Vicarious Traumatization: A Guide for Managing the Silent Stressor

Police work has long been understood to involve work that may be considered upsetting and shocking to the public. Police officers routinely have to respond to situations where they are exposed to the worst of people and the worst of what people do to each other. For instance, one patrol officer responded to a child sexual assault call involving a three-year-old child who was taken to the emergency room in critical condition after having been sexually assaulted and sodomized by her father. The officer was shocked to notice that the child’s internal organs were pushed inward towards the upper part of her torso. It was a visual picture that was difficult to erase from his mind. In another case, an officer responded to the homicide of a one-year-old baby who was put in a pot of scorching water, and he observed how the infant is practically charred. These are calls for service that some officers must handle on a regular basis; yet, police agencies do not always recognize or acknowledge that these types of calls are disturbing to many of the officers, and that they may have a negative impact on the officers in a manner that is not immediately observed or understood. The psychological impact of such incidents is referred to as vicarious traumatization. Vicarious traumatization is the psychological cost of caring for victims who have been traumatized while feeling a sense of responsibility to help.1 While most officers learn to maintain an emotional boundary in order to protect themselves from emotional contagion, it is more challenging to detach while dealing with victims of trauma, particularly when the situation involves a child. Furthermore, the duty to render help to the victim is inherent in the police mission of “to protect and to serve.”