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Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress or burnout?: an exploratory study of the effects of investigating sexual assault cases on detectives

Melissa S. Morabito (School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA)
April Pattavina (School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA)
Linda M. Williams (Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley, Massachusetts, USA)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 14 December 2020

Issue publication date: 25 January 2021

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Abstract

Purpose

Police officers are exposed to a wide variety of stressors – frequently interacting with people at their worst moments and sometimes absorbing the trauma that victims experience themselves. Investigating sexual assaults reported by adults presents significant challenges given the often high levels of distress experienced by victims paired with the likelihood that no arrest will be made and the low conviction rates. Little research explores the impact this investigatory work has on the detectives who are assigned to these cases.

Design/methodology/approach

Using interviews conducted with 42 sexual assault detectives across six jurisdictions designed to understand sexual assault case attrition, the study enhances understanding of the effects of investigating crimes of sexual violence on detectives. Specifically, the aurhors explore their experiences within the context of burnout and secondary traumatic stress.

Findings

The current study clearly identifies the incidence of emotional symptoms among sexual assault investigators. During the course of interviews about their decision-making, detectives, unprompted by researchers, manifested symptoms of trauma resulting from their assigned caseloads.

Research limitations/implications

Open-ended interviews offer a promising approach to exploring foundational questions.

Practical implications

Exposure to victims who have suffered the trauma of sexual assault can have a subsequent impact on the job performance and personal life of those who respond to victims in immediate crisis and to those who provide long-term assistance. A plan for future research is detailed to better pinpoint how and when these symptoms arise and interventions that may address their effects.

Originality/value

While there is a large literature detailing vicarious trauma for social workers, nurses and doctors, the topic is generally understudied among police officers and specifically detectives despite their repeated contacts with adult victims of violent crimes. This research builds upon the knowledge of burnout experienced by child maltreatment detectives to enhance understanding of sexual assault detectives.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

US Department of Justice > National Institute of Justice 2014-91892-MA-IJ.

Citation

Morabito, M.S., Pattavina, A. and Williams, L.M. (2021), "Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress or burnout?: an exploratory study of the effects of investigating sexual assault cases on detectives", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 77-92. https://doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-07-2020-0123

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

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