How to Reduce Secondary Trauma for Law Enforcement Who Investigate Crimes against Children
Joseph F. Cusano, University of New Haven
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a colloquial term that can be heard throughout the military veterans and first responder communities. However, a lesser-known or less-talked-about term is secondary traumatic stress (STS), which is related to compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma (Craun et al., 2014). This occurs when an individual exhibits PTSD symptoms from indirect exposure to trauma. Law enforcement officers who investigate crimes against children are in one of the most vulnerable positions to experience the effects of STS, and existing research has found investigators tasked with viewing child pornography report experiencing significant STS. Research also has examined coping methods reported as being effective, including social and supervisory support.
The purpose of this brief is to evaluate the existing modalities that law enforcement agencies provide to officers assigned to investigate crimes against children. An examination of the modalities utilized by the agencies and their efficacy in treating STS will be highlighted. Suggestions for future research regarding the effectiveness of prevention and treatment methods will be recommended. This brief should benefit police chiefs, commissioners, and other stakeholders responsible for the well-being of their officers. The policy suggestions made here are evidenced-based treatments and preventative measures that can be used as the foundation to protect officers exposed to crimes against children.
Background of the Problem
The proliferation of the Internet throughout the 1990s, coupled with technology evolving at unprecedented rates, has advanced how our society communicates. With these advancements, an unintended consequence was the creation of a gateway for criminals to exploit society's most vulnerable group, children. In present time, the Internet provides perpetrators a place to store, produce, and distribute child pornography (Burns et al., 2008; Krause, 2009; Perez et al., 2010). Law enforcement responded in kind by creating the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Innocent Images National Initiative, and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program (ICAC). The scope of the problem shows no signs of diminishing which can be seen in the reports published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). In 2019, 16,987,361 reports involving Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) were filed, while in 2021, they received 29,309,106 reports (NCMEC, 2023).
The growing victim population increases the investigative demands of law enforcement. This increased exposure can be directly related to STS (Craun et al., 2014; Perez et al., 2010). Law enforcement officers face several inherent occupational risks, such as calls involving domestic violence, officer-involved shootings, emotionally disturbed people, and traffic stops. However, the issue at hand concerns those who are exposed to crimes against children. Existing literature has described investigating sex crimes as one of the most stressful tasks that officers undertake (Brown et al., 1999; Craun et al., 2014).
The organizational structure of police departments varies, depending on the size of the department, with bigger departments typically having specialized units (Nowacki & Willits, 2019). These units provide specialized training and positions, ranging from digital forensics examiners, cybercrime, or assigning officers to task forces, such as ICAC. Although there is no marker identifying the exact number of times officers have to be exposed for them to become symptomatic, those who work in specialized units are more likely to be exposed than frontline officers are. The first time STS was identified in the literature was in 1995 and was referred to as the “cost of caring” (Figley, 1995, p.1). Since being identified as an issue by those who care for victims of trauma, STS has been included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a type of PTSD (Brady, 2017).
Law enforcement officers can be exposed directly or indirectly to this trauma through various methods. Krause (2009) wrote a theoretical article, regarded as a pivotal piece on the topic (Bourke & Craun, 2014), highlighting the following issues. Forms of content come from written statements, still images, video footage, and interviews with the victim and their guardians. This also includes officers who operate covertly in online chats as a juvenile or in person; therefore officers who are exposed in multiple ways are at an increased risk of STS. In order for investigators to testify against a suspect, they must first identify the victim, followed by identifying the suspect and the criminal acts committed (Burns et al., 2008).
This brief will provide information on the steps that organizations have taken to address this issue. Furthermore, an explanation of the efficacy of these policies in their current state will be outlined. After synthesizing the existing empirical literature on the topic, the findings reveal several similarities and differences. Due to limited research on the topic (Perez et al., 2010), findings were mixed on certain relationships between the mechanisms and STS. This can be due to methodological issues, but future research could potentially help point policymakers in the right direction going forward. The current policies in place to mitigate STS include officer wellness programs and peer support (e.g., increase positive coping mechanisms) (Burruss et al., 2018), increasing organizational and social support, organizational policies on the length of time officers should be exposed, and software updates that can limit image exposure (e.g., hash value images) (Craun et al., 2014; Perez et al., 2010). Once these issues are discussed, this brief offers options that highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each policy option.
