A Roanoke law enforcement chaplaincy nonprofit recently added a service dog to its ranks to provide emotional and spiritual support to struggling police officers.
Nonprofit Shield Chaplaincy Inc. acquired its first canine member, Scarlett, a two-year-old yellow Labrador, on October 2.
The nonprofit, founded by Darren Potter in 2018, serves the Roanoke City Police Department, Roanoke County police, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Salem Police Department.
“I am all about serving the officers and their families,” Potter told The Roanoke Times. “We help with resiliency tips. We have seminars on marriage and family matters. We help with critical incident stress management and debriefs.”
Potter, who pastored churches and volunteered as a chaplain at the Roanoke Police Department before founding the nonprofit, said the average officer experiences 800 traumatic events over a 20-year career.
“In a place like Roanoke, for example, that number may be well higher than that,” Potter said. “The general public will face less than two in a lifetime.”
Scarlett, whose job is to greet officers at morning lineups or pre-shift briefings, is certified by Assistance Dogs International.
As a service dog, her role is to help officers cope with trauma and relieve stress and anxiety.
“She meets the highest standards,” Potter said.
“She’s just there to lower the anxiety level, to bring a sense of calm. If there is an officer who perhaps is struggling a bit, and they’re OK with dogs, I’ll have her lay across their lap.”
Scarlett was bred with the special purpose of helping police officers.
Born in Boston, Scarlett moved to Virginia Beach to train with Mutts with a Mission, a nonprofit that provides service dogs to first responders and veterans.
After training with Scarlett at Virginia Beach, Potter decided to take her home with him.
According to the nonprofit, Potter was the first chaplain to acquire a service dog from them.
“I trained with her probably about 140 hours during that two-week stretch. We went to Old Dominion University several times to meet with various groups. We went to different police departments and interacted with officers. We took public transportation — trains, ferries — and we went to restaurants. Every place you can imagine just to get experience in different settings with her.”
In fact, Potter said Scarlett is so well trained that he still hasn’t heard her bark.
Scarlett is trained to detect signs of PTSD or night terrors.
Nick Comas, a recruiter for the Roanoke Police Department, said Scarlett had helped him and his family after his father died of cancer.
“A family member of [Comas] came to me that was primarily affected by this loss and said Scarlett was just a tremendous help to her, and that every time she looked at Scarlett, it would calm her down,” Potter said.
“Her temperament is very, very relaxed,” Comas said. “Anytime an animal like that is wagging its tail, it just seems to kind of lower the temperature and decompresses everybody. It was very, very helpful. And we’re big animal lovers in my family, so it was very nice to have that connection with that animal, as well, with Scarlett,” Comas said.
Scarlett also participated in a recent Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program seminar.
“They hold post-critical incident seminars, which are retreats for law enforcement and dispatchers who are dealing with the aftereffects of traumatic events,” Potter said. “She was a tremendous help there with the officers, just bringing the sense of calm.”
Undoubtedly, Scarlett is loved by everyone at the Roanoke Police Department.
“I see her run up to my peers, put her leg against my peers, and I’ve seen that tail wag and people bending down petting,” Comas said. “That’s a way for the world’s problems to go away just for that second. That might seem like a stretch, but when you’re focused on just the positive energy of Scarlett, you kind of take a step back from dealing with the world’s problems.”