Eric, when we interviewed you last year, you'd just come on board with Griffeye as Technical Liaison to law enforcement. What has the past year in this role taught you, and based on these lessons, where are you taking your role in the coming year?
If this last year has taught me anything, it is that everyone who works CSAM related investigations are the same, all over the world. These are all dedicated, passionate people who want to help, who are eager to help save children and willing to do so at the potential expense of their own mental health. Everywhere in the world, there are huge backlogs and cases that sit for too long due to short staffing, low budgets and inferior tools. It has also taught me that there are large numbers of investigators in this field that are still using tools that just aren’t designed for this type of work. I feel so happy to show them Griffeye Analyze DI, because I know it will do for them what it did for me, keep them in this fight longer and protect their mental health.In the coming year I plan on continuing this important conversation and keeping it going, driving more toward implementation. I am very fortunate to be able to visit many different investigators from all over the world, and to bring back their stories so that we know we are developing the tool to fit the investigators’ needs and wants. I could not be more proud of my team. The developers are now keenly focused on the effects this work can have and work hard everyday to help investigators work faster and with less exposure. I am so fortunate to have this position and company leadership that feels as strongly about mental health as I do.
During your talk at the Crimes Against Children Conference, you were very transparent about the physical and emotional outcomes of your ICAC work. Lots of people in and out of law enforcement still consider the topic taboo. How were you able to break through this, and how do you encourage other law enforcement officers to open up to one another?
I think I was able to do this because I was just persistent in my efforts and willing to be open about it. Any chance I get when I teach, which I’ve had many opportunities for over the last few years, I bring this topic up. So I’ve been very fortunate in the ability to have an audience that is going through what I went through. If you want to further any cause that’s important to you, you just have to put yourself out there — be an open book and let people know it’s OK to be vulnerable. I know, based on my experience, that they are going through what I’ve gone through. When a big, loud guy like me is willing to talk about his feelings, it really can be eye-opening for those who are feeling the same things and perhaps an invitation for them to continue the conversation.
You also drew a great contrast between the physical injuries law enforcement leadership readily protect officers against, versus the unseen ones that leadership often struggles with. What do you feel is unique about police psychology that ends up stigmatizing mental health and disability?
I think there are two major issues here, with several smaller ones that also play a factor. The first is the type of personalities that this type of work attracts, Type A personalities. This personality type does not lend itself to outward appearances of weakness. Therefore, reporting is low. Very low. To make matters worse, the fear of being told to leave at the first signs of an issue, rather than support and help, will hinder one’s desire to report. Naturally, there is also the stigma (I disagree with) of visiting a mental health provider that adds to the problem.
The second issue is that of liability. A police department’s acknowledgment of the issue brings with it the liability and cost concerns, which are valid concerns. But the way they are addressing it is not in line with any other form of “in-the-line-of-duty” injury. Prevention is not being addressed as it should be. This is where policy needs to come into place. A department will mandate that you wear a seatbelt in your car in case you get in an accident. They will mandate that you wear a [ballistic] vest in case you get shot. This is prevention with a possibility of exposure. With CSAM investigators, there is no “in case”, there is certainty that exposure will happen.
Another problem is that there is typically no exit strategy for those ready to leave the job. Oftentimes if a department or individual feels they need to leave, they are sent back to patrol, or administrative positions. Imagine yourself doing CSAM investigations for years — helping to protect and rescue children — only to be relegated to data entry and parking tickets. I feel that anyone who does this job, deserves a position wherever they’d like to go.
The work itself results in bad enough outcomes, but members of your audience brought up factors like problematic work environments and supervisors, sentencing guidelines, workers' compensation denials, and PTSD "labeling." How can investigators cope with external factors that are out of their control, and still be effective at their jobs?
It’s the passion they have for the work. CSAM investigators are some of the most dedicated, passionate investigators I have ever met. They know what they are doing is noble, no matter the outcome. It’s worth it. In my opinion, there is no greater effort to endeavor than protecting children, period. I would imagine it is their opinion as well. The work is the coping mechanism. I know people who continued to do the work, knowing it was killing them, because of its importance.
Great investigators don’t work for their boss, they work for the victims. If they know that their work helped safeguard a child or even a fellow investigator, then the sentencing is secondary. The frustrations of working in a bureaucracy are still present, but knowing that the work is so important is the motivation to continue, no matter the cost.
You spoke about a mental health debriefer at your former workplace, the Phoenix Police Department, who had no idea how to work with people walking daily into the "fox hole." For people whose agencies won't invest in mandatory counseling, what are your tips for finding the right therapy — both counselors and strategies? What questions can they ask to vet mental health professionals (MHPs) and techniques?
