By Jane F. Richards MAPS, Assistant Director, Safety and Wellbeing, SA Department of Education and Child Development, and former Manager Wellbeing Services, Victoria Police

Recruiting to specialist police roles where there is a high risk of psychological injury, such as those involving child abuse and sexual assault, requires careful identification to ensure recruits have the psychological robustness that provides protection from injury. Frequently policing organisations call on the expert skills of psychologists to assist with this process. 

Risks of specialist police work

As far back as the 1980s, the psychological risk to specialist police who work with victims of child abuse and sexual assault was established. More general research in the early to mid 1990s recognised that exposure to the trauma of others has a psychological impact on those providing services. The terms ‘secondary traumatic stress’, ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘vicarious trauma’ emerged to describe the emotional impact of working with victims. By the mid 2000s, it was internationally acknowledged through research and by police jurisdictions that police employees who work with victims of sexual assault, child abuse and child exploitation are at risk of developing psychological injuries. Further, it became clear that the employer has a legal and moral obligation to take a proactive approach to mitigate the risk. 

Police Departments sought support from their expert psychology units to develop proactive approaches, including recruitment strategies and preventative programs, as well as early intervention for psychological injuries and treatment. It was during this period that researchers began to focus on the psychological profiles of those working in high risk police groups. The developing evidence suggests that there are several person-related attributes that provide some protection against psychological injury. 

Assessment of protective factors

A growing research body and experience has shown that the following factors can be assessed during the recruitment process to assist in identifying individuals who are likely to be less susceptible to psychological injury when undertaking such roles. 

Self selection

Recruiters can assist applicants to initially self select their own likely suitability through an effective job analysis, and by providing accurate, realistic and available material regarding the role. There are many methods of disseminating such material such as through the organisation’s intranet, information sessions, telephone calls, short-term ‘buddying’ periods and site visits. Open, frank discussion of the nature of the role, together with information regarding the available organisational support in place to retain resilience in the individuals appointed to the role, is an essential preliminary component in the recruitment process.

Personality characteristics

Some individual characteristics make for a more suitable personality profile for working in a law enforcement jurisdiction than others (Adams & Stanwick, 2004). As such, the use of a personality assessment, as one component of the assessment for recruitment to general duties police roles, is widespread across law enforcement agencies. Specialist roles in police, however, are different from general duties roles and therefore require additional information to match the individual to the role. 

When police express interest in specialist roles, additional formal psychological screening of personality characteristics is required through the use of evidence-based instruments. This screening is a key component in identifying those who are likely to pose the least risk. It includes identification of person-related attributes such as a high level of interpersonal competence, perseverance and resourcefulness, comfort with policies and procedures, appropriate coping strategies, particularly in hostile environments, integrity, motivation that lines up with the moral and ethical values of the required outcomes, confidence and the absence of any current anxiety or depression. 

Personal history of exposure to trauma

There is sound evidence that the trauma history of an individual and its subsequent management play a key part in the positive or negative psychological health of the individual. Interestingly, as far back as 1993, Figley suggested that professionals with a history of trauma who work with victims are at an increased risk of developing trauma symptoms as a result of their work. However, around the same time, Elliott and Guy (1993) found no differences between the distress levels of those with a history of trauma and those without such a history. The inconsistency of the results of psychological wellbeing post-trauma suggests that the engagement with, and the efficacy of, the psychological intervention, treatment or management of the individual’s trauma, abuse or neglect, rather than the presence of the trauma itself, is likely to be the risk factor. 

Although a semi-structured clinical interview is one of the better methods to assess the way pre-exposure to trauma has been managed by an individual, the assessment is challenging. The accuracy of the assessment is dependent on the applicant providing such information in the context of recruitment to a role, the establishment of rapport and the applicant’s confidence in the purpose of the interview. 

