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Back to Archives | Back to November 2003 Contents 

Law Enforcement Chaplaincy in Sonoma County

David R. Powell, Senior Chaplain and Executive Director, Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service, Sonoma County, California, and Michael A. Dunbaugh, Chief of Police, Santa Rosa, California

A father asks his teenage son to get him a box of shells for his AK-47 rifle, then goes in the back yard and shoots himself to death. His children, 17, 13, and 8, are in the house. The deputies arrive. They call for a chaplain. The mother comes home from shopping and three chaplains are there caring for her children, and then caring for her. Later, they conduct the funeral and then keep returning for months to support the family through their distress.

An officer has to make a deadly force decision and shoots a suspect to death. Although fully justified, the officer has deep feelings. He shares his feelings with the chaplain he has come to know during ride-along. The chaplain merely listens. It is a healing experience.

A young man knifes to death an employee of a trophy store. The other employees are shocked and horrified by the bloody killing of their friend. A chaplain is called to help the coroner notify the victim's mother and to help her deal with grief. Meanwhile, the business owner asks for chaplains to give grief counseling to his eight employees. Two employees are reluctant to return to work where the murder took place. Chaplains are there when the employees return to work and help to transform the crime scene into a shrine to the memory of their friend. The employees are able to return to work.

All of these incidents, plus 400 others involving chaplains, have taken place in Sonoma County, California, in the last five years.


The Chaplaincy Program
Sonoma County, California, north of San Francisco Bay, is home to the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service. The service has 58 trained chaplains who respond immediately to all parts of the county when called by any one of 18 law enforcement, fire, or emergency response agencies (state, county, or municipal) to a tragedy where there is need for emotional support. The chaplains pride themselves on arriving in timely fashion to every call for help.

The need is real. Many times, police officers can provide help to people whose lives have just been shattered by tragedy, but officers must abruptly leave to get on to the next call for help. Not only are the citizens in need left without comfort but the police officers feel they have not provided the service needed. In Sonoma County the officers are able to introduce a chaplain, who will not do anything "religious" unless asked, to comfort the victims and their families while the officers return to service to tend to their policing duties. In this way the chaplaincy is supporting our peace officers, emergency service providers, and the citizens in need.


Uncommon Aspects of the Program
Using a model for chaplaincy developed in Sacramento, California, and materials from the International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC), a nonprofit religious corporation was formed in Sonoma County. This organization is directed by a board, which is made up of law enforcement officers, religious leaders, and citizens from throughout the county. The participating agencies actively recruit chaplain candidates, who are then screened and trained in a six-month chaplains academy modeled after the citizen police academies and offering the subjects required for basic certification by the ICPC. Upon graduation, the chaplains commit themselves to be available two days a month on a callout schedule that has a primary on-call chaplain and two backups at all times.

In addition to serving on call for citizen emergencies, each graduate of the chaplains academy is also assigned to a particular group of officers to support. The members of the chaplaincy program are available to the officers at any time.

Laypersons Welcome: An uncommon aspect of Sonoma County's experience is that the primary requisite for entry into the program is a verifiable reputation in a worshipping community as a loving person who is sought after for wisdom and comfort by others, and not formal ordination by a judicature. Thus, the Sonoma Chaplaincy ensures the inclusion of laypersons, providing gender, ethic, racial, and religious balance. The 58 chaplains in the program today represent five world religions and 10 Christian denominations.

No Religious Doctrine: In the forming of this chaplaincy program there was contention over issues of religious doctrine. Religion by its very nature separates people based upon beliefs. If designers are not careful, an unintended consequence of a program based on religious doctrine is that it separates the group. A good chaplain program focuses on bringing together, not dividing or fragmenting, the organization.

It became apparent that a new ingredient had to be introduced to the Sonoma chaplaincy concept. A rule was introduced that prohibits discussing one's church and doctrine, both between chaplains and with others, unless specifically asked. This has solved a problem that threatened to destroy the ministry. With that rule, and the focus on loving people rather than teaching them, the spirit of teamwork and mutual bonding is exemplary.

Confessions: Another unique aspect of Sonoma County's program is that the bylaws provide formal commissioning of all chaplains, including the laypersons, by the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service. The chaplaincy service is an incorporated religious organization as law enforcement chaplains who are specifically tasked to hear penitential communications and therefore qualify for protection from subpoena under the California Evidence Code. This is important because lay members of the Sonoma chaplaincy would not otherwise have this protection.


Still Growing
The LECS is growing in acceptance daily. Most seasoned law enforcement executives did not expect county residents and emergency service providers to accept the program as quickly and thoroughly as they have. The Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service represents the best of a community using its own outstanding resources to take care of itself-an effort that will undoubtedly become more important with time. ♦

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From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 11, November 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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