Petaluma Valley Baptist Pastor Tom Marcum vividly remembers the first police call he assisted on. "A 32-year-old man died of a massive heart attack in front of his whole family at his birthday party. It instantly became everyone's nightmare," said Marcum.
As the lead volunteer police chaplain with the Petaluma Police Department, Marcum has seen plenty of tragedies in the year and a half he has served. But unlike the sworn officers or emergency crews who meticulously investigate disaster and crime scenes to find answers and close a case, Marcum and the other local pastors who make up the police chaplaincy work to support the people affected by the scene.
"Police and fire bring us in when there's an extreme trauma," said Marcum. "We go to crime and accident scenes to offer emotional support to the people involved. If there's a death, officers stay on the scene until the body is removed. But we stay there as long as the family needs us."
Petaluma's police chaplaincy program began in the mid-1990s and is currently staffed with 11 pastors. The police chaplains also provide overnight and weekend pastoral services to Petaluma Valley Hospital in addition to full-time volunteer support to the police and fire departments. Sgt. Marlin Christensen, who oversees the volunteer chaplains, said the group has become a valuable resource to the public and officers.
"While a lot of departments only use chaplains as a support system for department staff, Petaluma has always placed the emphasis on the public," said Christensen. "To have that extra human component associated with the police department is incredible."
Police Chief Patrick Williams agreed. "Collectively, the chaplains touch our community in ways we would never have the ability to do," he said.
Marcum said that when police officers or firefighters see a need for emotional support at a call, they request a chaplain, who comes to the scene and remains available for anyone who wants to talk with them. Marcum admits that not everyone is cut out for the job.
"It can be very difficult, " he said calmly. "Most of our calls occur at night. When I get up in the middle of the night, my wife gets up and stays awake the entire time I'm gone. Most calls take a couple hours to complete. And when you're there, it's often an intense situation involving tragedy. But having that stable presence can really help people."
Petaluma police chaplains go through rigorous background checks and training before they are allowed to work with the public.
"Our chaplains must pass a full background investigation, have at least five years of successful ministry service with a recognized church and be certified, endorsed or ordained by a recognized religious body," said Christensen. "These are people with credibility who are already full-time pastors. They volunteer their time to take on what can be very difficult work. It's really amazing."
And their presence at police calls has less to do with religion than most people think. While Marcum acknowledges that all the current chaplains belong to some form of Christianity, he said it isn't about forcing religion on anyone.
"We're there during traumatic times," Marcum said. "We take our cues from the people we serve and we support them in any way we can."
Marcum said the background investigation potential chaplains undergo is extremely thorough.