CopLine: An officer’s lifeline

by Stephanie Samuels

“CopLine, what’s going on?” Those are the first words a caller hears when those 10 numbers are dialed, (800) 267-5463 — 10 numbers that will connect you directly to a vetted, trained, retired officer who is there to listen to what a caller wants to address. CopLine receives between 200 and 300 calls a month, and the numbers continue to increase. When I am asked about the call volume, it is always followed by a sigh or “That’s really unfortunate.” Maybe it’s me, but I have never looked at it that way. I don’t look at checking in with a friend or family member as “unfortunate,” only as a sign that someone cares and isn’t alone. The unfortunate part is those who do not call — those who were struggling with some external issue or internal strife and thought, “I don’t want to burden anyone; there are people who need to call more than I do.” Let me set the record straight: Hell, no, there is no one more important than you are.

That’s the crux of the problem as I see it, all too often. As a therapist, I rarely worry about an officer who is in my practice; I worry about those who aren’t, those who I didn’t reach. That’s why I have chosen to do some Facebook Live talks to help stop the stigma of talking to a mental health professional and to try to reach so many more than I can in my private practice. It isn’t a job or a career, it is a calling and a way of life. I can’t help but hear in my head the words from the opening of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” That is policing in 2020. No one can go it alone on a social level or personal level, not Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay or even Sydney Carton himself.

I have been asked countless times if CopLine saw an uptick in calls like other hotlines did when COVID-19 became a world “feardemic.” Please don’t misinterpret that as me downplaying the pandemic that has killed more than 800,000 people; I am referring to the fear in the world the pandemic has caused that has immobilized most people. CopLine had not experienced a significant uptick during this time, and callers addressed many stressors, with COVID-19 being only one of them. I pondered why that could be, and it wasn’t until our last training that it occurred to me.

There was a “spirited” conversation about doing our CopLine training remotely. Everything had gone the way of Zoom, and now the pressure was on. The reality is in the training and stringent vetting process of the retirees who answer the lines themselves, the many men and women who have finished their careers and still want to give back to their own and the “uniform” families that support them. Of our nine completed trainings, only three trainings successfully vetted all of the trainees who had taken the class. They all have the heart to answer the phone, but the skill set is far more challenging to acquire. Our success is in knowing that each volunteer has the proper skills to answer the calls and meet each caller where they are, without judgment or the need to problem-solve. This can only be done through grueling role-plays, hours of teaching and daily evaluations by the training cadre. In my true snarky fashion, I have told people there are two things you can’t do on Zoom: You can’t conceive a child and you can’t do CopLine training.

We have seen an uptick not only in calls, but in the emotional toll the societal shift is taking on law enforcement officers and their families.

Each retiree has spent a lifetime fighting invisible enemies and rising to national and international crises. We have seen this throughout history, but what no officer was prepared for was to become “the enemy.” COVID-19 was not the issue; it was the social shift of what at times feels like “all of America hates cops” that has weighed heavily on officers and their families. We have seen an uptick not only in calls, but in the emotional toll the societal shift is taking on law enforcement officers and their families. There are times when I use the word “heartbreaking” to describe what is relayed to me from listeners (who always have clinical support for themselves while they are on the lines). What has been so rewarding is that so many of the listeners have been through riots throughout our recent history (from the 1960s forward), and they really can “sit in the hole” side by side with the caller and understand what they are talking about on a very real and intimate level.

That is the foundation of CopLine, a very simple concept that was not made any more difficult through politics or BS. It’s a great idea, yes, but there is no way to execute it without the help of many. I have always had the easy lift and still do, as the listeners have always chosen the heavy lift and still do. We have ensured that confidentiality is maintained by not taking any government money through grants or loans. That has allowed us to eliminate the fear of cellphones being pinged or calls being traced and anyone coming to the caller’s house to “check up on them” if they talk about thoughts of suicide. Officers and their families need a safe place to talk about these thoughts and feelings, as well as all their other thoughts and feelings, without the fear of losing everything. We are not a suicide or crisis line. We do deal with those calls, but we are here to deal with all stressors in an officer’s life or their families. We believe that if an officer calls when they have “low-hanging fruit,” they will call when they have “high-hanging fruit,” and we have seen just that. More than 90% of our calls are not crisis or suicidal calls — they are about “normal” stressors from a stressful job, and our callers will find a partner on the other end of the line who has the skills and background to help.

It is simple: We are a confidential hotline for officers and their families to call to deal with any and all issues they are having on or off the job, without fear of any repercussions for being human. They will talk to only a vetted, trained retired officer, and from the second they dial (800) COP-LINE, they are never alone.

Without the unwavering support of organizations like the Los Angeles Sheriffs’ Relief Association, which generously took out an ad in APB and helped sponsor our 10th CopLine training, we wouldn’t be able to touch as many lives as we have. It truly takes a village, and we couldn’t be more honored to have leaders like the Sheriffs’ Relief Association to help build ours.

Stephanie Samuels, M.A., MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who works exclusively with police officers in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. She has lectured all over the country on PTSD and vicarious trauma, including undiagnosed PTSD and the fallout from departmental silence after officers are involved in critical incidents. She is the founder and president of CopLine, the first confidential international law enforcement hotline answered by retired officers.

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