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Researchers say undercover officers should have counseling every two or three months to deal with the stress of their jobs. / Bonnie Bolden

SHREVEPORT, La. -- Louisiana detective Bryan Montgomery posed as a 13-year-old girl, chatting with a suspected sex offender online.

The man flirted with Montgomery, sent roses and eventually traveled to Springhill, La., to meet his cyber sweetheart. There, his fantasy ended with arrest.

The case was one of many for Montgomery, who acknowledges his job investigating sex crimes is psychologically stressful. He undergoes a yearly psychological evaluation, but researchers who study law enforcement and mental health argue more needs to be done to help officers like Montgomery process the trauma they experience.

John Violanti, a University of Buffalo epidemiology professor and former New York state trooper, conducted a study with members of the Buffalo Police Department that showed that over 25% of officers have metabolic syndrome, a risk factor for heart disease that's found in only 18.7% of other workers. In another one of his findings, the suicide rate of officers was 53% higher than that of the general population. While online undercover officers weren't the focus of these reports, they underline the stress linked to law enforcement jobs.

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"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," Violanti said. He suggested officers be pre-screened for prior sexual victimization or trauma and said psychological debriefings for undercover agents ought to happen every two or three months.

But these precautions are rare.

The Northwest Louisiana Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force, which is comprised of about 20 law enforcement agents including Montgomery, doesn't offer psychological screening before joining or mandate regular counseling for its officers.

"Every time you sign on, you're undercover. You're somebody else. It can really mess with you," said Lt. Scott Tucker, a detective in northwest Louisiana.

Tucker founded the local division of ICAC, but quit doing the online chats a few years later after becoming "burned out." But he said that validating aspect of his job - taking sex offenders off the streets - made it worth the stress.

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

"I think telling ourselves that we can 'shut it off' is a coping mechanism," Mazzula said. She emphasized that certain methods of winding down, like being with family, are preferable to others, like drinking alcohol.

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

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 PTSD might also occur.

"As police officers we're not supposed to have these feelings, we're supposed to be tough guys," said Violanti, who was a state trooper for 23 years.

But he said if officers aren't asked to seek regular counseling, they'll be hurt in the long-run.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: More psychological help needed for undercover officers

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