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Cynicism, dirty work, and policing sex crimes

Dale C. Spencer (Department of Law and Legal Studies, Carleton University , Ottawa, Canada )
Rosemary Ricciardelli (Department of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland , Saint John’s, Canada )
Dale Ballucci (Department of Sociology, University of Western Ontario , London, Canada )
Kevin Walby (Department of Criminal Justice, University of Winnipeg , Winnipeg, Canada )

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 11 December 2019

Issue publication date: 6 April 2020



Digital evidence is now infused in many (or arguably most) cases of sexual assault, which has refigured investigative tools, policing strategies and sources of cynicism for those working in sex crime units. Although cynicism, both its sources and affects, is widely studied among scholars of work and policing, little is known about how police working in sex crime units experience, mitigate and express cynicism. The purpose of this paper is to fill this gap in understanding and explore the role of cynicism amongst investigators working in sex crime units.


To address this research gap, the authors conducted 70 semi-structured in-depth interviews and two focus groups with members of police services organizations across Canada working in sex crime units.


Examining sources of cynicism and emotional experiences, the authors reveal that officers in these units normalize and neutralize organizational and intra-organizational sources of cynicism, and cope with the potentially traumatizing and emotionally draining realities of undertaking this form of “dirty work.” The authors show that officer cynicism extends beyond offenders into organizational and operational aspects of their occupations and their lived experiences outside of work, which has implications for literature on police work, cynicism and digital policing.


The authors contribute to the literature on cyber policing by, first, examining sex crimes unit member’s sources of cynicism in relation to sex crimes and the digital world and, second, by exploring sources of cynicism in police organizations and other branches in the criminal justice system. The authors examine how such cynicism seeps into relationships outside of the occupation. The authors’ contribution is in showing that cynicism related to police dirty work is experienced in relation to “front” and “back” regions (Dick, 2005) but also in multiple organizational and social spheres. The authors contribute to the extant literature on dirty work insofar as it addresses the underexplored dirty work associated with policing cyber environments and the morally tainted elements of such policing tasks.



Spencer, D.C., Ricciardelli, R., Ballucci, D. and Walby, K. (2020), "Cynicism, dirty work, and policing sex crimes", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 43 No. 1, pp. 151-165.



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