Her job was to watch child pornography and help catch the people making it. Like many Police Officers She saw too much.
The single-storey building is constructed almost entirely of glass. Sitting less than 400 metres from cars and trucks racing down a busy expressway, there’s no sign outside to identify its purpose. Inside, cubicles are arranged in pods of four, colleagues working back-to-back. Managerial offices tightly surround the sterile pods.
The air in the building is unpredictable—some spots are warm enough to make you sweat, while across the room you’re reaching for a jacket. Everyone eats, drinks and exercises in the same space, never straying from the job.
It was here, at an Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit, where Kristine Lacelle worked for just over two years. Canada has five RCMP-operated ICE units, and an additional four integrated RCMP municipal units. Lacelle doesn’t want to reveal the exact unit where she served because she feels its past and present employ- ees “have enough on their plates already” without being pulled into the spotlight and potentially singled out for criticism.
Walking past Lacelle on the street, it would be hard to guess she’s a 10-year RCMP veteran. Not particularly tall, with her brown hair cut shoulder-length, the only hint of her past is her quick, deliberate stride. Once you strike up a conversation, she’s the kind of person you feel comfortable talking to, like a close friend you never knew you had. If you bring up hockey and you’re not a Habs fan, a friendly argument is guaranteed; her blue eyes flicker with amusement. She’s open, amiable, and always ready with a sarcastic quip that’ll make you laugh. All her life, she’s wanted to help people. The RCMP seemed to be the way to do it.
But on Dec. 8, 2011, she was far from the proud 25-year-old recruit who graduated with Troop 7 at Depot Division in Regina nine years earlier. In a break from routine, the ICE staff members filed into a conference room to watch a broad- cast of incoming RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson’s formal induction.
The Change of Command ceremony was full of tradition and pomp. Watching officers and veterans parade in their red serge, Lacelle fought back tears. For the past few weeks she hadn’t been herself, eating lunch at her desk, avoiding others. Her colleagues had been leaving—sick leave, maternity leave, and transfers—and her support system followed them out the door.
Each day dozens of new case files streamed across her desk, each one showing innocent kids being sexually assaulted, over and over and over again. Now, the sight of the red serge finally unleashed two years’ worth of bottled-up frustration and anxiety. She felt unworthy and adrift from the proud tradition on display.
“I went into my supervisor’s office at that point, and just totally broke down in tears and told her flat out I didn’t know what was happening, didn’t know who I was anymore. I have no business carrying a gun on the streets. I felt totally lost,” she recalls.
On a cool, windy day, Dec. 11, 2011, she left work on sick leave, not realizing it would be for the last time. Like many on the force, she had seen too much.
Lacelle was born Kristine Brockman in Moncton, N.B. When she was five, the Brockmans moved to Saskatchewan, where she attended school in St. Benedict, just off Highway 20 between Humboldt and Prince Albert. The school downsized after she completed Grade 7, so she finished high school in Middle Lake, a short 10-minute drive away. She graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a bachelor of science in kinesiology, working summers at a fly-in fishing camp in northern Saskatchewan. It was then that Lacelle knew she wanted to be an RCMP officer.
“For me it was always the idea of helping others because, even growing up, I felt like I was a go-to person somebody would come to for advice. I wasn’t like the typical popular person or anything like that, but people always felt comfortable tell- ing me their problems and I’d try to come up with a solution,” she explains.
After a year-and-a-half of tests, paperwork, and plenty of waiting, Lacelle was accepted as a recruit. When she graduated from the training academy in November 2003, her first posting was in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T—known simply as ‘Tuk’ among the locals—a community of some 800 beside the Beaufort Sea, near the Yukon border. She headed north with her husband and for the next two years took her place among a small crew of five that staffed the detachment.
Just before her kids were born, the couple moved again, but this time closer to home. She had her daughter and son in Swift Current, Sask., in 2005 and 2007. Two years later she applied to an ICE unit. She was interested in both help- ing victims of sexual assault and new technology, so it seemed like a natural fit. Ten months later, in September 2009, the Lacelles packed their bags, leaving behind their Saskatchewan roots.