I believe this is a very unique problem that requires a professional who has experience in sex-related crimes. MHPs are people too, and some of them just can’t handle this subject matter. This subject matter is so toxic that even hearing its description can hurt people. MHPs that have worked with sex offenders are a good fit because they are familiar with the vitriolic nature of this subject matter.
I think the first step towards identifying a good provider is to talk about it openly. Start with talking with your colleagues for their input. When things aren’t talked about openly, miscommunication can, and oftentimes does, happen. One of the most frustrating things is when someone else decides what is best for you without your input.
MHPs should be interviewed for the job, just as any other job. They should not be selected from a list or recommendation without being interviewed first. Often times, MHPs and advocates are attached to child crimes units for the purpose of victims and family members. These can be great resources in of themselves, or be able to refer you to someone they know.
You mentioned mandatory rotation as a good thing. How so — what are its benefits relative to losing that experience and having to train a new officer every three years? Are there benefits to mandatory supervisor rotation?
To clarify, I believe that mandatory rotation does not mean that you have to go pick another job completely different from your skill set or area of expertise. Rotating to a non-CSAM investigative/forensic role for a while and then coming back is a great way to have a break. Rotation is all about exposure reduction and getting a fresh perspective. I was lucky enough to be able to choose non-CSAM cases occasionally to get a break. Not everyone has that option.
In the current state of how CSAM is reviewed, I think that mandatory rotation is probably a good thing. As I stated before, I feel that technology (using the right tools for the job) and policy (helping protect/support investigators better) can help extend the rotation time. I think that the time frame should be 5 years or more at a minimum. I feel that 3 years is not long enough because this is the approximate time it takes to become fully trained and confident in your skills.
Why do I support it? The harder you work, the better you get at your job, the more effective you are, the more job satisfaction you get, so the harder it is to step away. Some people will grind themselves to a nub without realizing it. These dedicated workers, fueled by passion for the job, will drive through the pain and stress to just get the job done.
It is a commendable trait, but can also hurt you. We all know someone like this. Sometimes this person needs a tap on the shoulder and a “How ‘bout you take a break?”. I personally know of several people who worked this job for over 10 years and all of them are still affected by it every day, myself included. I just can’t take any more of the stories of investigators who are broken because they were so passionate about this effort and wouldn’t stop until someone close told them it was time to stop. Again, myself included.
The benefits of rotation are that when you walk away, you aren’t broken forever. I know several investigators who have left the CSAM world and not until they are in their new position, do they realize how much CSAM affected them.
It’s funny, if you ask someone who is currently in the job of reviewing CSAM, they’ll tell you mandatory rotation is a bad idea. But ask someone who did it for 5 years or more and has since left, and they are mostly for it.
As far as supervisors, they are usually not directly exposed to the material as often as their investigators, but they live in the same house and they deal with the same subject matter and people. Again, it’s all about exposure reduction so I think it depends on their level of exposure, which will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
You also mentioned that Griffeye trainees ask you to advocate for them to their supervisors. What are your tips for investigators and forensic examiners to effectively advocate for themselves — what are good strategies they can employ?
Speak up. Don’t be afraid to bring it up because if you don’t, you and your colleagues will suffer in silence. Most supervisors don’t look at the material to the extent that investigators/examiners do, so they really don’t know what you and your colleagues are going through because of the overexposure. If you explain it to them rationally, they can understand the problem.
Offer suggestions. Come up with a plan before you bring it up and bring mitigation options. I always approached supervisors with the team as the main focus, not myself, even though it would help me as well. Good supervisors care about their people and will try to help the best way they can.
What excites you most about technological advancements that go towards minimizing exposure to child sexual abuse material? What new advances are on the horizon?
It is really exciting to know that people are listening and acknowledging the trauma this work causes. Software developers are now developing features that have exposure reduction in mind. Agencies are starting to focus on the mental health of their personnel, investigators are embracing the movement as well. When the people doing this work know that the software vendors have their mental health interests in mind, it’s confidence inspiring. It’s always good to know that someone has your back.
Griffeye Analyze DI is the flagship example of a tool that minimizes exposure, and we are constantly innovating and developing new features to minimize ever further. Griffeye has recently released the Griffeye Brain, artificial intelligence trained to find CSAM, so the computer can take the lion’s share of the exposure. Computers don’t get traumatized when they look at this imagery, so let’s let the computer find the harmful images.
As far as the future, I believe technological innovations will continue to make the job easier and less traumatic. Anything that reduces time spent analyzing this harmful material equals exposure reduction. But I think it is a much bigger issue than just tech innovation. Agencies need to start protecting mental health like they protect physical health. We need to protect those who are protecting children. Communication and collaboration are also increasing and helping to reduce redundant efforts and pointless exposure. Project VIC and CAID are entities that continue to innovate and support this collaboration.