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Her calling Freehold psychotherapist is confident COPLINE can help on national scale

Stephanie Samuels, founder and president of COPLINE.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Stephanie Samuels remembers how eager she was to join the police force in the 1980s in Los Angeles.

She was 21 then. The gang unit was growing rapidly, and being a part of the LAPD seemed like fun, she said.

Stephanie Samuels remembers how eager she was to join the police force in the 1980s in Los Angeles.

She was 21 then. The gang unit was growing rapidly, and being a part of the LAPD seemed like fun, she said.

Because things were different then, Samuels was allowed to shadow an officer just to test the waters. She rode along in the back seat with a sergeant from Culvert City.

She had to sign a waiver and was told if things ever got ugly she would have to smash out the back window of the car — since there are no locks or handles.

The rides were mostly routine. Until the one that wasn’t.

“There was a situation where we couldn’t get backup,” Samuels said, recounting how the sergeant leaped to action to chase after a group of kids.

She was told to stay put, but got out of the car and started running with him.

“We get to … cinder block walls … he goes to jump the wall, and he looks at me. And he says nothing. I’m looking at his eyes because the eyes are the soul, and he’s saying goodbye — and I see fear. And then he said, ‘I’m paid to jump that wall.’ He said, ‘If anything happens, you’ve got to go in and radio it in.’ That moment for me … at that moment, this was no longer fun. This was not what I had signed up for,” Samuels said.

“Then came the question of whether or not I could jump the wall, and did I want to?”

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She never forgot that wall. Or that officer.

She earned a degree in psychology in 1989 in Los Angeles and eventually received a degree in social work from Rutgers University in 1996. Samuels is now a psychotherapist in Freehold, working exclusively with law enforcement. In 2005, she founded an anonymous helpline,

COPLINE, to give law enforcement officials across the country a place to discuss their feelings anonymously.

There may never be a greater need.

Following the uptick in police-involved shootings, Samuels said she has seen a jump from 25 to 75 calls per month.

The service, which first started in New Jersey, now serves more than a dozen states. Samuels is convinced that COPLINE can serve an unmet need nationally.

She’s not the only one who feels there is a need.

In May 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing called for a national, anonymous, peer-driven mental health hotline for police officers.

Police associations have made similar calls for hotlines. In fact, they have several set up around the country.

Samuels said those aren’t as effective, since officers are not anonymous and many fear using them will hurt them in the workplace.

Not so different
Stephanie Samuels said understanding the psychology of a typical cop almost predicts the need for centers and help lines like COPLINE.
“I had realized when I was out in Los Angeles, and in the Lower East Side (in New York), that I had never met a gang member that didn’t want to be a cop, and I had never met a cop that wasn’t part of a gang. We call them FOPs (Fraternal Orders of Police), PBAs (Police Benevolent Associations), and they are looking for families and looking for brotherhoods,” she said. “You go back to their childhoods, and at some point in time, they had to make a right hand turn or a left hand turn. And that was the only difference.
“And the profile of a cop is this: It’s somebody who has grown up in crisis, does well in crisis and doesn’t know how to live without crisis. Someone who has an issue with a father figure, or significant loss early in life or someone who has a history with abuse — emotional, physical, sexual — makes for a phenomenal cop.”

That is why she’s pushing for an expansion of COPLINE.

In the larger debate of community policing and race, Samuels is dealing with the problem at a micro level, from an angle that remains invisible to the public. It requires a safe space for officers to speak, and the layer of anonymity helps officers avoid jeopardizing their jobs.

If officers are upset by the national news or dealing with their own issues, knowing they could get ousted from the force for seeking help automatically creates a barrier to seeking help. That is why a national hotline helps filter serious cases, while also helping those who just need an ear.

All that would amount to $100,000 annually to run on its own.

There’s just one problem: Samuels doesn’t have the money.

COPLINE currently is paid for entirely out of Samuels’ pockets (she estimates it costs $10,000 at the current operational levels) and through the time given by her 15 volunteers, who make sure it is manned around the clock.

A GoFundMe account was set up by a mother of a fallen officer, who was also a military veteran. She believes in the need for services like COPLINE, Samuels said.

So far, it has raised $1,279.

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“The thin blue line, what the thin blue line stands for … it is the line between anarchy and civilization,” Samuels said.

“I spend upward of 90 hours a week with truly some of the most amazing protectors that this country has ever seen. But the price they pay is a price no one should pay. And it’s not … you know it’s the shootings that are publicized. And that’s what society wants to wrap their head around. They don’t want to wrap their head around the fatal motor vehicle accident with kids that are the same age as (the officer’s) kids at home.”

Samuels said shooting incidents or those involving children are often the most traumatic for officers. Ones not easily forgotten.

Looking to grow
Stephanie Samuels is now focused on expanding COPLINE into a national helpline, supplementing the work of existing regional helplines like Safe Call Now or New Jersey’s own Cop 2 Cop — which she helped implement — or even agency-run peer support services, as in the FBI or the Boston Police Department.
“I’m just a cog in the wheel,” Samuels said.

“A lot of my officers would fight me on the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, because PTSD is saved for the Vietnam vets,” she said. “They’re saved for the people that have been through war, not them. And yet, what do we know about war? (Soldiers) are typically not fighting somebody we know — we have a clear-cut enemy. I had an officer who had to shoot and kill his partner. I don’t think you get worse than that.”

Samuels said what many are missing about the police shootings is the incredible dichotomy that police work involves, she said.

“As an officer, after you fire your weapon, you are required to render first aid,” she said. “And the only valid shooting is one in which your life is clearly in danger. And now you have to try and save this person’s life.

“I think the public doesn’t understand, they can’t do this job robotically.”

In fact, the tension between police and the communities has now made the job far more dangerous, according to Sean Smoot, one of the authors of the presidential task force report, director and chief counsel for the Police Benevolent & Protective Association of Illinois and treasurer of the National Association of Police Organizations.

“What happens, a lot of times — the way media is covering these incidents — the prevalence of these incidents and focus they get, as well as how social media is playing a predominant role in all this, it reinforces the narrative for officers that they’re kind of alone,” Smoot said. “They’re not supported by the general public and that’s a dangerous place for our officers to be mentally.”

Research shows police often choose their line of work because of an overwhelming need to help.

“When you go into a profession with the idea to help and feel like the very people you are trying to help are against you, it’s very discouraging,” Smoot said.

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While the idea has its proponents or those willing to support it if done right, there are critics.

Police associations and departments in New Jersey wouldn’t speak on the record, but many said a local or regional option was a better option.

Some skeptics think a volunteer in New Jersey couldn’t necessarily relate to those in other parts of the country. They push for more regional programs or agency programs.

Mark Johnston, program manager for in-service training at the Atlantic County police training center, thinks a national program such as COPLINE could work.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a large city or small,” he said. “You see the same crap. The only difference is volume.”

Johnston said he knows from personal experience.

“It saved my career,” he said of a program. “I had a wonderful career for 20 years after (the peer support). It was rewarding to me and my family. It’s like when the flight attendant says for the oxygen mask, help yourself first. You’re no good to anyone else if you don’t.”

Samuels hopes COPLINE can be that aid.

E-mail to: anjaleek@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @anjkhem

Anjalee Khemlani