By Katie Mulvaney
Journal Staff Writer
BARRINGTON, R.I. — People attending the Mothers Against Drunk Driving candlelight vigil last month might not have expected what lay ahead.
Barrington Police Chief John M. LaCross welcomed the crowd by asking the auditorium of 400 or so to place their feet flat on the floor and close their eyes.
He then guided them through an 11-minute meditation that entailed deep breathing, relaxation and a visualization of a loved one they had lost as music tinkled in the background. LaCross led the crowd in the dimmed room through what he calls “The Visit.”
He invited them to view a light: “As you get closer to the light, you notice a person is in the center waiting for you. … This person is your special loved one who has passed over into the Spirit World.”
See their face, their smile, he said. That person wants you to release any sadness, loneliness, fear, anger, guilt. Onlookers sunk deep into their seats. Tears flowed. Sniffles could be heard.
LaCross has guided families stricken by drunken driving through a meditation each year except one since 2006. His objective is to let them know they are not alone in their grief, that their loved one is always with them and hears their prayers.
Loss is a subject close to LaCross. His older brother’s suicide in 1979 launched him on his spiritual journey.
LaCross’ brother Joseph took his own life at Wesleyan University, where the 20-year-old hockey player and psychology major stood months away from graduation. LaCross was a junior at the University of Rhode Island at the time.
“It made me always go on a quest to find out the truth. Is he alive?” LaCross said recently in his office as music softly played. His brother Joey’s photo looked down from the windowsill.
LaCross began exploring the world of psychics and mediums. He attended a medium class led by Maureen Hancock more than a decade ago. Hancock sensed a presence. She described features that fit LaCross’ brother. Finally, LaCross raised his hand.
“It was your brother, wasn’t it?” Hancock said. “I said ‘Yes,’” he said.
“ ‘He’s with you. He’s with you every day. He’s your guardian angel,’” LaCross recalls her saying.
“For me that was life-changing,” LaCross said. “I just felt so connected to him.”
LaCross began as Barrington’s police chief in 2002. He came to the department from the Rhode Island State Police, where he had risen to second in command.
He wrote his first version of The Visit after being asked to welcome families to the MADD vigil by its executive director, Gabrielle Abbate. She advised him to talk about statistics, and perhaps underage drinking since two Barrington teens had recently died in a drunken-driving crash.
“I’m thinking, ‘You know what, these people don’t want to hear that. They want to reconnect with their loved one.’ ”
Close to 400 people were on hand for that first guided meditation. State troopers filled the front row. “I was like ‘Oh my God,’” he said. He forged ahead, inspired by his brother.
LaCross’ spiritual side might come as a surprise to some. For years, he kept it to himself.
“Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t be speaking to you,” said LaCross, his hair flecked with gray. He recounted being struck by the timing of the request for an interview about The Visit. He had minutes earlier looked at the photo of his brother on the visor of his cruiser, consulting him about needing a spiritual push.
“If it helps others, that’s the most important thing,” he said.
Abbate believes he’s doing just that.
“When he started this, as surprising as it was … we were, on a personal level, touched by it,” Abbate said.
She saw tears that first vigil. She heard gasps. Some attendees fidgeted. She encountered her late sister.
“We keep doing it because, the people we are there to service, most of them gain a lot of solace,” she said.
She was impressed that LaCross wore his uniform at the most recent vigil at Smithfield High School as dozens of municipal and state police training recruits looked on.
“His message was bigger than any law-enforcement uniform could hold,” Abbate said. “I think it’s amazing for someone who’s been in law enforcement as long as he’s been.”
LaCross works to achieve balance through yoga and by meditating 20 to 30 minutes each night by candlelight. If his mind races, he envisions placing the thought on a shelf in the closet. He concentrates on breathing in and out.
He is a Reiki master, meaning he is trained in healing-touch therapies he has extended to cancer patients at Women & Infants Hospital and to gravely ill friends and family. He believes in the healing power of energy.
He has taken five classes in grief counseling. He recently enrolled in a stress reduction program offered through the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.
“It’s my balance — the spiritual,” he said, gesturing to a desk thick with paperwork that includes the department budget. “Spirituality is so important in everyday life.”
That spirituality has helped him to deal with tragedies, including the death of a good friend to esophageal cancer. He was a friend since childhood of East Providence Capt. Alister C. McGregor, who was shot to death in a SWAT team training exercise in 2001. He is convinced life continues even after physical death.
He encourages the officers in his department to show compassion and empathy to everyone they encounter. He recognizes those individuals are often in aggressive, irritated, even out-of-control states, he says.
“It’s about compassion, respect for others, treating people with dignity,” he said, adding, “Everyone has a story, even the criminals.”
LaCross recognizes there’s a perception that police officers, public-safety workers and others in the law-enforcement arena must keep up a tough exterior.
“It’s a very difficult job being in public safety. You have to be strong in times of crisis. You can’t show emotion,” he said. “We’re all human. We just wear different clothes to work.”
He wants to bring a more holistic approach to policing and hopes one day to offer a class, perhaps during municipal training, instructing officers how to reduce their stress through mindfulness techniques.
It’s an idea being embraced by police departments elsewhere. News reports have chronicled the Hillsboro, Ore., police department’s efforts to cultivate mindfulness through yoga, meditation and breathing. That training was instituted after the sudden resignation of the police chief and a shootout between officers and one of their own. The military, too, increasingly looks to mindfulness and meditation as a way to reduce soldiers’ stress.
LaCross encourages others to speak their truth.
“Don’t fit the mold. Don’t always try to be what people think you should be. Live your passion.”