Over the past year, police chaplains have been supporting employees of police and sheriffs’ departments as they worked through the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide protests, demonstrations, and in some cities rioting following the death of George Floyd.

 PERF spoke with chaplains in four locations – New York City, Minneapolis, San Diego, and Harris County, TX – about how their work has changed over the past year. Here a few key takeaways:

  • Chaplaincy is traditionally an in-person mission, but the pandemic forced many chaplains to move to video and phone calls, emails, and text messages. In many cases, the new ways of outreach have allowed chaplains to minister to even more people than they normally would in person.
  • Even with the pandemic, many chaplains felt that this past summer’s protests and other events required that they be there in person, especially for the officers working long hours and extended days on the front lines.
  • Chaplains report that they are dealing with a range of issues and stresses among department personnel, including increased use of alcohol and even PTSD in some cases.
  • The pandemic brought challenges not only for sworn and civilian employees, but also for their families who are trying to juggle work, child care, school, and parenting. Chaplains are having to spend more time tending to the needs of family members.
  • Chaplains are having to work closely with employee assistance programs, peer counseling, and other department resources to manage the range of issues that police personnel are facing. They say it’s important to have those relationships in place before crises such as the pandemic or wide-scale protests break out.


Rev. Jonathan Recabarren, NYPD

Ministry is not work; it’s the calling we have to be present for members of the police service and their family members. This past year, the philosophy I’ve kept in mind has been “protect, preserve, provide comfort.”

Social distancing has been a concern. How do we adjust the way we go about being chaplains, which is being present for our members of the service? How do we go about doing our ministry within the department? In the beginning it was really difficult, because COVID was spreading almost like fire in the NYPD. Every command was being affected by it.

There are 11 chaplains for the entire department, so how do we go about ministering to all these individuals? We all have our unique ways of doing our work. The way I went about it was to first reach out to the commanding officers. Usually I go to commands in person, but now I was calling or texting each one to find out how the members were doing, and who the commanders were concerned about, so we could reach out to them.

Being physically present in front of them was no longer possible, but we could still be present for them through texting or FaceTime. I had FaceTime meetings with a lot of cops.

As chaplains, we establish trusting relationships with members of the service, and it was really like a phone chain. You called one member and they would say, “This other person is sick. Can you reach out to them?” It changed the way we minister. You go from meeting with one or two members of the service to speaking with 30 or 40 in one day.

It wasn’t only members of the service who were affected, but also their households and loved ones. Just last week I buried two aunts of a member who had nine family members test positive, four of whom died within a month – two grandparents and those two aunts. It’s devastating.

And there’s the isolation. Some people are isolated from their loved ones and sleeping in a different house or apartment.

The department’s resources were essential to the members of the service during the pandemic. Many of them made use of those resources. We had weekly forums on health and wellness. I attended as many as possible so that the sworn and civilian members knew that we were there for them in this time of crisis, when many people were questioning, “Why is God allowing this to take place?” We were there for them, reassuring them that, even in the midst of your questioning towards God for people becoming sick and even losing members, there was hope. I was part of Police Officers for Christ, which is a weekly forum that gathered weekly to pray. A lot of officers were calling in from patrol.

First we had the COVID crisis, which affected a large number, if not all, of the commands, and then we had the protests. Members of the service were recovering from COVID, coming back, and having to step out into the streets to protect and uphold the law, just as there were calls to “defund the police.” The morale in the department was crushed.

We used Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic, and it served its purpose to be there for them as funeral services were held and for extended condolences. But when the protests began, I needed to physically be there. Members of the service were dealing with a lot of hostility, and their lives were on the line. It really boosted their morale to know that they weren’t in this alone.

Rev. Recabarren visiting the 34th Precinct in June (Source: NYPD Chaplains Unit)


Chuck Price, San Diego, El Cajon, and Coronado Police Departments

I work with three agencies out here – San Diego, El Cajon, and Coronado – and I’m also working with the FBI. So I’m fortunate to have the perspective of working with large, medium, and small agencies.

First there was COVID, and everyone was trying to adjust. I think everyone was still feeling that things would go back to normal just around the corner. Then we had the protests, and the election campaign. It was a convergence of so many things.

Countywide, our M.O. as chaplains is to be in the cars riding with officers on patrol. We allowed our chaplains to decide whether to ride along, depending on their health and comfort level. But we’ve all been out there pretty consistently the whole time. So I’ll be riding three times this week with the three agencies, and I’ll be riding four times next week. Our rhythm didn’t change, and I feel blessed that I didn’t have to find a different way to do my chaplaincy.

