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Police commissioner wants more supports for officers reviewing child abuse cases

Nicole Swanson advocates monitoring members’ mental health because she understands what it is like to “break and snap” psychologically.
Moose Jaw police 6
Moose Jaw Police Service. Photo by Jason G. Antonio

MOOSEJAWTODAY.COM — Nicole Swanson, a police board commissioner, is concerned about the mental health of officers investigating child pornography cases and wants the police service to offer more structured counselling.

Swanson expressed her concern during a recent Board of Police Commissioners’ meeting, after Sgt. Josh MacNaughton with the Moose Jaw Police Service’s (MJPS) Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit discussed his department’s activities and the stress he faces.

MacNaughton has been with the unit for two years, although he investigated child abuse cases for four years before that while with the criminal investigation section (CIS). Furthermore, the ICE unit normally has two investigators, but it’s just been him lately after the other member — his cousin, Sheldon — received a promotion. 

However, the sergeant will soon move into a different role, so constables Kalie Seidlitz and Alanna Coghill — who attended the meeting with him — will receive training this year before becoming the unit’s new investigators.

The MJPS has averaged 16 ICE-related files a year during the past several years, but MacNaughton has already received nine files so far this year, he said.

“So, if we continue that (annual) trend, it will be way higher than 16. But they just kind of come in bursts … ,” he continued, adding the agency prioritizes files of suspects it believes are creating child exploitation materials.

After the presentation, Swanson said she had taken plenty of counselling and therapy because of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she acquired during her 20-year police career in Calgary. So, she wondered whether ICE investigators had term limits and whether the MJPS provided those members counselling and therapy during and after their time there.

“We need to take care of our people because I know what this can do to you,” she added.

The police service usually keeps members in the ICE unit for two years, while it does offer psychological support, senior executives said. There are also regular and annual check-ins where members can speak with someone, while there are outside social agencies that also offer support.

“One of the luxuries of being a smaller department (with 64 members) is we have a good team atmosphere, and I walk through the unit every day (and) I see the great interactions that our criminal investigation section has,” said Supt. Taylor Mickleborough.  

Furthermore, there is a buddy system where officers look out for each other, although senior executives understand that symptoms manifest differently in everyone, he continued. Therefore, supervisors speak with CIS members weekly to monitor their psychological health. 

“I was a child abuse investigator as well, so you can kind of see the signs in your colleagues and friends that maybe you’re getting burned out, so we’re very aware of that,” Mickleborough remarked.

When the police service started the ICE unit in 2019, the goal was to have two investigators, although there was only one to start, he added. Despite receiving no provincial funding, the organization thought it had a moral obligation to protect children from being exploited, so it launched the unit with only one member.

Swanson replied that, based on her experience, having a more structured mental health support system was beneficial. Furthermore, she thought training ICE investigators should be staggered over months because it’s expensive to recruit members and then have them leave around the same time.

“Everybody’s different. The toleration of what you’re going to encounter is going to be very unique … ,” she continued. “I’m so cautious about (Seidlitz’s and Coghill’s) own personal well-being because I’ve been there.”

MacNaughton noted that he didn’t feel well psychologically during his first year in the unit, something his wife even noticed. So, talking to his supervisor and taking time off benefitted him. 

Swanson added that she hoped the MJPS could monitor members’ mental health earlier because she understood what it was like to “break and snap” psychologically.

The next police board meeting is Wednesday, April 10.