Trending Topics

Dealing with the stress of criminal investigation: “It gets to you”

Aside from the daily stresses of patrol policing, special pressures may be experienced by specially assigned homicide or sex-crimes officers who investigate particularly brutal crimes, multiple murders, serial killings or crimes against children. Stereotypes of the “hardboiled” detective, from inside and outside the law enforcement profession, have contributed to the underrecognition and undertreatment of chronic stress, critical incident stress and posttraumatic stress syndromes in this group. As described by retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement Director Dr. James Sewell, during a high-profile criminal investigation, the socially and culturally expected protective role of the police officer becomes highlighted at the same time as their responsibilities as public servants who protect individual rights are compounded by departmental and societal pressure to solve the crime.

Stresses of murder investigations
A multiple- or serial-murder investigation forces the officer to confront stressors directly related to his or her projected image of unwavering strength and determination, ability to respond competently and dispassionately to crises, and willingness to place the needs and demands of the public above his or her personal feelings. This is magnified in high-profile cases with greater media attention. The sheer magnitude and shock effect of many mass-murder scenes and the violence, mutilation and sadistic brutality associated with many serial killings – especially those involving children – often exceed the defense mechanisms and coping abilities of even the most jaded investigator. Revulsion may be tinged with rage when innocent victims or fellow officers have been killed or injured, and the murderer seems to be mocking law enforcement’s attempts to capture and prosecute him.

As the investigation drags on, the inability to solve the crime and close the case further frustrates and demoralizes the assigned officers and seems to jeeringly proclaim the hollowness of society’s notions of fairness and justice. As noted above, all the more disturbing are situations where the killer is known but the existing evidence is insufficient to support an arrest or conviction. Stress and self-recrimination are further magnified when the failure to apprehend the perpetrator is caused by human error, as when an officer’s misguided actions or breach of protocol leads to loss or damage of evidence or suppression of testimony, allowing the perpetrator to walk.

All of these reactions are intensified by a cumulatively spiraling vicious cycle of fatigue and cognitive impairment, as the sustained and exhausting effort to solve the case may result in sloppy errors, deteriorating work quality, and fraying of home and workplace relationships. Fatigue also exacerbates the wearing down of the investigator’s normal psychological defenses, rendering him or her even more vulnerable to stress and failure.

Especially in no-arrest cases, and particularly those involving children, some homicide or sex crimes investigators may become emotionally involved with the victims’ families and remain in contact with them for many years. Some detectives become obsessed with a particular case and continue to work on it at every available moment, sometimes to the point of compromising their work on other cases and leading to a deterioration of health and family life.

Special stresses of sex crimes investigations
Adding to all this stress is the fact that there exists in many law enforcement agencies something of a rivalry among different departments, especially between homicide and sex crimes units. Even in this day of TV’s “Law and Order: SVU,” homicide is still regarded as the elite investigative unit in most departments. One way this prioritization manifests itself is in terms of allocation of departmental resources. For example, the case closure rate of homicides is almost always greater than that of sexual crimes (about 70 percent and 50 percent, respectively), despite the fact that homicide victims are by definition deceased, while sexual assault victims are typically alive and able to recount their experiences to investigators.

Even more so than for other types of offenses, sex crimes – especially those against helpless victims such as children or the elderly – evoke a certain special revulsion and corresponding denial in most of us. Thus, the people who would choose to specialize in this type of crime may be imbued with a certain air of creepiness that serves to isolate and alienate them from the rest of their colleagues. After all, the thought of some people perpetrating violent, loathsome acts on others is so distasteful to the rest of us that anyone who would willingly immerse him- or herself in this kind of work must be two-thirds weirdo already, right? This probably represents a reaction formation defense against the morbid voyeuristic streak we all harbor about lurid crimes of this type – which also explains the wide television appeal. But when this reactive avoidance leads to alienation or ridicule of the sex crimes investigator within his or her own department, this officer is deprived of a valuable source of collegial support in the battle against stress and burnout.

Media portrayals can have another unintendedly negative effect as well. By giving the public the impression that most cases can be tidily wrapped up in one episode, it may lead to unrealistic pressure on investigators to solve real-world cases that are typically more messy and ambiguous than the scripted scenarios on TV. This of course is just one example of the more general media-reality gap that surrounds most cop shows.

Selection and training of criminal investigators
In many departments, the appointment of officers to homicide or sex crime units is more a matter of seniority and promotion, and less a matter of specific training and selection criteria. Such is not usually the case with hostage negotiators, undercover officers, SWAT team members or other special operations personnel. FBI experts Lanning and Hazelwood recommend that, like members of these other specialized units, sex crimes investigators be volunteers who are carefully screened and trained. Aside from using their technical savvy, investigators will spend a good deal of time speaking with victims, families, witnesses, suspects and others who may be important to the case, so good communications skills are essential.