So while we were in the cars, opening that relief valve all along the way over the past 10 months, I know that chaplains in some agencies were shut out. The chaplains with our local sheriff’s department were told they can’t ride with officers, so they’re trying to figure out creative ways to connect, such as division visits and Zoom calls.

I’ve been able to keep my finger on the pulse and mitigate some of these stressors, which have included everything from being angry at the world, to deaths from COVID, to impacts from the protests, to doxing of officers.

This pandemic also creates childcare issues. I spoke to a captain last week who said, “I finish my 10-hour day here, go home and do 6 hours of homework with my kid, drop into bed, and come to work the next day exhausted.” I think that’s a piece of it we don’t always consider. We think of the pandemic and what’s happening on the job, but we don’t understand these other factors.  Most of our cops are in dual-income families, so their significant other is home working while the kids are trying to stay engaged with Zoom teaching. It is a full-time job for these parents, and that is creating some stress.

There’s also short-staffing. When the protests were going on, they were going 12-on, 12-off shifts with no days off. I think top to bottom, from chiefs and commanders and captains making decisions to the officers who are affected by the command staff and city leaders, it’s just been a convergence of so many things.

We’ve seen an increase in alcohol use and alcohol-related discipline incidents. We have a robust wellness program out here, particularly the San Diego Police Department’s wellness unit. It’s not unusual for them to get calls in the middle of the night from a spouse who is worried about their loved one. They’ll respond at 2:30 in the morning to try to get resources to the family.


Rev. Joan Austin, Minneapolis Police Department

Things have drastically changed for the chaplains in Minneapolis. We used to be part of a lot of community events with the officers, and a lot those events have come to a halt.

Our chaplains are assigned to individual precincts, and I go to my precinct, the 5th, on a regular basis to check in with the officers. The atmosphere has changed quite a bit. It’s getting better. I speak at roll call and check in with officers one-on-one. As they talk to me, vent, and share their hearts, a lot of them are in different places. I pray before I arrive that God will help me “meet them where they are.”

We’ve lost a lot of officers to PTSD, and we’ve lost a lot of officers who have left the Minneapolis Police Department to go to other jobs.

We’ve had the opportunity to speak with some officers’ families. Right after the George Floyd incident, we were able to speak with the families and hear from those who wanted to talk, or vent, or share what they were going through and how it has impacted their lives. I’m able to pray with them and lift them. We sometimes don’t have the answer, but we can listen to the officers and their families.

There are three chaplains at my precinct. We make sure we’re very visible and officers know they can reach out to us, whether it’s face-to-face, by email, or in a group.

Policing is different now than what it was before the unrest. Everybody is looking for hope, and hoping things will change. We try to offer that hope.

A lot of our programming has stopped or almost stopped because of COVID and the civil unrest. We try to find a different way of being visible as chaplains. We’re doing Zoom meetings, and we go to the precinct and visit, but not as often as we did before, because we’re trying to be cautious with COVID. And I send email messages as well.

I think things are getting better to a certain extent, but we have a long way to go.


Don Savell, Harris County, TX Sheriff’s Office

I retired as a lieutenant and came back as the Director of Chaplaincy, and there’s currently a lieutenant serving as the Department Chaplain. We’re embedded with our Family Assistance Unit, which is part of our Wellness Unit. And this past year we’ve developed a Psychological Services Unit. As a sheriff’s office, we take care of both the law enforcement side and the jail side.

Our leadership recognizes the value of the chaplaincy, so we weren’t trying to build the plane while we were flying it. This was already in place and a natural fit. As soon as things started running off the rails last year with COVID, we were involved in planning, implementation, and support services. It drove home the value of developing these relationships before an incident.

Supplies became hard to find, whether it was PPE or cleaning supplies. Our community came together with support for first responders, and we were able to assemble care packages. For our employees who were out with COVID and had to isolate, it became a one-stop shop. Bureaus would send us the names of employees, we’d make contact, offer support to the family, deliver a care package to their home, and their hotels were set up. Whatever resource they wanted, we made it happen.

Savell with one of the care packages (Source: Harris County Sheriff’s Office)

Our jails are facing the same issues as our law enforcement, including added stressors and an increase in alcohol-related incidents. Our jail personnel are seeing the whole world lock down, and they’re being told that they’re going to 12-hour shifts with no days off. They’re in charge of care, custody, and control of these individuals, whether they’re in a quarantine cell block or not. They worry about being potentially exposed to the virus at the jail and going home to their families. That’s an additional stressor.

We’ve had 700-800 employees test positive, and have lost four employees to COVID. We had some who were asymptomatic, all the way up to people who were in the hospital and out for extended periods of time. We called and FaceTimed people, and that reinforced that we were there for them.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.