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How a police chaplaincy can help cops and civilians

The key to a successful departmental chaplaincy is contact — there must be enough chaplains strategically placed who are artful in “reaching out and touching someone”

By Bill Gralnick

Most people think a police chaplain’s role is limited to standing in his or her Class A uniform to bring God’s touch to the proceedings at weddings, baptisms, confirmations and other ceremonial situations.

That is not the case at the Palm Beach County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office (PBSO), nor should it be in your department.

The 35 chaplains at PBSO have seen – either during ridealongs or call-outs – virtually everything a deputy has seen. A shortlist would include:

  • Car vs. train accidents;
  • The aftermath of a man literally beheading his wife with a shotgun blast;
  • One chaplain handling three civilian suicides in a space of 18 hours;
  • Multiple accidental and non-accidental deaths of infants and toddlers;
  • The 0300 hours call from an officer in crisis;
  • Aftermaths of gang assassinations/drive-by shootings.

An All-Volunteer Chaplaincy

The law enforcement chaplain should fill the role of his or her mirror image in the military. The chaplain should be there for and with “the troops.”

The PBSO all-volunteer chaplaincy racks up about 3,000 hours a year. In doing so, they provide an invaluable service to PBSO’s 4,000 employees – sworn and non-sworn – as well as countless civilians who are found traumatized at scenes we cover.

One of the important services a chaplain provides is enabling on-scene deputies and CSIs to do their jobs. Chaplains tend to those whose emotions have overtaken them and need interventions so that the deputy doesn’t have to.

At a “hot” domestic shooting scene, a PBSO chaplain scurried family members out of the back as the response cars rolled up to the front. At a civilian suicide, a chaplain ushered the shocked adults and children into a room for prayer and counseling so the deputies and CSIs could tape off the scene and get to work. At a civilian street disturbance, one particularly cheeky chaplain was able to sidle up to a heckler and lower the volume and tone of the vituperative comments through diversion. PBSO has a corps of chaplains who have been certified in CIT just so they can handle such incidents. Others are certified in disaster training.

Helping Those in Need

The emotional stress that comes with the job of being a cop – and the self-isolation after the day’s events –creates a group of people highly susceptible to drinking, divorce, abusive behavior and PTSD. Cops need chaplains.

The key to a successful departmental chaplaincy is contact – if you have enough chaplains strategically placed who are artful in “reaching out and touching someone,” two things will happen. Successful interactions will take place and the word will get around. Once calls for a chaplain begin to come directly to a chaplain from the on-scene sergeant or deputy, the chaplaincy has made its mark.

In larger departments, chaplains should be assigned to district offices, sub-stations, and headquarters. In some departments – like Miami Beach – they have the run of the entire headquarters building. They are seen enough so as not to be seen as out of place.

Aside from being assigned locally, chaplains need to drop in to say ‘hi’ every once in a while. They need to leave cards, show up at line-ups, and send emails to folks they’ve had encounters with. In PBSO’s case, chaplains have inexpensive replicas of the unit’s challenge coin to give to those they’ve tended to or interacted with – when a cloud builds, all an officer needs to do is touch it to remember that help is but a call away.

The specialty unit is the toughest challenge. Its members are often part of “mini-departments” who rarely interact with the rest of the agency. Their members are uniquely bonded – they are “the toughest nuts to crack.” The best nutcracker is a chaplain assigned to that unit who understands that commitment will be the key to the door and servicing the unit is like becoming part of a tight-knit family with all its perks – and aggravations.

At PBSO, we successfully staff marine, aviation, K-9, and domestic violence units. We are working hard to increase acceptance with SWAT and TAC. Some, because of the work – and the workers – are very difficult to staff. Gangs, Commo, and Narcotics are three examples. With these, the lead chaplain needs to be in regular contact with the commander and gain that commander’s trust, so that when the “if” becomes the “now,” the commander can make the proper pairings.

A Diverse Group

Finally, the chaplaincy should be diverse and non-denominational. Its diversity needs to mirror as closely as possible the department and the community. Our chaplains are of different faiths, ethnicities, and genders. As a non-denominational chaplaincy, the individual chaplain is prepared to serve anyone — yet with religious, ethnic, and gender diversity, specific interventions can be made.

Chaplaincy will help create and keep a spiritually grounded department.

About the Author
William A. Gralnick was a specialist in interfaith and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee for 33 years. He has served in meaningful law enforcement volunteer positions in Stamford, Conn., Atlanta, Miami, Boca Raton, Florida, and for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office where is he finishing a second career as the unit manager for its chaplaincy.