Moving and starting a new job isn’t easy at the best of times. Lacelle had lost her mother-in-law earlier that year. The kids, aged two and four, were leaving their first home. They were saying goodbye to family members who were very close.
She wasn’t worried about herself, though. After all, she had a new job, where she would be meeting new people and working through new challenges. The tough- er road faced her husband and kids, she thought. They had to adapt and create new lives in a strange city. But it wasn’t her family that would gradually fall apart after the move—it was Lacelle.
Police departments around the world began forming ICE units in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lacelle started her time on the unit by working in investigations, one of four main sections alongside research, technology and triage. A file comes in and officers determine if it is actually child sexual abuse material. From there, they try to find out where it originated. Eventually, all the information collected gets passed on to officers on the street, who make arrests. also worked as triage manager, tasked with sorting all incoming mate- rial. Her unit was the contact point for any Canadian content found around the world, from the United States, to the U.K., to the Netherlands, to Russia, and beyond. There are just too many files to investigate every one, so it’s the triage section’s job to determine if a child is at immediate risk. Some files end up at the bottom of the pile, especially if it’s just a screenshot. Where there is a strong possibility victims are being actively abused, the force needs to take immediate action.
No matter the job assignment, officers can spend hours looking at horrible things. It could be text, audio, video, thousands of pictures, or any possible combination of these items. Reports arrived every day. Combined with the isolated location, and unpredictable building climate, it was far from an ideal work environment.
“Thank God some of the gals and guys I worked with were who they were and fantastic. But it was just… it was just bad,” Lacelle’s voice trails off, looking away as the memories come rushing back.
Sometimes they would be watching a video or slideshow of images, when someone would hit pause and say, “Okay, we’ve got to talk about this because that really bugged me.” There was one particular supervisor who always made sure there were regular coffee breaks out in the garage—a place to cope, away from the glare of computer screens.
Like many officers, Lacelle had started using dark humour to cope with cer- tain situations in the early days of her service. It was how they got through the job—laughing about brutal scenes, usually in an inappropriate manner. It didn’t feel right, but the file had to be investigated from start to finish. It was a way to get through it.
And once they got through it, there was no time for a human discussion about what they’d seen—they went on to the next call or file. For a long time the dark humour, combined with physical activity, seemed to work. But after about a year- and-a-half, things started to slowly fall apart. The coffee breaks and chats stopped, while the workload increased.
“I was starting to lose interest in activities, and quitting sports. I found I was getting muscle injuries quicker. It was like my body was breaking down as a warning to tell me that my mind was breaking down,” says Lacelle.
Her work days weren’t material for normal human conversation—and understandably she doesn’t discuss the work in detail. She compares it to asking a veteran if they’ve ever killed someone. It’s just not something you ask about.
“These are innocent kids…We’re talking babies that are being sexually assaulted,” she says.
Despite countless hours researching and tracking down offenders, the number of files continually expanded. When Lacelle started, there were approximately 3,000 files. By the time she left at the end of 2011, there were more than 5,300 files in the system, each potentially involving multiple offenders and victims.
Thousands of files, thousands of kids and thousands of offenders. And not enough hours in the day. With supportive management and regular breaks in the work day, the job can be tough but manageable, says Lacelle. Without that support, it can lead to feelings of helpless despair.Dr. Carolyn Burns started working with the RCMP as a volunteer victim sup- port worker. For more than 16 years, she attended scenes of traumatic events and provided support to victims and witnesses. She’s now a registered clinical counsellor in Langley, B.C., after writing her master’s on coping mechanisms among ICE investigators, and her PhD on their decisions to access psychological services. Today, she specializes in treating first responders and people suffering from secondary trauma.
She spoke with many officers over her time volunteering for the RCMP, and during the hours of interviews for her studies. It wasn’t surprising to discover that tracking child exploiters on the Internet can be extremely intense and frustrating, leaving many investigators feeling powerless and helpless. The work can drag on for months without results and follow officers home.
“Some of them talk about, after spending a long time viewing either pictures or video, they’ll have auditory flashbacks, hallucinations,” says Burns.
Because most of their work can’t be discussed outside office walls, there is a strong reliance on co-workers, Burns learned. Many also use exercise to cope. One woman simply ran and ran and ran until she stopped feeling angry. However, there’s only so much officers can do on their own, Burns says. Supervisors and units need to create a supportive environment.