The policies and procedures at law enforcement organizations vary from one department to another. Moreover, policies vary among local, state, and federal agencies. The review of studies on this topic did not yield a distinct policy that governs officers on Internet crimes against children. The studies did provide robust qualitative data that can provide insight into how police administration can structure policy utilizing evidence-based approaches. The measures taken by officers concerning STS were preventative in nature and remedial. Different policy options are detailed below.
Organizational and Social Support
A survey found that 90% of the officers who work in the ICAC task force were either somewhat concerned or very concerned about the impact of being exposed to child pornography (Wolak & Mitchell, 2009). In nearly every study conducted on this topic, strong social support has been found to have a positive effect on lowering STS (Bourke & Craun, 2014; Brady, 2017; Burruss et al., 2018; Craun et al., 2014; Holt & Blevins, 2011, Perez et al., 2010). A meta-analysis of 38 studies on STS examined mental health professionals. Although this meta-analysis was not focused on police officers, a parallel can be drawn from the results. Of the 17 risk factors reviewed, it was found that those who have suffered from personal trauma and have lower social support were significantly associated with increased STS (Hensel et al., 2015). Social support was found to be the most effective when officers who could confide in their colleagues had a strong support system outside of work (Brady, 2017; Holt & Blevins, 2011).
As demonstrated by the research on this topic, those who are dedicated to the ICAC task force face the inevitable, but necessary evil, of being exposed to child pornography. This approach can be both preventative and remedial. Effective policy can encourage the screening of applicants who apply to these special assignments, and a more detailed explanation will be provided in the policy option section of this brief. If implemented, further research, preferably longitudinal studies, should track STS among screened applicants to note the effectiveness of recruiting those members with strong social support and seeing if they are less symptomatic. Although this method does not help officers who are exposed on the frontline, police applicants typically undergo a psychological screening conducted by mental health professionals who evaluate the applicant's social support structure. It is important to note some implications of social support that were found in the literature. One drawback is when an officer shares their struggles with family members, there may be a transitory effect causing those who are closest to the officer to begin exhibiting STS symptoms (Papazoglou & Tuttle, 2018).
Organizational and social support can come in various ways. Officers who were surveyed reported that supervisory support had the strongest relationship with lower STS (Bourke & Craun, 2014). This finding was demonstrated again in a longitudinal study (Craun et al., 2014). The point is that the unimaginable difficulty of the task cannot be coupled with poor or uninvolved supervision. Thus, officers and supervisors alike should receive training to be able to identify these symptoms and assist those in distress (Burruss et al., 2018; Perez et al., 2010). Part of organizational support is providing the right tools for the job. Understandably, budgets across agencies may differ, but not providing officers assigned to these task forces with the latest equipment available may result in harmful outcomes. For instance, some studies have shown that the total amount of exposure increased STS (Craun et al., 2014; Perez et al., 2010). However, advances in technology have allowed law enforcement to use software that can download the images from an offender's electronic device and automatically match them to NCMEC’s database of images. This limits the amount of exposure an officer has to endure (Perez et al., 2010).
Officer Wellness Programs
Police departments across the country offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). This is typically the first line of defense as a treatment modality for officers displaying STS symptoms. In a survey of officers on an ICAC task force, 82% of their respective agencies offered EAP services (Wolak & Mitchell, 2009). The purpose of EAP is to provide an anonymous service to officers through various types of support for emotional and mental health, mindfulness, and wellness, including crisis response. A study has shown that officers who investigate crimes against children reduce STS through psychological counseling (Burruss et al., 2018). Typically, this service is not mandatory; therefore, it can only be utilized if the officer requests help on their own behalf. However, some departments have made its use mandatory after viewing a certain amount of content (Burruss et al., 2018). Linking this approach with supervisory support could help encourage reducing any stigma associated with seeking therapeutic help (Burruss et al., 2018). This service was intended to provide officers with an outlet for support. However, one study found that officers were concerned that EAP staff lack knowledge on the topic of child pornography (Wolak & Mitchell, 2009).
