Law Enforcement's Most Challenging Assignment
What psychologists can and should do to help.
Posted Jul 14, 2017
Investigating Internet crimes against children (ICAC) is one of the most emotionally difficult assignments law enforcement professionals can undertake. It is the subject of my most recent Dot Meyerhoff mystery, The Fifth Reflection. I remember the day I knew this was the book I needed to write next. I was co-facilitating a retreat for first responder spouses. With tears streaming down her face, a young wife told the group how her husband's assignment to an ICAC task force was damaging their marriage. A once loving, easy-going father, he'd become overly protective and restrictive of their children's activities, wary of leaving them alone with another adult, even close trusted family members. He was suspicious of his son's coaches and refused let their daughter attend her friends' sleepovers. Besieged with the intrusive images he saw at work, he was irritable and slept badly. Instead of relaxing and enjoying time with the family, he spent most of his days off working cases.
Anything involving injury or death to a child creates serious stress for a cop. But when children are intentionally abused, sometimes by the very people who are supposed to protect them, the impact on officers is even greater. Why is this? For one thing, many cops have young children of their own, so the suffering is close to home. Secondly, their usual ways of coping don't work when the victim is a child. Humor is out. There's nothing funny about abusing a baby. So is finger-pointing. There's no way to blame a child for his or her suffering.
Imagine spending the better part of your workday watching videos or viewing photos of children being sexually abused. Or interviewing child victims. Could you pretend to be a pedophile or a child selling sex in a pretext phone call or an online conversation? Could you try to befriend the very person you hope to arrest?
This is work that never ends. There are approximately 75,000 pedophiles on the Internet at any given time. Some sites get over a million hits a month. Creating and trading peer-to-peer files is as quick and easy as downloading your favorite song.
Working as an ICAC investigator is not a prescription for lasting psychological damage. Some psychologists estimate that approximately 80% of all ICAC investigators finish their assignment—in the words of one investigator—"banged up, but not broken." Psychologists can and do help minimize the damage of this stressful specialty by providing some of the following options. They work, but only if the agency agrees to provide them and individual officers choose to use them.
• Screening: The position of ICAC investigator must be voluntary. No one should be forced to take this job. Of particular concern would be officers who have a history of unprocessed childhood abuse. Psychological screening for specialty assignments, such as the ICAC task force, would reduce the risk of assigning the wrong person to the job; someone who would be damaged by the work or misuse the position.
• Stress inoculation: Psychologists can prepare ICAC investigators by helping them to anticipate what to expect on an emotional level. Much the same way officers are prepared to see their first autopsy or homicide victim, or to enter a mass casualty scene.
• Counseling: Counseling sessions, group and individual, can reduce isolation, develop reasonable expectations, mitigate self-blame for not keeping up with an impossible workload, and normalize experiencing uncomfortable emotional reactions.
Isolation is destructive. Some investigators are reluctant to tell their family or friends what they see at work for fear of contaminating them. Even co-workers or supervisors may not want know what goes on in the ICAC unit. A knowledgeable counselor who is neither judgmental nor easily shocked can be the one person with whom an investigator can freely share thoughts and feelings.
• Coping skills: Good coping skills are crucial. Psychologists can teach cops how to recognize the signs that they need help and encourage them to get that help in a timely way, sooner rather than later. They can train investigators in stress management, mindfulness, resilience building, sleep hygiene, and other self-care skills.
• Help officers stay on mission: The ICAC investigator's job is to collect evidence and get convictions. Too much empathy for or identification with victims coupled with high levels of responsibility is a quick route to burnout. What's required is a Zen-like detachment that can be hard to create and even harder to maintain.
• Team building: Pride and dedication in one's work builds resilience. Helping teams implement wholesome activities and support each other reduces isolation and normalizes the range of uncomfortable responses that viewing child pornography generates. Social support, especially peer support, is a known buffer against stress. There is a lot of frustration entailed in this work: If only the judicial system would move a little faster, punish pedophiles more harshly and never return an abuser back to where the abuse occurred, officers might think. Sharing these frustrations with teammates is far less damaging than carrying them alone.
• Develop no shame/no blame exit strategies: ICAC investigators should be able to change assignments without stigma. This can be difficult because they are highly dedicated and the work is never done.
• Develop methods to minimize exposure to visual images: Turn off the sound, reduce the size of the image, convert color to black and white, take frequent breaks, and plan ahead to avoid starting or ending the shift viewing images. Knowing how to switch gears between home and work helps, not just the investigator, but his or her family.
• Family counseling: Psychologists can reach out to families, orient them to the hazards of an ICAC assignment, explain how this work might affect their loved one as well as themselves, give them information about the best practices for coping, and advice about who, when, and where to call for help.