Mahlon LeCroix, pastor of Cordova First Baptist Church, has been serving in the dual role of chaplain and part-time dispatcher for the past year.
In that time, the department has been impacted by marital crises, health scares, one officer becoming a father, the treatment of another for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the loss of a former co-worker to suicide.
“I’m an ear to listen, but sometimes I may not have the words that somebody needs to hear. When they’re dealing with an issue, Mahlon is better equipped to give them the answers they need,” Chief Nick Smith said.
LeCroix, who received courses in pastoral counseling while studying at the Baptist College of Florida, has been called to the department in the middle of the night to speak to an officer in distress.
He prays over the group before they go out to execute search warrants and is available to accompany officers on emergency calls in which victims may wish to speak to a chaplain.
LeCroix views his main role as being an everyday source of encouragement to officers.
“They put up with horrible stuff. They need to be able to vent,” he said.
Law enforcement is frequently found near the top of lists of the most stressful jobs in America.
Typically, officers do not receive any formal training to help them deal with the emotional side of the job, and having a chaplain on staff is rare for small departments.
“We’re humans just like everybody else. We hurt. We feel pain,” officer Aaron Moseley said. “Seeing children in domestic violence situations, seeing dismembered bodies on the side of the road — you don’t forget that stuff. It stays with you. It’s something that you live with everyday.”
Officer B.J. Simmons noted the irony is that civilians often look to policemen for counseling.
“We listen to their problems and help them the best we can, but we can’t help our own problems,” Simmons said.
Smith said recruits are warned when they enter the Academy that their career of choice drops their life expectancy to 55 and puts them in a high-risk category for divorce.
One source of stress is the lack of time with loved ones because of the need to work multiple jobs to support a family on an officer’s salary. When officers are at home, they are prone to bring their work problems with them.
“You’re angry and aggravated, and a lot of times you take it out on your family. Going to someone like Mahlon and getting it off your chest before you go home can make a big difference,” Smith said.
Members of CPD also reported feeling unprepared for the constant and intense public scrutiny of working as a police officer in a small town.
In the age of social media, a traffic ticket or a routine call can result in an officer becoming an object of malicious rumors and various other personal attacks.
“How are you supposed to adapt to somebody bashing you, and then you have to go help them? That is the type of stuff that weighs on you,” Simmons said.
LeCroix also feels the pressure of being closely watched and held to a higher standard.
As a result, the police station has become a safe zone for LeCroix as well as the officers. Members of the department no longer feel the need to hide behind a facade of politeness when he is in the building.
“I don’t think they care that I’m a preacher anymore. They talk the way they want to talk, and I love it. They can be themselves. I get to relax too because around these guys, I don’t feel like I have to put on a show either as the pastor,” LeCroix said.
Assistant Chief Zak Green said it is a comfort to know that LeCroix would rather them be real than religious.
However, in an environment where the threat of an untimely death looms large, LeCroix’s presence also encourages the officers to address eternal matters.
“When I kiss my wife and kids before I leave, it might be the last time. From a spiritual standpoint, I want to know that when I leave, I’m confident in where I’m going. It’s nice to have somebody here who can hold us accountable because we don’t have time to attend church like we should,” Green said.
In addition to concerns about being killed in the line of duty, members of CPD are also aware of a rise in officer suicides. Four have occurred locally in the past year and a half.
Nationally, there are between 125 and 150 police suicides each year. According to a study published in 2013, officers are most at risk of taking their own life between ages 40 to 44 and after they have been in law enforcement for 15 to 19 years.
More than 80 percent of the officers included in the study had personal problems prior to the suicide.
“We are continuously dealing with everybody else’s problems. When it comes time for us, we think, ‘We’ve put it aside for 10 years now and have done fine. Why deal with it now?’” Green said.
Cordova officers agreed that asking for help goes against their alpha male instincts. They fear a backlash from their superiors, their fellow officers and the community they serve.
“We’re a chain. Nobody wants to be that weak link because what you usually want to do with a weak link is get rid of it,” Simmons said.
Moseley added that the last thing an officer wants to do is let down his family, his department or his town.
“You push the problems down. You try not to think about them, and they fester,” he said.
Most officers assert that they would never commit suicide, but similar statements were made by colleagues who have gone through with the act.
“Eventually, it makes you wonder. At what point does it all build up, and are you going to be able to fight it off when you find yourself there? Is there going to be a day that it’s just too much?” Green said.
At CPD, officers rely on each other and LeCroix to help them through tough times.
Moseley, who recently completed an intensive counseling program, is also a proponent of officers performing self-evaluations of their mental health and establishing relationships with licensed professionals who can recommend treatment if necessary.
“You’ve got to be honest with yourself and stay on top of your mental health the same way that you do your physical health,” Moseley said.
LeCroix also sees the need for more pastors to get involved in their local police department.
“Because of the odd hours that they work, it’s hard to get them to go church when they get some free time. You have to get outside the walls of the church and go to them. You have to get involved in their lives,” LeCroix said.