Detectives call the effect “image burn”.
It comes from hours of viewing pictures and videos of depraved acts of child abuse, trawling through the worst of the worst in the hope of finding evidence to punish an offender or rescue a victim.
“Image burn — it's where the last thing you see is what you remember when you go to sleep,” Detective Senior Constable Jason Regan said.
Detective Regan has spent five years in the Victorian Joint Anti Child Exploitation Team, a state-federal taskforce responsible for policing online child abuse.
JACET team members have rescued child victims, arrested and jailed notorious offenders and shut down the local wings of paedophile networks operating across the globe.
While that “clarity of purpose” is what drives officers like Regan, there’s no escaping the nature of the work.
“The hardest thing I've had to deal with is some of the images or videos that we're exposed to. It's stuff that you didn't think was ever possible — that people could sink to that level of depravity,” Detective Regan said.
“It’s also having to inform someone that we’ve located images of their child being offended against — having to see them go through the stages of coping with that information is very difficult.”
There are stringent rules in the JACET squad that are supposed to help lessen the burden - and the potential for inflicting long-term psychological trauma.
Limits are set on how long an officer can spend reviewing and cataloguing child abuse material. It’s not supposed to be done towards the end of the work day in order to avoid effects like image burn. There are also mandatory counselling sessions and regular debriefs.
Then there’s Champ. The three-year-old Labrador retriever is an assistance dog trained to detect heightened stress levels that wanders the squad’s six-floor office at Victoria Police headquarters.
“He might come and nudge up against you and the next thing you know you are chasing him around the office,” Detective Regan said.
“When we’re interviewing children, he also sometimes comes along to make them feel a little bit more comfortable about being in our presence.”
It’s not a job that all officers can handle. New recruits to the squad are exposed to child abuse materials in a gradual, methodical way. Some can adapt, others just don’t want to deal with it.
“The main comment you get from people is ‘I don’t know how you do that job’ — and that can often come from other police officers,” Detective Senior Constable Emma O'Rourke said.
“Somebody has to do it. The comprehension is there [that the job has to be done] but I don’t think they truly know how much work we actually have. In the last five years, it’s phenomenal how much it’s growing.”
JACET figures show more than 7.4 million files containing child abuse images and videos were connected to Victorian-based users in May 2020. And that's likely to be a gross underestimate.
And it's hard to identify predators.
“It's very difficult to pick someone who would be doing this. When we think of a paedophile, we probably still have that old-school image of the 60-year old man who lives down the street,” Detective O’Rourke said.
“In the online world, it’s now anyone and everyone. It’s the father of two kids. The 21-year-old who lives at home. It’s grandpa. There is no stereotype of the offender anymore.”
But why are people doing this now, more than ever?
“I avoid that question. There’s no point. There’s no way to answer that or find the answer. Not to why do they do this,” she said.
What’s left is the satisfaction that comes from a job that has to be done.
A few years ago, police command brought in a regulation that officers should rotate out of the squad after three years, possibly extended to five years, in order to protect their mental well-being.
Detectives Regan and O’Rourke have each spent that long at JACET, but because they arrived before the rule was implemented, they are exempt. Neither have any plans to go elsewhere.
“At the end of the day, that we're saving children at risk from harm, from future harm, it's a massive reward,” Det Regan said.
“I've had the mother of a victim say she can't wait for the child to get old enough so she can show them a photo of me and say: "This is the person that saved your life". To have that sort of impact on someone's life is indescribable. Indescribable.”