baltimore. He found the department underfunded, the job of a beat officer unfulfilling and the realities of law enforcement to be different from what he had expected. (Baltimore’s police department has since faced criticism for the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while Gray was in police custody, which sparked riots.) In some ways, it’s even harder now. Police work in an era of omnipresent cameras, and abuse charges can be challenging and dispiriting, he says. That’s what makes the chaplain work so important.
“While police officers care deeply about us and the community in which they serve, police chaplains care about the police officers,” he says.
Shochet is often called to step in on the darkest days. He sat in the chaplain’s tent at the Pentagon, smelling burning jet fuel the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A year later, he helped officers through the stress of the Washington sniper shootings. He has counseled police after the killings of officers.
Last summer, he supported police after an officer he knew committed suicide in the parking lot of the McLean district station. It’s heavy work, but he says he has finally found the fulfillment that was missing in his first two careers.
“I’m there to walk with them through the tragedy or trauma they are dealing with,” says Shochet, whose beard and dark hair are flecked with gray. “I’m holding up a mirror for their spirituality.”
As in any profession, there are some bad cops, but many of the good ones are demoralized, he says, by the constant scrutiny and criticism of their work when they are trying to help.
“They need more than ever to have volunteers pat them on the back,” he says, “and say they are important to society.”
Tamara “Tammy” Lytle is a writer from Northern Virginia who covers politics and anything else interesting. She wrote about homelessness in the November/December issue.