Not everyone who needs help gets it. Years of research have shown Burns that, while there are good mental health treatments out there, they’re not always easy to access. Many people just want to talk, but they don’t know where to go. Will people understand? Is it the right time to open up? After seeing society’s worst elements on a daily basis, who can they even trust?
On May 1, 2014, the RCMP launched a new five-year mental health strat- egy. It includes an agreement with Health Canada to provide support to officers and their immediate family members through Employee Assistance Services. When Lacelle went on leave, the RCMP did not provide any face-to-face counselling, instead relying on referrals to outside professionals and Operational Stress Injury clinics designed for and run by the Canadian Armed Forces.
The RCMP is developing a peer-to-peer support program, but most members still have to go through the employee assistance 1-800 number without knowing who will answer. The RCMP, like any police agency, has its own unique culture that makes people hesitate before they talk to a stranger.
“There’s a time and a place as police officers—any first responder—where you go there to do the job… you need to be in control,” says Lacelle. “But yet there needs to be a time that you can just be a human being and say, ‘That was really fucked up’ and process what you’ve witnessed.”
Denied permission for a compassionate transfer, Lacelle nonetheless moved herself and her family back to Saskatoon. It was a life-saving decision, she explains. “In my mind, it was either move back and risk the consequences of going against authority, or stay and wind up six feet underground,” she says.
Two weeks after walking out the doors and leaving the ICE unit behind, Lacelle and her family were celebrating Christmas back in Saskatchewan. But Lacelle wasn’t herself—she knew it, and so did everyone else. In the new year, the
“I went into my supervisor’s office at that point and just totally broke down in tears and told her flat out I didn’t know what was happening, didn’t know who I was anymore. I have no business carrying a gun on the streets. I felt totally lost.” recovery process began: twice-a-week sessions with a psychologist, trying different meds and just trying to cope and function during the day, all with two kids depending on her.
Family was important. She went home by herself to see her parents and sisters, and out to B.C. to visit her aunt in the months that followed. “I called these emergency trips because I was suicidal,” she says.
But while she had strong support from her relatives, her employer was another story. The RCMP paid for her psychological services but that’s about it, she says. Lacelle gleaned the impression that emails, benefits, and salary changes might be easier to get if she were physically injured. Dealing with mental illness seemed different. Lacelle was cut off. It was like she just disappeared.
The bureaucratic policies and procedures didn’t help, either. Trying to get a compassionate transfer back to Saskatchewan was a nightmare. Nobody seemed to know who was doing what. She’d been taught how to fire a weapon and track criminals, but not how to navigate the labyrinth of her own workplace, or to advocate for herself.
“It makes me think back to training, you know. It’s kind of a game… meant to kind of break you down to a point and then build you back up (how) they want you. But in all of that training, you’re never allowed to basically question authority. Ever,” she says.
Implementing a mental health care strategy is one thing. Making it work is another. While there is plenty of policy on paper, it’s not reaching the people who need help. Since 2006, 32 retired or serving RCMP members have committed suicide. There is no breakdown of the causes. Burns recommends setting out clear directions and implementing regular follow-ups. That can start with people having the right information, and who genuinely care, she says.
Opening spread and this page: Kristine Lacelle continues her recovery in Saskatchewan.
Lacelle now lives in Saskatoon, where her recovery continues. “You basically want to crawl into a hole and die. And how you get back out… it’s different for everybody. But so far, I’m out,” she says.
RCMP officers have some of the toughest jobs in the country—including those on the ICE units—and it takes a certain kind of person to do the job. “They feel so responsible for the work. They’re such a dedicated, amazing group of people,” says Burns.
That sense of dedication and responsibility pulls officers through the day, but it can also push them down the hole of despair. Since taking a medical discharge in February 2015, Lacelle is committed to helping those who suffer in silence by talk- ing openly about her experience. “I feel I can just give that voice to those who aren’t able,” she says. “My hope is that things have changed since I walked out those doors.
by BRADY KNIGHT photos by MEGAN LACELLE
From The Crow Fall 2015