By Janis Fontaine
When tragedy or terror strikes in Delray Beach, after the police and fire rescue crews roll out, they call the police chaplain on duty. Father Bernie Pecaro supervises the clergy who respond.
The job of police chaplains is twofold: They support the public on what is often the worst time of their lives, and they serve the first responders directly by counseling them and providing comfort to their families.
“We’re there for all of them,” Father Bernie said, wherever they are needed. Their calming presence is welcomed.
The Rev. Bernard J. Pecaro, as he’s formally known, is associate rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and chief chaplain for the Delray Beach Police Department. He supervises six chaplains (including one rabbi) and is trying to recruit more.
Right now, the team doesn’t have a Catholic member, not that it matters. Chaplains minister to all people of all faiths. A chaplain is on call 24/7, Father Bernie said, and if the first on-call person can’t come, the second person goes. But a chaplain always shows up.
Like many chaplains, Father Bernie first served as a military chaplain. He received his commission into the Navy, Chaplain Corps, Reserve, in 1987, and he ministered to the Sea Services of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard until his retirement in 2014.
In 1996, Father Bernie helped establish the chaplain’s role at St. Paul’s, reaching out to serve police and fire rescue personnel.
He moved to Pompano Beach as rector of the Parish of St. Martin in 1998, returned to St. Paul’s as associate rector in 2021 and has been working for the chaplaincy since.
Chaplains are volunteers, usually from a local church, synagogue or mosque. They are called to this type of ministry — where they may face intense, violent, hate-filled and often heartbreaking situations daily.
Chaplains are usually trained to handle these volatile situations, and their strong faith helps them. Police officers are grateful for their support in making death notifications, visiting hospitals and offering support at debriefings after traumatic events.
And the officers need it. Most of us are exposed to “police-specific traumatic events” once or twice in our lifetimes (never if we’re lucky), whereas they are part of the job for police. These traumas include seeing homicide victims and traffic fatalities, being first on scene with victims of rape and assault, and rescuing abused children, which officers say is the hardest thing to see and is especially difficult for women.
A study in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health published by the National Library of Medicine reported that 60% of male and 46.4% of female police officers witnessed or were involved in five or more different traumatic events in the past year.
Sometimes these officers suffer a post-traumatic stress disorder unique to first responders and military members: cumulative PTSD.
“Cumulative PTSD can be even more dangerous than PTSD caused from a single traumatic event, largely because cumulative PTSD is more likely to go unnoticed and untreated,” according to a story published on “In Public Safety,” American Military University’s blog.
“We receive all faiths and those with no faith at all,” Father Bernie said. “We listen with an active ear” — the best thing anyone can do. People without a sympathetic release valve have a tougher time. Most officers don’t want to bring their work home to their families. That’s one reason suicides among police officers are high and life expectancies are low.
First H.E.L.P. (Honor, Educate, Lead, Prevent) has been compiling a list of U.S. corrections and federal officers of all duty status lost to suicide since 2016. In 2019, First H.E.L.P. began collecting suicide data on all first responders, including firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and 911 telecommunicators.
According to First H.E.L.P. figures, suicides were down in 2023 by about 25%, from 216 deaths in 2022 to 162 in 2023. The worst year for law enforcement was 2019 with 255 deaths by suicide. Police chaplains are on the lookout for signs of chronic and acute stress.
“We encourage them to let it out in healthy ways,” Father Bernie said.
But PTSD is tricky, and sometimes it takes time to show up. The stoicism that seems ingrained in police officers can hide their emotions from the people with whom they should be sharing feelings. “They keep the negative stuff in,” Father Bernie said. “But eventually, you can see it coming out.”
Father Bernie says he’s seeing more volatile behavior than ever before. “I’m experiencing more anger, frustration and fear from the community,” he said.
Almost 7 in 10 pastors surveyed believe a growing sense of fear exists within their congregations about the future of the nation and the world, according to Lifeway Research.
That makes the chaplaincy ever more important because a chaplain’s presence on scene can improve the outcome.
The usual call-out is for a death, Father Bernie said. It’s one of the hardest. He remembers a call to see the family of a Haitian boy who had drowned in a pool. “The mother was inconsolable,” he said.
There’s no formula for dealing with that kind of grief, no panacea, no magic words, he said. “You just have to rely on your faith.”
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.