mental health in law enforcement
Supporting the mental health of child sexual abuse investigators
‘We need to talk about mental health in law enforcement,’ that’s according to Eric Oldenburg, Law Enforcement Liaison Officer in North America at Griffeye.
Over the past few years there has been a growing discussion around this topic, primarily focused on the need for law enforcement to be trained to better deal with and support members of the public with mental health issues – but what about training others to better support the police with their own mental health?
Almost 80% of law enforcement officers in the UK have reported experiencing stress, low moods, anxiety or other difficulties with their mental health and wellbeing, with over 90% relating this to their work. Despite mainstream acceptance of mental health conditions as illnesses, they continue to be stigmatised and so it is no surprise that less than 40% of law enforcement feel comfortable disclosing any difficulties with mental health to their line managers.
As someone who used to work in law enforcement as a police officer with the Phoenix Police Department, I have experienced the impact that certain investigations can have on a person’s mental health first hand, particularly from my time working as a child sexual abuse (CSA) investigator. These types of cases can have a severe effect on a person due to the graphic content that they have to process daily. Imagine having to go through huge amounts of images and videos of children being sexually abused and brutalised – it’s no surprise that being exposed to this kind of daily horror changes a person and puts them at a high risk of psychological issues.
The amount of content that has to be investigated is a huge challenge. Manually examining these images and videos in the search for evidence takes an unthinkable amount of time. This often results in cases not being solved and children staying at risk, leaving investigators feeling frustrated, under pressure and even more stressed. It’s time to shine a light on this mental strain among CSA investigators and what we can do to solve it.
The mental health crisis in CSA investigation departments
No one would expect anyone to come away unaffected after viewing images and videos of child sex abuse and this is a daily task for CSA investigators. Unsurprisingly, the average CSA investigator only stays in the role for three to five years due to the toll that each investigation has on their mental health, with a recent report finding that more than a third were suffering from secondary traumatic stress and were at risk of PTSD.
A single device (for example, a phone or laptop) in an investigation can contain one to ten million images of traumatic child sexual abuse and it is up to these investigators to sift through the graphic images and search for relevant evidence to help solve these crimes. Most cases involve multiple devices, resulting in an investigator combing through an unfathomable amount of images and videos.
The increasing volume of CSA content being produced these days also has a major impact on evidence management and is therefore a barrier in the way of efficient investigations and saving children’s lives, only contributing to the stress impact of a CSA case. This consequence is not only felt by the investigators but also the victims; a CSA department’s high turnover means that an enormous amount of time is wasted going through evidence that someone else has already analysed. This is also due to the lack of collaboration between many police forces in the world, not because they don’t want to work together but because they don’t have access to technology which can enable this. These factors then take even more time away from rescuing children and putting those responsible for their abuse behind bars.
Technology can make a lot of difference
The continuous barriers, backlogs and stresses that accumulate in CSA cases can be alleviated in part through the introduction of new technology. In CSA cases, technology can be used to automatically sort through all images and video material that has been found on a suspect’s device, identifying and segmenting the content that is relevant to the case, massively narrowing down the selection of traumatic content that will have to be studied. Technology can also empower collaboration through shared databases (such as CAID in the UK and Project VIC globally) which sifts through new content before an investigator starts on a case and identifies all images and videos utilised in past cases, helping investigators quickly identify perpetrators and victims by working with other departments. This automation of manual work allows for investigators to share content and close cases faster, relieving some of the mental health burden on those investigating.
According to half of all CSA investigators surveyed in a recent report by NetClean, a combination of technologies including AI, facial recognition, PhotoDNA and forensic tools are the most helpful tools for fighting CSA crime and solving cases. These types of technology are more important now than ever because continuous advancements in our technology mean that criminals have more innovative ways to create, store and generate this content than ever before. To put this into perspective, in 2001 an expensive desktop could store as much data as today’s standard smartphones, but the size of teams fighting CSA haven’t increased at the same pace to keep up with the problem, meaning they need all of the technological help they can get to tackle these crimes.
Changing the conversation around mental health in the police force
Technology can help to ease the stresses of CSA cases, but there is still more that needs to be done to tackle mental health strain in law enforcement. A major issue for many in the police is that mental health still continues to be stigmatised in the force and even seen by some as a sign of weakness. These attitudes only serve to damage the force as a whole, with those who need support feeling ashamed to ask for the help that they need. The CSA sector in particular is in urgent need of better infrastructure to support the mental wellbeing of its staff.
There is some existing support from mental health experts available to those in some forces and some training for line-managers but it is often not enough. The police force needs resilient experts who have an understanding of the material that police work with every day, for example the types of traumatic CSA material that has to be viewed and the risks of secondary traumatic stress that this can cause. Sometimes the best support can come from industry veterans who have first-hand knowledge of the disturbing nature of the content being discussed. These veterans would be more understanding of topics under discussion in contrast to other mental health experts which means a more productive and helpful conversation can take place.
Attitudes around mental health are improving in law enforcement and society as a whole – and new measures are being implemented to support police who need it – but there is still a long way to go. This is especially true in the case of many CSA investigators. The introduction of technology has helped to relieve certain stresses and pressures by speeding up some processes and reducing the amount of disturbing material that a single person has to examine. Hopefully, in time, this will result in less turnover in CSA departments and more professionals staying longer in this field, supporting each other’s wellbeing and fighting and solving these crimes faster than ever before.
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