Contributing Author: Wendy L. Patrick, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego County (CA)
As prosecutors, we have jobs that require us to view explicit, often very graphic, unsettling evidence. You can’t simply avert your eyes because a child’s safety is at stake, and a criminal must be brought to justice. Nonetheless, there are ways to guard your senses and your sensibility in strategizing how to work sensitive cases. You don’t want to have these images pop up and one of the video clips start running through your mind at the family dinner table, causing you to become quiet and withdrawn. On the other hand, you must dutifully examine such evidence in order to do your job. So where is the happy medium? How do you cope?
Thankfully, there are tips and tactics to lessen the psychological impact of viewing graphic evidence for a living, and coping strategies to recharge.
Viewing Graphic Evidence
George W. Burruss et al. (2018) examined the issue of vicarious trauma due to viewing graphic evidence within the context of investigating Internet crimes against children. They found that investigators regularly encounter psychologically harmful materials in the course of working cases involving child pornography and sexual exploitation, and that such exposure directly and indirectly enhances the likelihood of experiencing trauma.
They emphasize the necessity of management to monitor investigators for indications of emotional stress or secondary trauma, and also highlight the value of wellness programs as well as psychological counseling for digital investigators to minimize the chances of suffering secondary trauma symptoms, and to encourage healthy coping mechanisms. They note that some agencies encourage, while others mandate counseling services after a certain number of hours viewing graphic content.
Other researchers have acknowledged the value of positive coping strategies. Thomas J. Holt and Kristie Blevins (2011) examined job stress and satisfaction among a selection of digital forensic examiners, and found that although analysts did in fact experience a moderate amount of work stress, they also experienced high levels of job satisfaction, and used methods of prosocial coping to balance the stressors.
Because of the value placed on achieving psychological balance, if you have to view disturbing, explicit, or graphic imagery, here are a few tips for managing associated trauma.
Practical Tips for Viewing What You Would Rather Not See
Prosecutors who already know, due to the types of cases they are handling, that they are going to have to endure psychologically upsetting or unsettling imagery, can prepare themselves beforehand, and afterwards. Here are some ideas.
- With photographs, start with an aerial perspective by using gallery view to get an idea of the type of content you are about to view. With videos, watch without sound, at least at first. Utilize different background sounds in your viewing room, such as classical music, radio, television, or white noise, as opposed to silence.
- Regarding location, select a strategic, private viewing area in a private space — not in your home. Sit by a window with a pleasant view, providing both natural light and a link to the outside world. Ideally, view such material with others involved in the same incident as you (investigators, data analysts, other prosecutors), who are readily available for assistance or conversation.
- Only view graphic evidence for a certain amount of time. Avoid being pressured by deadlines to sacrifice your mental and emotional health by immersing yourself in graphic content all day long. Breaks boost productivity, concentration, and job performance.
- Divide the labor: decide whether content viewers also work with victims and family. And discuss viewing strategies with your team. Consider loading all explicit content on to specific computers at the office so no one has to take them home and accidentally have them populate the screen, or be visible to family members.
- View graphic evidence early enough in the day where you have plenty of time afterwards for other activities to provide distraction and diversion, replacing disturbing sounds and images with positive sensory experiences. Never view graphic evidence by yourself at night.
- Recharge physically with fresh air and exercise to counteract the sedentary nature of sitting for long periods of time viewing evidence. Recharge emotionally by spending time with personal friends and family outside of the office.
- Leave work at work. Create escape rituals, such as closing and locking the door of your office at the end of the day, and don’t look back. Shed your professional identity at home by immediately changing your clothes, and your mindset. Shift your focus to hobbies, sports, plans, and the lives of your partner and/ or your children.
- Broaden your circle of friends to fully disengage from work and professional identity. Volunteer your time working at places with healthy kids to avoid stereotyping all children as victims. Participate in formal spirituality through church services and fellowship with a faith community, where people from all walks of life are bound by a common belief system.
- If you experience signs of trauma or discomfort, share your feelings with specially trained peer support employees or counselors. With your family, you can share your emotion without sharing the graphic details to avoid causing distress.
Utilizing proactive protective strategies cannot erase your memory of disturbing imagery, but it can lessen the psychological trauma and likelihood of such viewing negatively impacting other aspects of your life. This will enable you to protect victims as well as your community, as well as yourself.