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Sarah Horner, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published March 31 2012

Sheriff’s chaplain ends counseling career

ST. PAUL – Added up, the number of hours Nev Crowther has spent riding in squad cars equal more than a year.

Crowther also has walked through countless bloody crime scenes, consoled hundreds of victims and, on a couple of occasions, helped catch the bad guy.

He’s not a cop. For nearly 25 years, the white-haired chaplain served as the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office’s “one-man God squad,” as a few of his longtime deputy friends call him, before recently retiring.

Though the 77-year-old’s tenure included many late hours and sad events, he also formed some strong bonds.

“In some ways, it is hard to go. ... I’ve made dear friends,” Crowther said of the police officers and deputies he’s worked with. “But it was getting more and more difficult for me to get out of bed at 2 a.m.”

Along with the Bible, the Lutheran pastor said, his “affinity for red lights and sirens” drew him to chaplaincy, where ordained or trained clergy provide spiritual support and pastoral care to law enforcement officers and people in crisis.

It goes back to his days working as a firefighter in Pennsylvania. Then, in the 1970s, he and his wife moved to Lincoln, Neb., after he shifted career paths to become a pastor. A local police chief asked if he’d be interested in becoming a chaplain. On his first call, he helped a police officer convince an elderly woman that Jesus Christ was not sitting on the pipes in her basement.

Crowther interrupted his service in the ’80s, when he and his wife moved to Minnesota to start Risen Christ Lutheran Church in Grant. But he was back at it by 1988.

That was the year he and three other local pastors decided to start a chaplaincy program, which eventually became the North Suburban Police Chaplaincy Corps, a unit serving the Ramsey County sheriff’s office and seven police departments. He led the program – keeping a pager on him nightly – until his retirement in January.

Crowther recalls his first call in the Twin Cities: A man was walking home from a bar in early spring when he decided to cross Lake Josephine in Roseville. He fell through the ice and died. Crowther had to tell the victim’s family.

“It was sad,” Crowther recalled. “We’ve got five kids. I can only imagine what it’d be like if one of them turned up dead.”

Crowther has been the bearer of bad news for many families. After homicides, suicides and accidents countywide over the past two decades, Crowther could be seen walking up to residents’ doors alongside an officer. Once inside, he would gather everyone in the house – from children to grandparents – and instruct them to sit together on a sofa and hold hands. Then he would build up to his news gradually, first telling the family there had been a terrible accident, then saying their loved one was involved and finally telling them he or she had died.

“You must use the word dead, and you must use it more than once,” Crowther said. “People need to hear the word, so they can begin to cope with the reality ... otherwise they don’t believe it’s happening, and they need to.”

Afterward, “you hug and hug and hug and hug,” Crowther said.

With his wife and kids at home, and a congregation to lead during the day, Crowther would often stay late into the night at strangers’ homes, providing comfort, information about funeral planning and, when appropriate, connecting them with clergy.

He’s racked up a lot of stories. Seared in his mind are memories of mothers crying after losing their children to sudden infant death syndrome and times he was called to respond to deaths of police officers.

Remembering years later, Crowther still tears up, as he said he did on nearly every one of his death notifications.

“Somebody who is special to these people has died, and these people are hurting,” Crowther said. “It’s my job to connect with them, so I can comfort them ... I would tear (up) every time.”

His colleagues have stories, too.

Sgt. Phil Chelstrom of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office likes to tell one about the time Crowther was with him on a domestic abuse call. He was looking for a suspect who had fled on foot and was hiding in an industrial area after dark. Crowther told Chelstrom he thought he saw someone in a nearby bush. Chelstrom grabbed his flashlight and started looking. Crowther started barking.

“Seriously, just like a dog ... and it worked. The guy came out and got down on the ground going, ‘Where’s the dog?’ ” Chelstrom said. “I booked the guy because of Nev barking like a dog .... I love that story.

“Nev’s not very tall, but he has a firm stature and a commanding voice,” Chelstrom added. “When he speaks, people listen.”

Deputy Kristi Ptaszek remembers Crowther showing up for her first homicide. He wasn’t riding with her that night, but he heard her rattled voice over the radio and showed up at the scene. He worked a SIDS death with her a week later, and Ptaszek watched as he baptized the child to comfort the family. They cried together after they left, Ptaszek said.

“I wish there were more people in the world like him,” Ptaszek said. “He really knows how to care.”

His work wasn’t only for victims’ families. A large part of Crowther’s job was interacting with and counseling officers, especially those who worked nights and had more frequent encounters with the harsher side of society.

While other chaplains rode along on calls once every four to six weeks, Crowther often went weekly and mostly on the overnight shift. Over time, he developed strong friendships with the officers. A few have asked him to preside at their weddings. He’s also done baptisms and a few funerals.

“He was dedicated far above the rest of us,” said Nils Friberg, another chaplain with the north suburban unit. “When Nev walks in to a room full of police officers, they come around him like flies to a jar of honey. ... They have a lot of respect for him.”

That’s partly because of the empathy officers felt from Crowther, said Ramsey County Deputy Joe Ptaszek. Crowther married Joe and Kristi Ptaszek, and the pair still regularly spend time with Crowther and his wife.

“If Nev Crowther wasn’t a religious leader, he would be a cop,” Joe Ptaszek said. “He understands who we are and what we do, and I don’t think a lot of other people do.”

All the years on the job, Crowther said, he would repeat the same prayer on the way to a crime scene or as he walked up to a house to deliver bad news. “I said, ‘Lord, help me to be useful.’ ”

By all accounts, he was.