Psych Services: 12-year-old Copline a proven help line for law enforcement officers

Lisa Garmezy

Your stress is of national importance. Annual mental health checks, more peer support programs, hotlines – legislation signed by the president in January directs the Department of Defense and Department of Justice to evaluate all of these in a search for best practices to promote law enforcement officers’ mental health.

Meanwhile, a quiet civilian has taken the lead. Therapist Stephanie Samuels is the director and founder of Copline, a telephone crisis line just for law enforcement officers and their families.

Founded 12 years ago, Copline has grown from a phone in Stephanie’s office to a national network of retired officers available 24-7. In the last 18 months, they’ve taken calls from 40 states. Badge and Gun readers who would like to join their ranks can attend free volunteer training in Austin, May 20-24.

I’ve taken the lines. One officer told me about a string of bad shifts involving more than one dead child. She needed to vent without feeling her competence would be questioned.

In a recent interview, Stephanie said that the 15-minute call was typical. Copline users aren’t necessarily in crisis. Mostly, they’re feeling alone. When the officer on the other end of the line needs more than a listening ear, referrals are made to carefully selected therapists.

 

A Change in Plans

 

Stephanie, who holds two master’s degrees, originally thought she might want to become an officer herself. A self-confessed “adrenaline junkie,” she was having a blast on ride-a-longs.

Everything changed the night she and an officer chased a young gang suspect. “It got very real,” she told me. The suspect scrambled over a wall. The officer didn’t know who or what waited on the other side. But he looked her in the eye, said, “I get paid to go over that wall,” and climbed.

Stephanie stayed on the safe side, and she stuck with social work. How lucky that was. She has a private practice made up entirely of law enforcement officers and their spouses, although she won’t accept clients from the Copline referral system.

 

Copline Today

 

Copline, in turn, gets its money from people like you. Very much a grassroots organization, it has never sought government funding.

A New Year’s Eve “Run for the Call” 5K is the program’s major fundraiser. Runners participated in other communities and countries last December, but the biggest race was held in Stephanie’s home state of New Jersey in chilly six-degree weather. She refused to cancel. If it was warm enough for officers to be on patrol, it was warm enough for a 5K.

Dr. Jay Nagdimon, a psychologist with LAPD and a member of its Crisis Negotiation Team, has become Copline’s lead trainer. In a week-long class, thoroughly screened volunteers learn how to promote resilience after stress and how to recognize situations where resiliency failed, and treatment is needed. Call-taking techniques developed at Los Angeles’s nationally recognized Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center are taught.

 

What About 1-800-SUICIDE?

 

I asked Stephanie why a crisis hotline dedicated to police was needed. “Cops are still afraid of people knowing they’re using mental health services,“ she answered. Cops trust other cops. They have to.

We agreed that peer support heals, and isolation is dangerous. Peer counseling is effective, she feels, because the situations that derail police officers emotionally—and she used as an example the officer who inadvertently takes a life—are frightening and overwhelming to people who are unfamiliar with police culture and police work.

Those officers feel judged, she said, including, at times, by members of the clergy they approach for help.

 

Shockingly Different

 

What’s more, officers are fanatic about privacy. Knowing that, and respecting that, Copline moves sharply away from standard protocols with suicidal callers.

Typically, when a listener feels a life is at stake, confidentiality goes out the window, and help is dispatched, wanted or not. Not in this case: Copline will not disclose your identity. No matter what.

They take that surprising risk to gain your trust. “You won’t lose everything because you called a line,” I was told.

One caller held his shotgun while he talked. Scarily, he hung up, leaving the call-taker with some very uncomfortable feelings. Five minutes later the distressed officer called back to say the gun was in the safe again. Stephanie told me, with a veteran’s calm confidence that that there is significant ambivalence about death when a caller picks up the phone and calls a hotline.

Fair point. The obvious next question is how to reach the troubled men and women who won’t call, that is, the approximately 125 cops per year who die by suicide.

Stephanie responded, “That will be the question we will be asking ourselves forever. We’re doing our damn best.”

The Copline founder added, “It’s quite a journey, and I’m blessed to be on it.” We can all be grateful that she and her volunteers are walking—no, running–this road.

Visit www.copline.org to volunteer or learn more. The hotline number is 800-267-5463. In addition to the Austin training, please consider participating in the benefit golf tournament scheduled for June 4 in Ramona, California. Raffle donations and sponsors are needed.