Abstract: An Ethic of Care: A Narrative Case Study of Criminal Investigations in One Southwestern Police Department (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

An Ethic of Care: A Narrative Case Study of Criminal Investigations in One Southwestern Police Department

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 7, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Patricia Sattler, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
Background and Purpose: Understanding who is victimized or at risk of victimization and the consequences of such is important for primary prevention and intervention efforts, but it is equally important to understand how secondary harms continue to be perpetrated upon victims of crime following their engagement with the criminal legal system. Significant research has examined individual sociodemographic characteristics of victims and law enforcement officers (LEOs) that contribute to secondary harms during investigatory stages. There is a paucity of literature, however, exploring the social structures that may inform LEOs attitudes and perceptions of their work or how this shapes engagement with victims of serious violent crime.

Methods: This case study explores how LEOs assigned to criminal investigations in one metropolitan Southwestern police department think about and describe their work as well as the various structural influences upon them (e.g., legal statute, policy, procedure, training, occupational norms, and patterns of practice). Triangulation was achieved through multiple data sources (e.g., interviews, document review), by sampling from different units (e.g., domestic violence, cold case sexual assaults, homicide), across ranks (e.g., detective, Captain), and years of experience in criminal investigations. Data were drawn from a purposive sample of certified law enforcement officers with 6 to 21 years’ experience (mean = 11.86) as certified law enforcement officers. The sample was 71% Caucasian and 29% Asian with 57% identifying as Hispanic/Latinx. Interviews averaged 120 minutes, were transcribed verbatim and member checked. Inductive and deductive techniques were used to examine latent themes within interview narratives.

Results: Data suggest that case decision-making and engagement with victims, at least in this agency and among detectives, is driven by an ethic of care. Participants described investigative approaches that emphasize rapport and relationship while underlining the importance of empathy, empowerment, and dignity and respect. With knowledge of or training in the neurobiology of trauma, participants discussed the need to be open-minded and thorough, victim-centered, community-oriented, compassionate, and transparent. These narratives were consistent with the mission and values articulated in the department’s Code of Conduct and practices outlined in detective specific training materials as well as statewide protocols. Participants highlighted how siloed investigations were from patrol and illuminated opportunities for patrol specific training that may further reduce secondary harm.

Conclusions and Implications: LEOs are the first contact crime victims have with the criminal-legal system; the manner in which they respond to and engage with crime victims can either inhibit or facilitate recovery and healing. Identifying the structural factors that contribute to secondary victimization is necessary to effecting systems level changes to create environments where crime victims are not further harmed by their engagement with the legal system. Social workers are well positioned to lead these efforts. Further research is necessary to assess the degree to which officer narratives correlate with patterns of practice in this jurisdiction. Research with victims and survivors of violent crime is also necessary to understand how they experience and perceive their interactions with patrol officers and detectives.