Law Enforcement Chaplains: Defining Their Roles
By Richard Braswell, Bryan Steinkopf, M.S., and Angela Beamer, M.A.
Use of chaplains to improve functioning of organizations began centuries ago with the military and continues today with hospitals, hospices, fire departments, and law enforcement agencies.1 Despite their increasing prevalence, the exact roles that chaplains fulfill vary from one organization to another. Some individuals consider the lack of a single role as a weakness in the agency’s use of chaplains.
However, one of the greatest strengths of a chaplaincy program is the ability to offer a variety of services to achieve the greatest satisfaction.2 Sixty years ago chaplaincy was in its infancy due to role conflicts, such as military officer versus clergy and religious beliefs versus participation in war.3 Over time chaplains developed and improved their abilities to assist organizations by identifying unmet needs. To maximize chaplains’ effectiveness, law enforcement agencies should specifically define their roles.
Police departments benefit immensely from chaplains’ services.4 Chaplains improve the overall functioning of law enforcement through involvement in correctional facilities, community-police relations, line-of-duty death notification and burial service facilitation, crisis intervention, and officer and department well-being.
Chaplains commonly assist corrections administrations in the fulfillment of inmates’ religious and spiritual rights as required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.5 In this capacity, chaplains help prisoners adjust psychologically to incarceration, aid in reduction of recidivism by helping them find meaning and purpose, assist with acquiring job-skills training, communicate with family, and support reentry into the community through resources and access to social networks.6
Studies indicated that inmates who engage in religious practices less likely will commit infractions while incarcerated.7 Because they are separate from law enforcement, chaplains build unique relationships with prisoners by expressing a greater degree of sympathy and providing hope for individuals who find themselves in a lonely place.8
Corrections agencies employ full-time, part-time, and volunteer chaplains.9 Individual departments decide the capacity, and many find success with a small staff of full-time chaplains who coordinate numerous volunteers. Due to shrinking budgets, volunteer chaplains prove valuable.10 They can fulfill inmates’ diverse religious needs for services, special dietary requirements, or reading materials.11 Full-time chaplains assist staff with managing the program and organizing and training volunteers, and they often achieve more education toward a chaplaincy certification.12
Mr. Braswell is a chaplain and community services specialist for the Plantation, Florida, Police Department.
Mr. Steinkopf is a police psychology research coordinator and doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Ms. Beamer is a community service aide at the Plantation, Florida, Police Department and a doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
Some correctional personnel perceive chaplains as a hindrance, specifically regarding security.13 However, if trained properly chaplains help tighten security by learning the chain of command, instructing inmates to obey officers, improving prisoner morale, and reducing the desire to break rules.14 Although limited, research on chaplains in correctional facilities recently indicated that 25 to 50 percent of inmates engaged in religious services.15
A large county sheriff’s office employed a full-time chaplain and a religious services assistant who managed a chaplaincy program supporting over 5,000 inmates in four detention facilities.16 They trained and organized 1,321 volunteers in 15 different religious denominations.17 All new volunteers attended an orientation outlining the rules of the facility and accompanied cleared individuals during the first two visits before they could enter alone.
To receive clearance the sheriff’s office required a recommendation from a religious organization, complete orientation, and a background check. A request system facilitated the needs for individual visits, specific dietary requests, special apparel, materials, and group services. Inmates made between 2,000 and 3,000 requests per year for individual visits with a clergy member.18 Chaplains conducted approximately 225 services weekly, in addition to special services for religious holidays.19 Prisoners received thousands of donated religious materials, such as texts and apparel, each year. Segregated individuals, such as juveniles and sex offenders, received services separately.
Chaplains foster relationships between law enforcement officers and the public. Community-police relationships sometimes become impaired because individuals often have limited knowledge about the functions of the department, and officers may be skeptical toward the community.20 Chaplains can access community resources and organizations and facilitate partnerships between the department and important individuals, such as religious figures, community leaders, and local hospital administrators, to improve relationships and cooperation.
By offering invocations at community events, assisting with funeral or burial services, feeding the hungry, delivering supplies after a crisis, visiting individuals in hospitals, and aiding with death notifications, chaplains establish important networks.21 Clergy can further collaboration between officers and community members by organizing functions and presentations at senior centers or religious organizations and ensuring that the police chief attends meetings with community leaders. Improving community-police relations serves as an important function for chaplains to bring the public and police together to learn how to support each other.
Too many departments encounter the tragedy of a line-of-duty death of a law enforcement officer. Chaplains serve as a resource for the administration, the fallen officer’s family, and the department’s civilian personnel and officers as they cope with the loss of one of their own. A chaplain may accompany the police chief to inform the family of an officer’s injury or death. It is imperative that they are the first ones to notify the next of kin.
The department should arrange to prevent the media from disturbing relatives and to secure the quickest route to the family’s home. It is important for the chaplain to be aware of the family’s religious and cultural customs regarding death and grieving. After the notification, the chaplain can serve as a counselor for emotional and spiritual support, an assistant to inform other family members, a liaison with the department, a funeral officiant, a business agent to help with benefits and arrange for contact with service providers, and an information specialist to explain how law enforcement funerals proceed.22
Often, upon the death of an officer, families lose 50 to 100 percent of their income.23 Assisting them with obtaining financial benefits usually proves crucial for the family’s well-being. An attentive, well-informed, empathetic chaplain has an immense impact as the department expresses support. The chaplain can maintain contact with relatives after the funeral by calling on the anniversary of the officer’s death and staying informed of their emotional and financial needs. Continuing contact proves particularly important if there will be a trial for the person who killed the officer.
