Stalking predators online stresses cyber cops

ULAN BATOR, MONGOLIA - JULY 15: A Mongolian plays a computer game at an Internet cafe July 15, 2003 in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. According to the Mongolian tourism board, e-mail and the Internet are now very popular with Mongolia's younger generation. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) -- A man in his 50s wanted to get detective Bryan Montgomery pregnant.

They'd flirted online. The man sent roses, delivered to a local school. He eventually traveled from Keithville, south of Shreveport, to Springhill, north of Shreveport, for a romantic weekend with his cyber sweetheart, bringing his approving 81-year-old parents along.

That's when the fantasy ended.

Montgomery, who investigates sex crimes as part of his job at the Springhill Police Department, arrested the man, who thought he had been chatting with a 13-year-old girl.

To string along suspected sex offenders, Montgomery carries out intimate conversations with them -- sometimes lasting a year -- while posing as a juvenile on social media. Pictures of child pornography, and of men exposing themselves, pop up in this kind of work.

The job brings psychological stress, Montgomery says.

"After a time of seeing a 2-year-old being sexually abused, it gets to you," he said. A fishing trip with a friend, or talking with a pastor, he says, takes the edge off.

Like some undercover officers whose work is online, Montgomery undergoes a yearly psychological evaluation. But researchers who study law enforcement and mental health argue more needs to be done to help officers process the trauma they experience.

"These people need to be psychologically taken care of in a special way because their job is different than going out and writing traffic tickets and answering complaints," said John Violanti, a University of Buffalo epidemiology research professor who was a New York state trooper for 23 years.

He found that more than one-quarter of the officers in the Buffalo (N.Y.) Police Department had metabolic syndrome, a risk factor for heart disease. That's found in only 18.7 percent of other workers. He also found the officers' suicide rate was 53 percent higher than that of the general public. Online undercover officers weren't the focus of these reports, but they underline the stress linked to law enforcement.

Officers should be screened for past sexual victimization or trauma and undercover agents should have psychological de-briefings every two or three months, Violanti said.

But these precautions are rare. The Northwest Louisiana Internet Crimes Against Children task force, comprised of about 20 law enforcement agents including Montgomery, doesn't require regular counseling for its officers.

ICAC members don't get psychological screening before joining and they're not asked about prior sexual victimization, said Capt. Shelly Anderson of the Bossier City Marshall's office. Anderson, coordinator for the local chapter of ICAC, said task force participants can request counseling through the Louisiana Attorney General's office, which funds ICAC, or their home departments. Many of her colleagues also sit on a similar FBI task force, she said, which provides them with a yearly psychological check-up.

Some undercover agents who participate in the online chats, such as Det. Jared Marshall of the Caddo Parish Sheriff's office, aren't required to see counselors at all. His employer offers therapy through company health insurance. When asked about the lack of mandated mental health resources for his force, Sheriff Steve Prator said he recognizes the gap in coverage and is working to fix it.


"Every time you sign on, you're undercover. You're somebody else. It can really mess with you," said Lt. Scott Tucker, a detective with the Webster Parish Sheriff's Office. He's a founder of the local division of ICAC, but quit doing the online chats a few years later after becoming "burned out," he said.

"This is the type of investigation you can't work on your whole 20-year career and keep your wits about you," said Tucker, who has a daughter. "It's not the type of work you can come home and talk to your family about."

Montgomery alluded to a possible time when he too might need to step away from his role on the task force.

"I go to church, I try to stay active to keep everything out of my head, to keep the stress down," said Montgomery, who has three children. "When you say `I need a break,' they're not going to question you," he said, referring ICAC.

"Right now I'm fine," he said. "Me and my wife have talked about it. I've said `Look, if you think that we're getting there, you're going to see it probably before I will. Let me know and say look, it's time."'


Tucker said the validating aspect of his job -- taking sex offenders off the streets -- made the difficult task worth it.

But being fulfilled doesn't always translate to emotional well-being, says Silvia Mazzula, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice assistant professor of psychology, who instructs New York Police Department officers on how to respond to emotionally disturbed people.

"I think telling ourselves that we can `shut it off' is a coping mechanism," Mazzula added. Methods of winding down, including being surrounded by family are preferable to, say, drinking alcohol, she said. A professed ability to turn off one's mind might have to do with a need to feel in control, Mazzula suggested.

Talking with a friend isn't always a good replacement for professional mental-health guidance, Mazzula said. Fellow police officers may be too immersed in the same world to notice red flags in a colleague.

Mazzula pointed out that the close-knit culture of loyalty within law enforcement agencies can make officers feel conflicted about asking for help outside the organization.

Failing to adequately process vicarious trauma, such as hearing about the lewd fantasies of grown men, can lead to hypervigilance, which is its own source of added stress, Mazzula said.

Hypervigilance might manifest in becoming overly protective of one's own offspring, or suspecting danger in every situation. Trust issues, recurring mental imagery, sleeping problems, and symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder might also occur.

"As police officers we're not supposed to have these feelings, we're supposed to be tough guys," said Violanti, the former trooper turned epidemiologist.

If officers aren't asked to seek regular counseling, "it's going to hurt them in the long run," he said.

As for Anderson, the coordinator of the local chapter of ICAC, requiring psychological debriefings each quarter is something she wants to establish.

It can be a challenge, though, to identify local mental health professionals who are sympathetic, she said. "Not all of them understand the work we do," Anderson said. Sometimes, she said, "we're looked upon like we're bad."

"We would just have to find one we could confide in and know we could trust and know we are not being judged," she said, "because this is a tough field."

In the meantime, Anderson's colleagues are preoccupied with worries about whether there's just one more child that could use their help if they only could keep arresting more sex offenders.

Stress finds a way of sneaking back in.

"I think that's what keeps most of them up at night," she said. "If there's anything in the back of their mind, I think their main question is, `God, did I miss a kid?"''

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