Understanding moral injury and belief change in the experiences of police investigators in child exploitation units

The availability on the internet of extreme images and videos of violence, death, degrading and illegal sexual acts – especially against exploited children – result in stress effects amongst those charged with investigating online crimes, protecting society from witnessing such content, or taking military action against perpetrator groups like ISIS. These include the police, intelligence analysts, military Reaper drone operators, journalists, and content moderators for Google, Facebook and YouTube, and others.

Police and other law enforcement professionals who investigate child exploitation can be continuously exposed to such visual imagery in their jobs for years on end, making them particularly vulnerable and linked to increased occurrences of PTSD, anxiety, depression, secondary trauma and suicide (Simmons, 2018; Hurrell, Draycott & Andrews, 2018; Donnelly, Valentine & Oehme, 2015; Mumford, Taylor & Kubu, 2015; Perez, Jones & Englert, 2010).

The term ‘moral injury’ was coined in the 1990s by Shay (2014) in the course of clinical work with US military veterans who demonstrated reactions to combat that could not be explained by PTSD. During subsequent research, Nash et al (2010: 1677) defined moral injury as ‘…changes in biological, psychological, social, or spiritual functioning resulting from witnessing or perpetrating acts or failures to act that transgress deeply held, communally shared moral beliefs and expectations’. Investigating online child sex crime is an extreme example of regularly and repeatedly witnessing acts that transgress the moral frameworks of those involved, prompting this investigation into the causes and consequences of moral injury among police investigators.

Moral injury research has its origins in research with military personnel. This cross-disciplinary project brings together expertise from criminology, psychology and applied ethics in a security context to a new domain to better understand moral injury and associated changes in beliefs and attitudes in police online child sex crime investigators. Research data already collected from RAF Reaper drone crew members by Dr Peter Lee, PI, suggests a number of causes and consequences of moral injury. This project will start by analysing and exploiting that primary data from RAF Reaper drone operators. Those moral injury-related findings will subsequently be used to inform a focused enquiry into the causes of moral injury, and consequences such as changes in attitudes, beliefs and behaviour, among police internet child abuse investigators and relevant forensic teams.

Project resources

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