Rev. William Hamilton first Easthampton police chaplain

Last modified: Friday, June 21, 2013

EASTHAMPTON — The newest person to wear an Easthampton Police Department badge is not a young recruit. He is a 60-year-old Catholic priest who said he will devote himself to supporting the city’s officers as they deal with a demanding, sometimes dangerous job.

The Rev. William J. Hamilton, a longtime area priest now working in adminstration for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, was sworn in as the Police Department’s chaplain Wednesday. The volunteer position comes with a range of possible responsibilities, from being a good listener to officers involved in traumatic incidents to helping them break the news of a fatal accident to a family.

“A lot of officers already know him, they already have trust in him, so I figured it was a perfect fit,” Police Chief Bruce McMahon said of choosing the Easthampton resident as the department’s first chaplain. “We see it as another tool in our tool belt, especially because he’s trained for grief counseling. If we have any event and officers need to talk to someone, he’s there.”

It’s a job Hamilton, known as Father Bill by most, knows well. He is the chaplain for 11 police and fire departments in the Pioneer Valley, as well as for the State Police and the New England Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He’s part of that bureau’s National Response Team that is deployed nationwide to deal with incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook school shooting.

Dealing with those kinds of traumatic situations is not necessarily in a priest’s job description, but Hamilton said he’s known it was his mission since three months after he was ordained.

It was October 1980 and the Worcester native was driving in Pittsfield when a vehicle broadsided him and crushed his car around him. “I heard myself pronounced dead,” he recalled. “I heard someone saying, ‘Forget about him, he’s gone, go help the other guy.’”

But a veteran police officer who arrived moments later took a closer look, breaking the back window of the car and climbing in to check Hamilton for signs of life. He realized that Hamilton was alive but his stiff clerical collar, because of the position of his body, was blocking his windpipe. The officer held his head up so he could breathe during his hourlong extraction from the vehicle.

He spent 17 days at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, treated for injuries including a compound fracture of the femur, a concussion and a kidney contusion. It took him another six months to recover completely.

“During that time I realized that that police officer saw something no one else did because of his longevity and experience,” Hamilton said. “So I see it as my job to help keep good police officers on the job. They have a demanding job.”

His job is demanding, too. Any time the phone rings, he might be called to the scene of an infant mortality or a gunned-down police officer. Some people might want to stop answering the phone, but Hamilton said he feels blessed.

“I’ve been blessed with the gift to be able to deal with it, and the men and women I’ve worked with have been an inspiration to me,” he said. “When everyone is running away from something, they run towards it, and I run with them.”

Helping his heroes

Sitting in his home office in the rectory of the former Notre Dame Parish on Pleasant Street, Hamilton said he loves his work. “I wouldn’t change a thing — well, I might skip the accident,” he said with a grin.

He has a good sense of humor and a familiar, disarming manner that McMahon said has endeared him to officers.

During his career, Hamilton has been named chaplain in almost every community where he has been a priest. One of the first things he did when he went to work at a different church, he said, was introduce himself and offer his services at the police and fire stations. He is chaplain of police or fire departments in Northampton, Greenfield, Holyoke, Westfield, West Springfield and other communities.

He became a certified EMT in 1988 and worked as a volunteer EMT in Chicopee for the next dozen years. “I got a lot of incredible on-the-street experience,” he said.

He is coordinating chaplain for the State Police, a position that got him another as the first chaplain for the New England Division of the ATF and later, as part of their National Response Team.

Most recently, he hasn’t had to travel that far to respond to tragedies. He was in Newtown, Conn., hours after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting Dec. 14.

He said that in his experience, first responders most need someone to talk to after violent incidents involving children. After the shooting, he spent a week in the emergency operations center in Newtown, working with ATF and FBI agents, U.S. marshals and local emergency responders. “It added to their stress because they knew these kids, they were their coaches, or their kids’ friends,” he said of the locals.

After the marathon bombing April 15, Hamilton spent most of three and a half weeks in the lobby of Boston’s Lenox Hotel, which was the emergency operations center. He counseled and listened to federal, state and local law enforcement, medical personnel who treated victims, and even the hotel employees who saw the bombings that were nearly on the hotel’s doorstep. Part of it was just trying to be a “calming presence” in the lobby as men and women in uniform constantly flowed in and out.

“It’s been a lot lately,” he said of the tragedies he has seen. “In the last year, there was Kevin Ambrose, Jose Torres, then Newtown, then Boston.”

When Officer Kevin Ambrose was gunned down in Springfield on June 4, 2012, Hamilton was at the hospital consoling fellow officers or family members. When Officer Jose Torres was killed in Westfield by a dump truck while on traffic detail on July 26, 2012, Hamilton helped arrange the funeral and comforted his colleagues.

In fact, on Wednesday he dedicated his chaplaincy in Easthampton to the memories of Ambrose, Torres and MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, killed in Boston after the Boston Marathon bombings.

“Every time they put the uniform on or pin on that badge, there’s a possibility they won’t come home that night,” Hamilton said. “It’s an unspoken thing, but it’s there.”

A friend in need

Hamilton said he first got to know the Easthampton Police when he was pastor of Easthampton’s Immaculate Conception Church from 2000 to 2005. He left town to be the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Northampton, but moved back two years ago when it closed. He now works as director of worship for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

McMahon said he and other officers have known for years that they could always call Hamilton, and the chaplaincy just makes the relationship “more formal.”

For example, McMahon noted that officers discovered the body of the late Jessica Ann Pripstein, found slain in her apartment, Feb. 20, 2012, and he wasn’t surprised to hear from Hamilton the next day.

“He said, ‘If you need anything, day or night, call and I’ll come help,’” McMahon said.

Hamilton said officers seemed to handle the homicide — for which Pripstein’s boyfriend, Ryan Welch, will soon stand trial — as well as can be expected emotionally. “They’re able to compartmentalize it, as horrific as it is,” he said. “My job is to make sure there isn’t anything residual left over, affecting their lives. I don’t want them to lose sleep.”

Beyond tragedies and the dangers of the job, just the daily stresses of working as an emergency responder are enough for many to need someone to talk to, he said. Their demanding schedules might mean working holidays or missing anniversaries, he said, which can try relationships.

“My job is to remind them to take care of themselves,” he said. “Everyone is stressed; the process is about keeping people from being distressed.”

He also has to take time to maintain his emotional health. “I have many people I defuse with; people who call me and make sure I’m doing OK,” he said.

Hamilton said his next move in his new post is to do ride-alongs with officers to get to know them and, mostly, to listen. The chat might mean an officer will feel more comfortable calling him if he or she is having trouble coping, and Hamilton said he is ready for that call anytime.

“It’s been a blessing for me to get this experience over the years and to be able to respond to these horrific events to help people get through it and move on,” he said. “Because we can’t protect ourselves from all these things, we just have to help each get through it.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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