In addition to providing support to families of deceased officers, chaplains assist police by serving as a liaison between officers, hospital staff, and relatives to keep everyone informed of the status of any injured officers. Additionally, chaplains often participate in critical-incident debriefings following an officer’s death.
A divorced 30-year-old police officer with two small children and less than 10 years on the job was shot and killed.24 The chaplain and the agency’s chief arrived at the ex-spouse’s place of employment to provide notification of the death and to offer transportation to the hospital. The chaplain rode with the ex-wife and talked with her enroute. The ex-wife relied on the chaplain to contact the officer’s parents and to move other officers to a separate room in the hospital so that she could be alone with her ex-husband. Her greatest concern was how to tell the children that their father died. The chaplain contacted the appropriate local agency, and personnel notified the officer’s parents. Clergy arranged for security at the woman’s home and stayed with her throughout the viewing and funeral. Afterward, the chaplain offered long-term support by expressing availability and offering to contact the woman on the anniversary of the officer’s death.
Law enforcement chaplains apply their training in emotion and stress management, diversity, and spirituality to help communities and agencies in times of crisis.25 Chaplains also help police by remaining available to various special teams. For example, they could assist a crisis response team during negotiations and serve as a resource for officers during situations and debriefings.26 They help community members, families of police officers, law enforcement personnel, suspects, and victims by offering counseling or providing other services, such as referrals to local clergy or mental health professionals. A chaplain’s assistance during a crisis can free officers to fulfill other duties.27
A motorcycle accident left one boy dead and drew a throng of over 30 people.28 The crowd included many emotional witnesses, friends, and family members expressing anger, fear, sadness, guilt, and confusion. A chaplain arrived and began using phrases, such as “Please help me” and “Love and care for each other,” to manage the group and direct them away from the crash site.29 The chaplain identified the most rational individuals, used their influence to unite the crowd over their shared loss, and led them in an impromptu prayer service. This calmed them and enabled law enforcement officers to investigate without interference. After the incident, the chaplain notified family members and assisted with funeral arrangements.
One main role chaplains play in law enforcement agencies is fostering officer well-being.30 They provide spiritual and psychological hope by establishing rapport and offering counseling. Chaplains serve as peacekeepers during crises and supporters at funerals and burials where individuals experience deep emotions. They connect with officers during off-duty time at events, such as weddings and funerals.31 Often, law enforcement chaplains assist with funerals by helping families prepare, contacting friends and family, arranging for flowers and donations, and officiating services. These personal interactions increase the likelihood that officers will seek the chaplain as a future resource. Chaplains build rapport through open-door policies, around-the-clock availability, free services, counseling, hospital visitation, and work with religious leaders.32 They prove invaluable for strengthening an officer’s spirituality.33
Following the motorcycle accident that resulted in the young boy’s death, the chaplain felt concerned for the well-being of officers at the scene of the crash. The chaplain identified officers with children around the same age as the boy who died and monitored their reactions over the next month by communicating with the on-scene supervisor and attending roll calls.
In addition to assisting individual officers, chaplains are essential to the functioning of the department. They assume multiple roles and serve as liaisons, counselors, business agents, spiritual guides, and community outreach specialists. One way they support police departments is by maintaining awareness of local crises and citizens’ needs.
Police chiefs can inform chaplains of specific agency requests, further increasing their effectiveness and value to the department. Chaplains attend roll calls to receive and provide updates and memorial information. Law enforcement inherently is a stressful profession that can negatively affect officers’ functioning at work and at home.34 Chaplains can address this stress by counseling officers regarding their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Due to the sensitivity of some services, agencies must define clearly where chaplains’ roles begin and end.35 As emphasized in chaplains’ training programs, they must not push religion or specific religious beliefs.36 Chaplains serve all employees of a law enforcement agency, not just the sworn officers. They must follow the chain of command like all department personnel. In addition, chaplains must not do anything that could interrupt or impede departmental duties, such as conducting criminal investigations or participating excessively in ride-alongs.
Chaplains must convey that their services are available but not mandatory. Successful strategies for demonstrating availability include an open-door policy, flexible communication methods (e.g., in person, e-mail, text, telephone, at the department, or outside the agency), 24-hour availability, and presence at roll calls and meetings.37 Chaplains must maintain confidentiality, even if serving in a volunteer position.
They should understand the chain of command and inform department leaders that they will not break confidentiality, even if requested to do so by an employee’s supervisors. Departments can describe the chaplain’s specific duties in writing in a standard operating procedure (SOP). Leaders should ensure that all chaplains receive the necessary training and ecclesiastical endorsement.
Various organizations employ chaplains; however, sometimes their specific roles are unclear. This ambiguity exists because they often serve in several different positions. Within the law enforcement community, these responsibilities could involve corrections, community-police relations, line-of-duty deaths, crisis interventions, officer well-being, and departmental functioning. A variety of factors, such as the agency’s size, needs, and financial resources, determine how a department will use a chaplain. To maximize the benefits, both parties must define and agree on the chaplain’s roles.
For additional information Mr. Braswell may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, Mr. Steinkopf at email@example.com, and Ms. Beamer at Angela.Beamer@gmail.com.