Screening also involves weeding out unsuitable candidates. These include officers who have an overly lurid or voyeuristic motive for doing this kind of work; those who may be motivated solely or mainly by personal issues, including a personal or family history of criminal victimization or sexual abuse (although such a history does not automatically exclude the officer, providing he or she has dealt with the relevant issues); officers who have particular religious or political agendas; and those who see investigation as an easy career move, without the requisite commitment to the hard and dedicated work involved.

Characteristics of successful investigators
According to FDLE’s Dr. Sewell, a number of traits and behaviors, as well as essential knowledge, skills and abilities, appear to characterize the most successful criminal investigators. First, they possess a basic knowledge of the law and the legal system to guide their efforts. They have an extensive knowledge of investigative and forensic techniques and procedures — indeed, many of these professionals avail themselves of continued study and training, even on their own time and at their own expense. These investigators are able to take a broad and deep perspective on their cases, to perceive complex patterns and connections within standard typologies of criminals and crime scenes. But they’re also able to creatively “think outside the box” when necessary, to reel in elusive clues and flesh out skeletal inferences that may lead to valuable evidence.

Criminal investigation is hard work, long work, and it’s often exhausting and ungratifying work. Successful investigators are able to marshal and sustain motivation and persistence to see the case through – whatever the conclusion may be. This requires a certain level of tenacity and commitment that is beyond a 9-to-5 mentality. It also requires the patience to deal with frustration and disappointments along the way, as well as the ability to be a self-starter and fight the boredom that can gradually gum up the engine of the investigator’s drive to follow through on the case.

Certain cognitive and temperamental features characterize successful investigators. Naturally, a curious and inquisitive mind is an asset, characterized by the desire to go deeper into and know more about a phenomenon. This is aided by a highly developed attention to detail, enabling the investigator to perceive minutiae that are overlooked by other observers but that may well prove crucial to solving the case.

Similar to a crisis negotiator, a good investigator is a “people person.” These types can read subtle interpersonal cues and can communicate effectively with suspects, witnesses or civilians in ways that induce trust and the willingness to come forth with important information. They can also flexibly adapt their communication style to their audience, without appearing to be “faking it.”

Not faking it also applies to the investigators’ professional and personal integrity. Successful investigators take justifiable pride in upholding the law through their daily dogged work in solving crimes. From a practical perspective, law enforcement agencies that are perceived as basically fair and honorable are far more likely to elicit cooperation from their citizenry when it comes to gathering vital information about crimes.

Coping strategies of criminal investigators
A variety of coping strategies are used by criminal investigators to help themselves and their colleagues carry out their assignments. Some of these strategies are used spontaneously by officers, some can be encouraged by departmental supervisors, and others can be taught and trained by mental health professionals (see: Mental Toughness for Law Enforcement).

Defense mechanisms and mental toughening
A number of authorities have commented on the general mental hardening or toughening that takes place in the life of criminal investigators. This is the most familiar way of blocking unpleasant material for guys and gals who are used to taking a tough, suck-it-up attitude toward unpleasant aspects of the job. However, most of these mental toughening or hardening techniques are intended to be utilized for short-term emergency situations; they are not designed to comprise the officer’s full-time mindset. When it persists, however, this psychological hardening reaction can take a number of forms, some that may be conducive to productive coping, others less so.

Compartmentalization or isolation of affect is where negative emotions are separated out and put in a “mental file cabinet” in order to allow the rest of the officer’s cognitive faculties to keep functioning. Individuals differ in their ability to make this mental separation without undue emotional leakage into other areas of work and family life.

Intellectualization is the term used to describe the process of detoxifying an emotionally wrenching task or experience by adopting the stance of detached, objective, intellectual curiosity: for example, the emotional revulsion and horror of encountering the remains of a sexually mutilated corpse is diffused and diluted by immersion in the technical scientific minutiae of crime-scene investigation and offender-profiling.

Sublimation refers to the process of turning a “bad” impulse into a socially acceptable, or even admirable “good” activity or vocation. The classic example is the potential criminal slasher who becomes a skilled surgeon: He still gets to cut into people, but he saves lives instead of taking them, and he makes a good living in the process. In the law enforcement arena, this often manifests itself in taking the morbid curiosity and anxiety we all have about sex and murder and channeling it into a productive career in forensic science. In this regard, sublimation is aided by intellectualization, which gives the immersion in the world of gore a scientific rationale. Again, as with the surgeon, this is not a form of psychopathology, but actually an adaptive defense mechanism.

Similarly, humor involves being able to take an ironic and therefore more objective perspective on things that make us uncomfortable – think for a moment about the subject matter of most stand-up routines and sitcoms, and you’ll see why. Humor enables officers to deal with the grotesque by removing it emotionally by several stages in the form of a joke. Healthy humor enables officers to defuse stress and anxiety, share an experience in a supportive atmosphere, and encourage a healthy bonding among members of an elite “club.” By contrast, unhealthy humor mocks the officers or victims themselves, distresses surviving family members and sullies the department’s honor. It may thus be important for departmental leaders to model the appropriate expression of humor as an adaptive coping mechanism.

