By Brittany Dunn
Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Dallas County
As the summer of 2005 came to an end, thousands in New Orleans were displaced due to the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Men, women, and children poured into nearby cities for refuge after their lives were turned upside down. Some were seeking shelter, some were seeking loved ones, but most were seeking hope.
Among those at the Baton Rouge River Center, in his “Disaster Relief” shirt, stood Dr. Edward Smith. As he made his way through the crowd, a woman looked over and asked, “Are you here to sell me something?” “No,” he replied. She fired back: “Are you staying in one of those fancy hotels?” “No,” he replied again. Then another question: “Are you getting paid to be here?” Again, “No.”
After studying him with a skeptical eye, she finally asked, “Then why are you here?” His answer was two-fold: “To care for you as a fellow human being and to provide spiritual and emotional care as a chaplain.”
As the woman slowly let her guard down, she and Dr. Smith began to get to know each other. The even read the Bible together while ministering to others close by. When he offered a parting word of prayer, something remarkable happened: hundreds throughout the complex stood and bowed their heads—joining hands, joining hearts.
This is the environment where Chaplain Edward Smith is most comfortable—a space where hope and compassion are truly needed. He has been bringing that care, both spiritual and emotional, to the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office for almost four years.
Working at the DA’s Office
Chaplain Smith doesn’t just follow disaster, although he’s trained for it. A certified trauma specialist, he studied under H. Norman Wright, one of the leading authors in crisis response. He’s provided care to others during mass shootings, plant explosions, and loss of loved ones—trauma both expected and unexpected and of course during natural disasters. These days however, he is often found walking the halls of the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office talking with prosecutors, investigators, and staff.
It started as a chance meeting with our office’s Chief Investigator, Robert Miller, back in 2016, which led to discussions on the importance of chaplaincy in law enforcement. Although Dr. Smith is not a licensed peace officer, due to his crisis training, he knows the job (and the burdens that go along with it) well. With the support of the then-District Attorney, counseling sessions between Dr. Smith and investigators began, and soon enough the entire office staff joined in.
While he has doctorates of both Divinity and Ministry, Smith is quick to point out that his work is not necessarily what you might think. It is not religious (although it could be). It is not motivational speaking (although it could be). It is not Christian counseling (although it could be). His interactions are whatever staffers want it to be. He has conducted one-on-one sessions, he’s worked with small groups, and he has even brought comfort to all 508 of us at once when our office faced an unexpected tragedy this year. No group is too small or too large for him. In fact, there are times when he brings back-up in the form of therapy dogs, my personal favorite.
The services he offers, the resources he provides, and his very presence in our hallways are about so much more than religion. His visits with DA staff are based on relationships and compassion. “My concern is always for the person I’m talking to, not what he or she represents or believes,” he says.
Smith, who is certified in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), is particularly attuned to the emotional challenges those in law enforcement experience in their work. Prosecutors, peace officers, and first responders in particular are exposed to some of the most gruesome and heart-wrenching circumstances involving child and elder abuse, family violence, sexual assault, and senseless deaths. Day in and day out, we study crime scenes, pour over offense and autopsy reports, and conduct witness interviews with victims or their families. Every day, we see the effects of addiction and mental illness and we are faced with the anger, tears, and heartbreak of our community, but we do it each day, over and over, to preserve safety, order, and justice. It can come at a price, however.
To combat the professional and emotional burnout that often accompanies this job, Chaplain Smith provides emotional support to staff, regardless of religious beliefs. “I’m here to provide emotional care,” he explains. “If someone wants to talk about his or her religious beliefs, that is great—we can do that. If not, that’s great—we don’t have to. We can just talk about something else. Prosecutors and police give so much of themselves to their community, their victims, and their agencies. I am not here to give advice or push a particular religion. I have no other agenda than to listen, provide encouragement, and provide resources to those who are exposed to so much negativity.”
Smith is well-versed on legalities and is aware of potential conflicts when talking to DA staff. The fact of the matter, however, is that the District Attorney’s Office is called upon to see that justice is done above all else; doing so involves many things, including maintaining the health of the organization and those it employs. Time and time again, we see people at their very worst, both defendants and victims; and while we’d love to leave our work at the office, the reality is that it stays with us, follows us home, and impacts our thoughts and relationships. Yes, that emotional investment contributes to our passion for justice and compassion for victims of crime. However, that same emotional investment has the potential to destroy our mental well-being and even be counterproductive to our criminal justice efforts.
Listening to investigators and prosecutors unload their thoughts, feelings, and concerns is a spiritual burden in and of itself, and it’s not his only job. Dr. Smith currently serves as the District Chaplain Director for the Dallas Community College System. Additionally, he still deploys as a Disaster Response Chaplain for numerous organizations while serving as an Adjunct Professor at Cedar Valley College. With all of his many obligations, one wonders why Smith feels responsible to help, especially at no cost to the county or DA staff. “I do what I do because we are called to love our neighbors,” he explains. “I call this my faith in action. I’m simply here to help, and like the prosecutors and investigators I work with, I’m here until the job is done.”