Another alternative for officers presenting STS is peer support. Structurally, this is different from EAP, as it is staffed by fellow officers, rather than trained mental health professionals. One criticism of EAP is that the therapists may not have an approach that will translate well with law enforcement (Krause, 2009). To counter this issue, peer support models were designed specifically to the needs of officers affiliated with ICAC, such as the FBI’s Undercover Safeguard Program and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program (SCLEAP) (Krause, 2009). These units were developed with the goal of maintaining a staff that has training specific to the issue of child exploitation and pornography. Therefore, when attempting to treat officers who are symptomatic, they may feel more comfortable expressing their concerns. Peer support programs were developed after police officers used them post-9/11, thus helping to validate their utility (Papazoglou & Tuttle, 2018).
Other positive coping mechanisms for STS that fall under the wellness category are exercise and humor. Exercise has been shown to be beneficial in reducing depression, anxiety, and stress while improving psychological well-being and cognitive functioning. Although, in one study it was not found to be effective in reducing STS (Bourke & Craun, 2014). Yet, several other empirical studies found that exercising was an effective method of reducing STS (Burns et al., 2008; Burruss et al., 2018; Craun et al., 2014; Perez et al., 2010; Stevenson, 2007; Wolak & Mitchell, 2009). Humor was noted by officers as a positive coping mechanism to deal with stress (Burns et al., 2008; Craun & Bourke, 2014). High-stress occupations like policing utilize humor as a way to counterbalance the constant exposure to society's darkest affronts. Additionally, those who investigate crimes against children are in a position where their stress can be amplified by frequent exposure. This has resulted in the discovery of the benefits of using lighthearted humor to combat STS. The latter finding may be difficult to operationalize from an organizational structure perspective, but unless it is deemed inappropriate by colleagues, its use should be encouraged.
The previous sections have outlined the scope of STS and its impact on officers. After examining the available research, the following policy options are offered for law enforcement agencies to consider adopting.
Policy Option 1:
- Action = Status quo
- Result = This does not appear to be effective
- Possible Outcomes = Officers will continue to suffer from emotional and physical harms
Policy Option 2:
- Action = Organizational and social support
- Results = Appears to be the most effective approach
- Possible outcome = Less likely to have officers suffer from STS
Policy Option 3:
- Action = Officer wellness programs
- Results = Has been demonstrated to be effective
- Possible outcomes = Officers can reduce STS and are likely to benefit from participating in wellness programs in all aspects of their life
Advantages and Disadvantages
Policy Option 1: Maintain the Status Quo
No improvement on reducing STS
Does not require the organization to change
Satisfaction among officers may continue to decline
New policies do not need to be enforced
Officers will not benefit from proposed innovations
Policy Option 2: Organizational and Social Support
May require an investment in new exposure-limiting equipment
Supportive work environment can lead to increased morale and decreased STS
Officers and supervisors must subscribe to this to achieve its potential
Opportunity to lower reported STS
Assigning potentially lower risk officers may limit the pool of qualified officer
Increased chance to prevent STS related health concerns
Ensuring officers have strong social support outside of work may prove difficult
Policy Option 3: Officer Wellness Programs
Low cost to no cost depending on the agency
Requires participation on and off duty which may be unpaid and officers may need additional training
Offering employee assistance is beneficial to the officer and organization
Requires a contract with EAP and policy to ensure officers utilize the service
Provides a service to improve officers physical and mental well-being
Cost of gym memberships for officers if no departmental gym is available
This brief has described the scope of STS among law enforcement officers who investigate crimes against children. Moreover, it has provided policy options for police administrators to take into consideration. All aspects of law enforcement are inherent with varying levels of risk. First responders are responsible for investigating tragedies ranging from homicides, suicides, rape, and crimes against children. The expectation from the public is that they do so at the highest level possible. Ensuring police officers are able to sustain repeated exposure comes at an expense. Even the most physically and mentally tough humans do not know how they would respond if exposed to these incidents throughout their careers. Specifically, those handling the investigations of crimes against children. These officers seek the role that was ranked the fourth most stressful occupational hazard in policing; the top three were using lethal force, a fellow officer being murdered, and being assaulted by a citizen (Krause, 2009). Considering this, the failure to provide the highest level of support to investigators who dedicate their lives to bringing justice to the victims of one of the most heinous types of crimes imaginable is an injustice.