One of the effects of healthy humor is to cement peer support among members of the investigative team and more widely among officers within the department. Typically, officers themselves report that recognition and support from their fellow officers constitute the most important stress-mitigating factor they can identify. Peer support can also be thought of more broadly in the form of collegial associations, such as memberships in professional societies, contribution to relevant publications and online databases, and so on – that is, building a nationwide and worldwide community of support, in addition to that within the department.

Implicit in what I’ve just said, the concept of professionalism subsumes all of the adaptive coping strategies noted above, as well as being a constructive principle of law enforcement generally. FBI trainers Lanning and Hazelwood have made some of these principles explicit for homicide and sex-crimes investigators.

Professionalism begins with a certain attitude that says the investigator will do his or her best because of a general service orientation and specifically because the work provides professional satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

Professionalism encompasses the physical space in which the investigator works. There is no reason for the investigator’s office to be unnecessarily grim, but bear in mind that this office will have a wide variety of professionals and civilians circulating through it – from liaison officers of other agencies in multijurisdictional investigations, to distraught family members of slain or assaulted victims – so officers should choose their decor accordingly. Certainly, explicit illustrations, crime scene souvenirs or other inappropriate decorations should not be in plain sight.

Confidentiality is an essential part of professionalism. Victims and their families must be certain that their sensitive material – testimony transcripts, crime scene photographs, videotapes, property used for evidence – will be seen only by those directly involved in solving and prosecuting the case. Aside from being the right and ethical thing to do, the assurance of reasonable privacy and dignity serves the practical function of encouraging better cooperation from victims and potential witnesses, which may yield information vital to closing the case.

Professionalism extends to the investigator’s language and behavior. Again, this is not to encourage undertaker-like solemnity or schoolmarmish overcorrectness, but maintaining a certain decorum of speech and demeanor is important for the public and for co-workers. Remember, sex crimes investigators must struggle with the “creep factor” even among their colleagues, so anything that contributes to the impression of serious professionalism – proper and respectful handling of gruesome or pornographic evidence, for example – will serve to heighten credibility. Again, without encouraging inappropriate overformality, the use of technical terms, not slang, should be policy, especially when communicating with civilians. All professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychologists – have their own distinctive terminology that serves to facilitate communication among them and highlights the fact that these are members of serious professions with knowledge and experience in what they do.

This is related to expertise as a key component of professionalism. New York City police officer and author Vincent Henry notes how truly dedicated investigators spend much of their own time, often at their own expense, reading books and journals, attending seminars and conferences, conferring with colleagues and downloading software, all to increase their knowledge and expertise in forensic investigation. For such professionals, education does not end with their basic law enforcement or criminal justice curriculum; rather, it is a process that extends and suffuses into all of one’s professional career. Personally, I wish more doctors had this attitude.

Professional services
Even in the face of the most heinously traumatic investigations, the majority of homicide and sex crimes investigators will not require professional mental health intervention. However, where necessary, such services should be available in an easily accessible and nonstigmatized way. Mental health services may include several options, such as critical-incident debriefing, individual stress-management counseling, or family therapy for emotional spill-over effects (see: Practical Police Psychology). As always, the department’s true commitment to its personnel is shown by the quality of support services it chooses to provide.

FDLE’s Dr. Sewell has endeavored to adapt a stress-management protocol similar to a critical incident stress debriefing, or CISD, geared toward the particular needs of special-assignment law enforcement officers, such as detectives who deal with the investigation of multiple murders and other violent crimes. The major objectives of this process are:

• Ventilation of intense emotions
• Exploration of symbolic meanings
• Group support under catastrophic conditions
• Initiation of the grief process within a supportive environment
• Reduction of the “fallacy of uniqueness”
• Reassurance that intense emotions under catastrophic conditions are normal
• Preparation for the continuation of the grief and stress process over the ensuing weeks and months
• Preparing for the possible development of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms in the aftermath of a serious crisis
• Education regarding normal and abnormal stress response syndromes
• Encouragement of continued group support and/or professional assistance

Dr. Sewell regards such interventions as appropriate for two specific groups and at two specific times. First, the stress of first responders who have just dealt with the trauma of the original scene must be confronted quickly and decisively. Second, the stress of assigned investigators must be handled regularly and as needed throughout the course of the investigation and prosecution. Where an officer seeks additional assistance, the follow-up sessions should be administratively encouraged and nonstigmatized.

In sum, without the skill and dedication of criminal investigators, there literally could be no justice system. This group has its own special needs and deserves its own special kind of support.

To learn more about these topics:

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

NOTE: If you have a question for this column, please submit it to this Web site.

Laurence Miller, PhD is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Florida. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, mental health consultant for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications pertaining to the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice, and organizational psychology. His latest books are Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement (Charles C Thomas, 2006) and Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement ( Looseleaf Law Publications /A>, 2008). Contact Dr. Miller at (561) 392-8881 or online at