Capacity to retain cognitive focus (emotional distancing)

The capacity to retain a cognitive rather than an emotional focus when undertaking work in this area appears to make an individual more suitable for the role. The strategy to emotionally distance oneself from victims and remain task focused on the criminal aspects of policing has been well identified in police jurisdictions as a protective factor. Those able to compartmentalise or create professional emotional distance from their work, as a coping strategy, are more effective in buffering against adverse psychological outcomes. Therefore, this ability to ‘emotionally distance’ oneself from the depravity and psychologically demanding narratives and images to which those working in specialist teams – such as sexual offence, child abuse and child exploitation – are exposed is worthy of assessment. Such assessment can be undertaken with the use of coping scale instruments, combined with a semi-structured interview.

However, where the police role involves face-to-face contact with the victim, this emotional distance needs to be balanced against any loss of empathic concern, a concern required to facilitate an effective interview with the victim. The identification and assessment of a finely tuned balance between the two will assist in recognising a more suitable applicant.

Presence of a social support network

Psychological wellbeing is also enhanced by social support outside the workplace. Those with more supportive relationships outside the workplace experience less burnout and secondary stress than those without support. In a recent study by Brown, Fielding and Grover (2010) social support was confirmed as a risk mitigating factor in the development of a stress reaction. In a study of general duties in British police, it was identified that the psychological impact of exposure to sexual crimes was greater than for general operational deployments, and only less than death and disaster incidents. Social support was a clear factor in mitigating this risk. Consideration of the level of social support to which an individual is connected is therefore a consideration in selection to these roles.

Capacity to use humour

Humour is well established as a factor of wellbeing, particularly in professionals who are exposed to emotionally demanding circumstances such as those who work in medicine, nursing and emergency services. Early research on humour described three of its main purposes as being the relief of anxiety, the release of anger in a socially acceptable way and the avoidance of feelings that are too painful to deal with at the time. 

Appropriately timed humour can take ‘toxicity’ out of the moment and assist to bond the team and develop social support during difficult tasks. It can help in maintaining a positive mood and therefore the ability to continue with the task at hand. The capacity to maintain this sense of humour, amongst the experience of working with serious crime, is consistently reported as a method to release tension, which in turn, mitigates the risk of psychological injury to those involved. At the time of recruitment, referee checks could include questions to elicit an understanding of strategies an individual uses to maintain a positive mood. Well timed, appropriate, respectful comments that are humorous go a long way in developing psychological robustness in demanding jobs.

Sense of satisfaction with helping and with the role 

Police working in areas involving child exploitation, child abuse and sexual offence routinely report job satisfaction with their role and altruism as the reason for applying for and remaining in the role. The helping nature of the work, the satisfaction with the role they undertake in protecting children and families, their connection with the community and their police investigative role, all provide a sense of job satisfaction. It is common for police to report that by undertaking these roles they feel they are ‘making a difference’, as well as a providing a positive contribution to the work of investigation and the protection of children in society. Assessment of motivation to undertake such a role is therefore a necessary part of recruitment and readily done at the time of interview.


Recruitment to high risk specialist police roles requires psychological expertise and involves different methods and approaches than would be expected when assessing for police general duty roles. Semi-structured interviews assessing management of previous exposure to trauma, motivation and personal support systems, together with personality profiling and the capacity to maintain emotional distance from cases, whilst being empathetic to victims, are all key components of the assessment.

The recruitment of applicants is however, the first of a number of steps in the process of securing applicants in these roles. Organisations have an ongoing legal responsibility to maintain the wellbeing of their employees and mitigate known risks through programs and training that protect the health and wellbeing of those who work in these demanding jobs.

The author can be contacted at


  • Australasian Centre for Policing Research. (2002). Managing the risk of psychological harm for operational police (Report Series No. 142.1), Adams, K. & Stanwick, J.(Eds). Marden, SA: Author. 
  • Brown, J.M., Fielding, J. & Grover, J. (1999). Distinguishing traumatic, vicarious and routine operational stressor exposure and attendant adverse consequences in a sample of police officers. Work and Stress, 13(4), 312-32.
  • Elliott, D. M., & Guy, J. D. (1993). Mental health professionals versus non mental health professionals: Childhood trauma and adult functioning. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 24, 83-90.
  • Figley, C.R. (1995). Compassion fatigue as secondary traumatic stress disorder: an overview. In C. R. Figley (Ed.), Compassion fatigue, coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatised (p. 1-20), New York: Brunner/Mazel.

InPsych October 2012