Of the three policy options, the second policy option of organizational and social support presents the most promise for organizations trying to reduce STS among officers. This recommendation would encourage police administrators to make changes in their organization by utilizing evidence-based policy. Specifically, through using the empirical data presented in this brief to guide policy changes on how supervisors should react when an investigator is experiencing acute symptoms of STS. This may require advanced training for supervisors who can recognize STS symptoms to act accordingly with the officer's best interest in mind. These symptoms have been defined as being unable to stop thinking about work, having higher irritability, being emotionally numb, and having difficulty sleeping (Bourke & Craun, 2014, Craun et al., 2014).
Supervisors should have the ability to recognize the baseline behaviors of their officers in order to distinguish any deviation from them. The call for these changes is not novel, as past research has indicated that officers working with these types of crimes may present the greatest need for evidence-based interventions (Craun et al., 2014). Some examples include measuring how long officers are being exposed to images, including the length of time spent investigating these crimes and its relationship with increased STS (Craun et al., 2014; Perez et al., 2010). A policy can be written to mandate officers to utilize EAP services after being exposed for a certain period of time, which merges into the third policy option (i.e., wellness). This can be linked with outfitting the investigator's computers with the latest advances in digital forensics tools and software that limits exposure to disturbing images (e.g., hash value images). To contextualize this point consider this example; as the result of a single investigation, officers may be subjected to view anywhere from zero to ten-thousand images of child pornography (Perez et al., 2010), then be required to transcribe the image in a detailed narrative outlining how the child was assaulted.
The second part of the policy option is ensuring officers have strong social support. Previous research indicated that officers who disclosed the stressors experienced at work with their spouses or those who self-reported having strong relationships outside of work were less likely to exhibit STS (Brady, 2017). As mentioned earlier in the brief, police candidates are required to have a psychological screening confirming that they have supportive relationships in their life before being considered for employment. For the officers who request these special assignments, there should be an additional screening to ensure they still maintain those relationships or have established new ones. Another part of the screening that should eliminate an applicant from being assigned this role is if they disclose having experienced personal trauma. Research suggests those who have been a victim of assault themselves are more likely to experience STS (Craun et al., 2014).
The three policy options presented here were informed by the current empirical findings on prevention and treatment modalities for officers exhibiting STS because of investigating crimes against children. This brief has the intention of informing administrators at law enforcement agencies nationwide at the municipal, state, and federal levels. The recommendations made here urge the leaders of police departments to determine if they want to maintain the status quo, increase organization and social support, or increase wellness programs for officers. These policy suggestions are not intended to be the solutions that end all discussions on the matter. These evidence-based policy choices should continue to be evaluated and tested to achieve the highest level of efficacy possible.
Bourke, M. L., & Craun, S. W. (2014). Secondary traumatic stress among internet crimes against children task force personnel: Impact, risk factors, and coping strategies. Sexual Abuse, 26(6), 586–609. https://doi.org/10.1177/1079063213509411
This article conducted the first large-scale study on the risk of STS in law enforcement. This study specifically looked at STS within ICAC task forces including over 600 personnel nationwide. Using an Internet-based study the authors found that 25% of the respondents suffered significantly from STS. Strong social support had a positive effect as a coping mechanism, as well as a positive working environment that included supportive supervisors and coworkers.
