Psych Services: Coping styles for dealing with grisly, disturbing police events

Lisa Garmezy

The Houston-Metro Internet Crimes against Children Task force identified 318 child victims between October 1, 2012 and July 31, 2013, more than one per day. Congratulations to them on the 198 arrests made.

Rescuing children abused and degraded in this manner makes viewing sickening pornographic images worthwhile—but there may be a price to pay. I recently attended an HPD SHIFT training with Special Victims personnel in our department. The training and the website, shiftwellness.org, help law enforcement professionals handle exposure to child pornography.

The strategies that support officers fighting the sexual exploitation of children can, I’ve noticed, be used by officers in any assignment.

Lessons from an ICAC Unit

Sgt. Jerry Barker, the Arizona ICAC commander leading the class, said that dealing with abnormal minds can lead to abnormal thoughts. When that happens, he advises talking it over with trusted coworkers or a mental health professional. Barker opposes rotating staff out of ICAC units on a set schedule, because teams need to bond in order to talk about how the work affects them.

Feeling traumatized from exposure to grisly or disturbing scenes can happen to any cop. Without doubt, all of you are subject to feeling like soldiers in “a war that can’t be won.” That’s how Barker sees the ICAC officer’s fight, because the distribution of pornography across a network is getting easier and easier.

It’s also getting uglier and uglier. According to the training, sexually exploitative imagery is growing more violent as a generation raised on sexting and accessible pornography grows dissatisfied with the usual stuff and craves more extreme material. Time magazine just reported that in popular adult pornography “nearly 90 percent of 304 random scenes contained physical aggression toward women who nearly always responded neutrally or with pleasure.” But that’s another column.

ICAC officers risk the intrusion of work images into home life. When what you saw causes you to overprotect your family members, your spouses think you’re control freaks. When the images affect your attitudes about sex – for example, making any kind of desire seem dirty – your spouses have other complaints.

Barker suggests imagining the perps are in the car with you on your drive home. Imagine that you are mentally throwing them out on the road so you arrive alone. Keep family photos around you at work, but do not use them as screensavers on a computer used to view horrible images. Also, find a hobby that de-stresses you: Barker likes to bake bread and take it along to stake-outs.

What’s Your Coping Style?

Dr. Nicole Cruz of the FBI’s Undercover Safeguard Unit is another expert on managing ICAC assignments. Again, officers in varied roles can and do use her survival strategies, listed below.

1) Athletes handle stress physically by working out and maintaining “an overall sense of wellness and competency.” These officers can get upset if they can’t exercise.

2) Team Players handle the stress by connecting with colleagues, perhaps through dark humor. They use a healthy work group as a safe place to vent about tough cases. Team people may have difficulty working alone for long periods, or when the team make-up changes.

   3) Emergency Workers seem to naturally separate home and work. They probably focus on the facts, not the people involved. The downside of this coping strategy is that something eventually breaks through the officer’s defenses. When that occurs, these folks are reluctant to admit the natural vulnerability that they see as a weakness.

   4) Ritualists, as the name implies, depend on rituals to leave the stress behind. This category includes officers who cope through prayer or spiritual beliefs. This method can offer true healing – and Dr. Cruz didn’t list any downside.

5) Pragmatists are practical people who have clear reasons for doing the job, such as the schedule, the overtime, or the resume-building. They don’t stress because they know exactly why they applied for the assignment. However, they may underestimate the potential for vicarious trauma on the job, and get blindsided.

   6) Last, True Believers have “a sense of duty or calling” to protect children. They work hard and can be satisfied, as Barker claims to be, by saving a single child. The meaningfulness balances the stress. However, they may keep working after it’s time to quit. Caring can be a risk factor for burnout.

‘Autopilot is Death’

We all know the good guys don’t always win. That’s frustrating and stressful. When you watch a child grow older in years of pornographic films, and it’s your job to find her and you can’t – that’s potentially heart-breaking.

The coping styles above can help. They incorporate what we know to be the building blocks of resilience, the ability to bounce back from stress. One of these building blocks, close ties to others, is the tool of choice for Team Players. Other keys are optimism, setting reachable goals, and feeling that one’s life has meaning – whether it’s to serve God or play Chinese Checkers.

Figure out how to strengthen yourself now and you’ll have a better shot at managing tough times tomorrow. The new book Life Reimagined says satisfaction starts with careful, conscious choices about how we spend our time. The author warns, “Autopilot is death.”

That’s dramatic, but absolutely true in law enforcement. Stress kills. Police work shows each and every one of you horrible events that are too shocking to take in without actively working to develop and maintain balance and peace in your life. Please make the effort.

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To see Cruz’s original list, which was simplified here, google Safeguard Spotlight April 2011. SHIFTwellness.org has excellent stress management resources, including material for spouses and supervisors.