The stereotypical image of the hard-bitten and unemotional homicide detective couldn’t be further from the truth, according to University of Huddersfield researchers.
Psychologists at the university are looking at how detectives manage the emotional stresses they encounter while investigating crimes such as child murders.
The project aims to build up knowledge that could help ensure the mental well-being of police officers and lead to improved training guidelines.
Findings are discussed in new articles and the university has this week hosted its second international symposium on advances in preventing and investigating suspicious child deaths.
Heading the work is Reader in Crime and Policing Dr Jason Roach, who intends to fill what he regards is a serious knowledge gap.
He said: “When I started looking at the subject of child homicide I was horrified by the paucity of research. Yet you cannot think of a worse crime.”
Working with his colleague at the university’s Applied Criminology Centre, lecturer Kathryn Sharratt, and his former PhD student Dr Ashley Cartwright, Dr Roach has embarked on detailed research into the response of police to the challenges of child and adult homicide.
And he says the image of the hard-bitten investigator is a fiction.
“People who are involved in the investigation of child homicide – police officers and pathologists – are human beings,” he said. “They aren’t impervious to the same kinds of empathy and grief that affect the rest of us. So how do they cope with it?”
He and his co-researchers have begun to find out via online questionnaires and interviews with 99 experienced police investigators in England, Wales and Denmark.
The early findings are reported in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology.
The survey discovered that officers who had not been involved in a child homicide investigation for more than six months reported the cognitive and emotional effects to be greater than those who had conducted more recent investigations.
“This is important as it suggests that a significant period of reflection is needed after the investigation has ended in order for investigators to realise the true extent of how their investigations have affected them,” writes Dr Roach and his co-authors.
They added: “Experience does not seem to protect investigators against the effects of homicide investigation, whether the victim is an adult or a child, suggesting that de-sensitisation does not kick in for many.
“Indeed, we found little evidence that the length of police service provides little by way of protection against the stressors of child homicide investigation, as was found to be the case in studies of stress in more mainstream policing roles.”