Brady, P. Q. (2017). Crimes against caring: Exploring the risk of secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and compassion satisfaction among child exploitation investigators. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 32(4), 305–318. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-016-9223-8
In this empirical exploratory study, 433 ICAC task force officers completed a survey to investigate the causes of STS and burnout. They found 1 in 4 officers suffered from high levels of STS and burnout. The findings indicate that officers who had a strong social support system outside of work and utilize positive coping mechanisms lowered STS while strengthening compassion satisfaction. Factors associated with work that contributed to increases STS were frequent indirect exposure to child pornography, weak organizational support, and feeling overburdened.
Brown, J., Fielding, J., & Grover, J. (1999). Distinguishing traumatic, vicarious and routine operational stressor exposure and attendant adverse consequences in a sample of police officers. Work & Stress, 13(4), 312–325. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678379950019770
The authors conducted an empirical study on 601 British police officers measuring operational stressors. This qualitative study found that sexual crimes was reported to be one the most stressful to investigate. This study distinguishes how a particular type of exposure (e.g., sexual crimes) leads to STS.
Burns, C. M., Morley, J., Bradshaw, R., & Domene, J. (2008). The emotional impact on and coping strategies employed by police teams investigating internet child exploitation. Traumatology, 14(2), 20–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534765608319082
This empirical study was done on 14 members of the Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) team, which is a unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It was qualitative in nature and found that officers exposed to images, video, and sounds of children being sexually assaulted were at a higher risk of STS. To mitigate STS these officers reported that doing meaningful work, having compassion, and having positive coping strategies helped.
Burruss, G. W., Holt, T. J., & Wall-Parker, A. (2018). The hazards of investigating internet crimes against children: Digital evidence handlers’ experiences with vicarious trauma and coping behaviors. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(3), 433–447. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-017-9417-3
In this empirical study, the authors had 360 officers across the United States, who completed cybercrime and digital evidence training through the NWC3 complete a survey on vicarious trauma. They found that more exposure to media of crimes against children was related to increases reports of STS. Positive coping strategies included officers discussing their feelings, and exercising which was most effective when they had strong social support systems.
Craun, S. W., & Bourke, M. L. (2014). The use of humor to cope with secondary traumatic stress. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 23(7), 840–852. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2014.949395
This study evaluated the use of humor through surveys completed by 500 ICAC task force personnel. The authors assessed two types of humor lighthearted and gallows. They found that the use of lighthearted humor by ICAC personnel was related to lower STS. Gallows humor was found to increase STS scores among respondents.
Craun, S. W., Bourke, M. L., Bierie, D. M., & Williams, K. S. (2014). A longitudinal examination of secondary traumatic stress among law enforcement. Victims & Offenders, 9(3), 299–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2013.848828
This was the first longitudinal empirical study on the subject matter. The researchers had 500 Deputy United States Marshals total that comprised of two groups, one was deputies assigned to sex offense investigations, and the second was made up of randomly assigned deputies from the remainder of the agency. All the deputies completed a survey with the goal of identifying what factors are more likely to cause STS and possible mitigating factors. The researchers found that supervisory support lowered STS over time, exposure over time was related to higher STS, and interestingly enough the deputies who were in the sex crime unit were not more likely to have symptoms versus those assigned to the sex crime unit.
Hensel, J. M., Ruiz, C., Finney, C., & Dewa, C. S. (2015). Meta-analysis of risk factors for secondary traumatic stress in therapeutic work with trauma victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28(2), 83–91. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.21998
This was a meta-analysis of 38 studies that examined 17 risk factors for STS in therapeutic workers who treat trauma victims. This study helps link the mechanisms of STS by demonstrating how, regardless of the occupation, those who are exposed to the trauma experienced by others are at risk of experiencing trauma themselves. The study found the risk factors with the highest level of significance contributing to STS were related to caseload volume, caseload frequency, having suffered a personal trauma, low work support, and low social support.
