MOUNT VERNON — Jerry Scott has been a police chaplain for more than five years. In those five years, he’s been on the scene for 100-plus death calls.
Whether it’s a homicide, suicide, or overdose, he’s there to pray with the families affected by the tragic circumstances no one saw coming.
He’s also present for law enforcement who may not have an outlet to vent their thoughts after seeing a tragic event.
Scott’s a sponge for bad news.
Law enforcement agencies in Knox County know him well. He’s a mental health resource for officers, firefighters, EMT personnel and others who deal with tragedy.
Each case is unique, and before every call, Scott prays.
“There isn’t a police officer who likes going to the door and delivering a death notice,” he said. “We don’t either, don’t get me wrong, but we have been trained specifically for that.”
Other times, professional intervention is needed.
“We (chaplains) just need to be very cognizant. If you were a police officer and you’re having sweats, you’re not sleeping at night, headaches, flashbacks (…) we are constantly listening for indicators.”
Someone to call on your worst days
An intervention method and call hotline known as Copline has been making the rounds in law enforcement communities, giving on-duty cops someone to talk to who knows what they’ve been through.
Copline is operated by veteran law enforcement officials and gives officers a method of venting their emotions anonymously.
The hotline also recommends professional mental health services for law enforcement to use in their area.
The hotline doesn’t need to know what department the officer works for, where they’re from, or their name.
In a way, it’s a mobile Scott.
Copline was founded and is directed by New Jersey-based psychologist Stephanie Smith, who saw a need for proper law enforcement mental-health services.
The service was founded 18 years ago, while Smith spent 17 years working as a clinician seeing law enforcement officers.
How Copline is funded
Copline is funded mainly through donations, fundraisers and has received two grants from the mobile phone company Motorola.
One of the biggest issues Smith saw was the hike in suicide rates, and officers unwilling to reach out for help.
They fear if they did reach out for help their badge and guns would be confiscated. Their fellow officers wouldn’t trust them, Smith said.
Such a scenario could potentially put their jobs at risk.
“They’d lose the ability to support themselves and their families,” Smith said.
Smith found through her years of working alongside law enforcement that cops had a deep trust with one another.
“They’re in the thick of things together,” she said. “So it was developed from that, having a hotline answered by retired officers.
“As a clinician that specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder, I had many officers that were retiring untimely due to instances they had been involved in and not being able to perform the duties of a police officer after them.”
Being a caller isn’t easy, Smith said, adding confidentiality is key for the callers.
Those who choose to take calls often self-select out, Smith said, with the intensity of the calls being a major reason – not wanting to relieve their own worst day repeatedly.
There are only three times when confidentiality is broken – if the caller is homicidal, a credible threat against an entity, or if the caller is engaged in child or elder abuse.
“If a caller is suicidal, we don’t breach confidentiality,” Smith said. “So an officer is allowed to talk about wanting to take their life.
“They are allowed to talk about having the worst day that they have ever had and not feeling like they can go on without having to worry about a knock on their door.”
How Copline leads research
Copline receives roughly 400 calls a month. Of those 400 calls, 95% are “bad day” calls–either a tough day at work, administrative issues or public stressors. The other 5% are officers involved in critical incidents.
Copline also didn’t see an increase in calls after 2020 – a time of civil unrest and a stark decrease in law enforcement trust after the death of George Floyd and the coronavirus outbreak.
What Smith did see was a change in the tone of calls.
“We were far more focused on their well-being,” Smith said. “But the reality is that cops took this job knowing that they were going to fight the invisible enemy.
“Whether that enemy is a bad guy hiding or whether that enemy is a pandemic. They knew that they were going to have to deal with the invisible enemy. They never were prepared to become the enemy.”
The Goal of Copline
Smith says there’s no “agenda” or “goal” for Copline. It’s not a hotline to make the caller feel warm and fuzzy by the end. It’s to unpack and discuss the hidden and quiet in oneself.
Copline allows the caller to unburden without judgment.
In Smith’s lengthy history with Copline, she’s found that law enforcement officers call the hotline as a near-last-ditch effort.
The call is for those to be truly heard, Smith said, and not to be given the rundown of what to do, who to call and where to go.
The end goal is when the law enforcement officers hang up they feel understood.
Copline has a lengthy referral base, Smith said. If a cop needs further assistance they can speak to a licensed clinician who is “culturally competent” in their area.
Other solutions could be advising outpatient treatment options, AA meetings or availability of peace officers. This happens roughly 25-35% of the time in Copline calls, Smith said.
The goal, Smith said, is always to have healthier officers, mentally and physically.
“If you find that the person is dealing with depression or anxiety and what have you, and they talk about their years on SWAT, they talk about being in the Marines, they talk about, you know, having been on football teams or whatever, and our callers are now educated to be able to talk a little bit about the research,” Smith said.
High suicide rates make it difficult to achieve success in Smith’s mind, but having a safe place for law enforcement officers to call keeps hope alive.
Mount Vernon PD continues to have police chaplains
Though Mount Vernon Police Chief Robert Morgan said the department hasn’t used Copline–the agency does use police chaplains–one being Scott.
Sometimes it’s not about talking with someone, Scott said, but having the sense of presence.
“It just may be showing up at a calling and never saying another word,” Scott said. “Just being (there) it’s so strong.
“I think that’s what our ministry, our chaplain ministry is all about, is the ministry of presence.”