Holt, T. J., & Blevins, K. R. (2011). Examining job stress and satisfaction among digital forensic examiners. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 27(2), 230–250. https://doi.org/10.1177/1043986211405899
An empirical article focused on digital forensic analysts who work with child pornography evidence, and how they respond to the stress. The survey was done on 56 digital forensic analysts. The authors found that analysts experience a moderate amount of work stress and high levels of job satisfaction. The analysts utilize coping strategies like distracting themselves through suppression (a negative coping mechanism) and talking with others to deal with these stresses (i.e., social support).
Krause, M. (2009). Identifying and managing stress in child pornography and child exploitation investigators. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 24(1), 22–29. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-008-9033-8
This was a theoretical article outlining the issues to date on STS and how it presents in law enforcement officers who investigate crimes against children. The author also presented two supportive models that have shown promising results (e.g., FBI undercover safeguard program, SCLEAP).
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. (2021, March 2). CyberTipline Data. Missingkids.org. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from http://www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline/cybertiplinedata.html
This site contains data collected from public and private entities who reported cases of child sexual abuse material on an international level. This is the largest collection of publicly reported data of its kind.
Nowacki, J., & Willits, D. (2019). An organizational approach to understanding police response to cybercrime. Policing: An International Journal, 43(1), 63–76. https://doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-07-2019-0117
This is an empirical article that used data from Law Enforcement Management and Statistics (LEMAS) survey to measure organizational variables as they are relates to context, complexity, and control. Their findings noted that larger agencies with collective bargaining units are more likely to dedicate resources to cybercrime.
Papazoglou, K., & Tuttle, B. M. (2018). Fighting police trauma: Practical approaches to addressing psychological needs of officers. Journal of Police Emergency Response, 8(3). 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244018794794
This theoretical article addresses the negative impact of stress and trauma while assessing the value of psychological support in law enforcement. For instance, how it affects officers' ability to perform their duties coupled with the police culture having skepticism towards seeking out psychological support. The authors suggest evidence-based approaches from a clinician's perspective to break down barriers between them and law enforcement. Some suggestions were knowledge about the complexity of police stress and trauma, compassion fatigue, partnering with peer-support programs, and including officers’ families in treatment planning.
Perez, L. M., Jones, J., Englert, D. R., & Sachau, D. (2010). Secondary traumatic stress and burnout among law enforcement investigators exposed to disturbing media images. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 25(2), 113–124. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-010-9066-7
This empirical study on 28 federal law enforcement officers and civilian contractors assigned to investigate internet crimes against children measured the effect of STS (referred to in the study as STSD) and burnout. They found among a large portion of the respondents poor psychological well-being. More exposure to child pornography was related to higher levels of STS and cynicism. Respondents who felt like they were making a difference had scored high on professional efficacy. Lower STS and burnout scores were with respondents who had supportive relationships.
Stevenson, J. (2007). Welfare considerations for supervisors managing child sexual abuse online units. [Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Middlesex University]. Shiftwellness.
This dissertation was one of the first empirical studies on the effect of investigating internet crimes against children. Using semi-structured interviews with 12 supervisors of internet crimes against children units. The researcher found that clear guidelines for staff welfare should be established (i.e., policies), training for supervisors and administrators to be able to identify welfare issues, and how the units are staffed and their resources should be evaluated.
Wolak, J., & Mitchell, K. J. (2009). Work Exposure to Child Pornography in ICAC Task Forces and Affiliates. Crimes Against Children Research Center. https://www.unh.edu/ccrc/sites/default/files/media/2022-03/work-exposure-to-child-pornography-in-icac-task-forces-and-affiliates.pdf
This paper was produced through the crimes against children research center and funded by the DOJ (OJJDP). The authors reported survey findings from 40 ICAC task forces and 524 affiliates at the local, county, state, and federal law enforcement levels in the U.S. The findings suggested over 90% of the respondents had been exposed to child pornography during their investigations. They recommended that training programs should be created for exposure to child pornography, openly discuss adverse sexual reactions, encourage communication between personnel and supervisors (i.e., social support), and conduct further research to support evidence-based policies to protect the personnel of these units.