Why policing and detention must be treated as distinctly separate law enforcement professions

If we're serious about tackling the nearly ever-present threat of litigation hanging over jail administrators' heads, we must create very defined pathways for each career


I am confident that if you polled the majority of this country's sheriffs, they would largely tell you the same thing: “If I had the chance to get rid of the jail, I would.” 

And who can blame them? Jails have become a dumping ground for the courts as there is no other place to put troubled or deviant souls. Jails have become the new involuntary drug treatment programs and the new mental health facilities. Jails are even used as dental and medical centers by some.

And jails are consuming 70%-80% of the sheriff’s budget. While most are replacing funding shortfalls with contracts with ICE, the U.S. Marshals, and even juvenile centers to house the other’s prisoners, this process only increases the liabilities to the county and its citizens.

Working in a jail is not the same as patrolling the streets, and jail administrators need to act accordingly.
Working in a jail is not the same as patrolling the streets, and jail administrators need to act accordingly. (Corrections1)

And these are only a few of the many challenges of running a jail.

At the end of the day, though, we must be willing to meet these challenges head-on in order to keep providing a quality, humane and safe environment for all. To protect and serve is a very broad task; it goes far beyond physically protecting the public. We also protect the public by being a good steward of the duties and resources they entrust us with daily. And we can only accomplish that task by being aggressive in evolving our best practices and being amenable to voluntary change.

What does this voluntary change look like? First and foremost, we need to be running our jails using detention professionals, specifically trained to the task, and get our deputies back out on the streets. 

embracing change, before it becomes a requirement

My career in both disciplines as a deputy and a detention professional has extended three decades. I have lived in a time where our profession has seen a full swing of the pendulum from the early 1980s where no one seemed to pay any attention to jails and prisons, into the 1990s where we, as a profession, chose to ease forward with self-change, to the 2000s where the courts became very active in our processes.

Then came the wild 21st century and the rapid advancements with social media platforms and cable news outlets, which opened a new frontier that pushed jail reforms forward. In this frontier, anyone with a cell phone could become a reporter or cinematographer. Prior, everyone knew there were jails where people who broke the law went, but the average person did not give it a second thought. Occasionally the media would publish an article about a riot or an incident but rarely was there any follow-up.

The positive by-product of this increased social awareness, however, is that it's aiding us in developing jails into a specialized profession. And while society as a whole, and law enforcement especially, tend to see change in the same light as getting a tooth pulled, I want to emphasize that I do support the evolution of the detention system and believe it was needed.

We have to change the systems that we have used to run jails in the past or the litigation and personnel costs will continue to take away from our ability to patrol our streets. We have to evolve not just from an economic perspective, but from the way we utilize our personnel – otherwise, evolution by court intervention is on the horizon.

comparing apples to oranges

Let’s agree that for years, administrations have used jails as new deputy proving grounds, deputy retirement posts, and even worse: deputy disciplinary assignments. When you shake that cocktail, however, the usual result is disgruntled employees, which then leads to disgruntled offenders. This can cause problems including confrontations not only between personnel but also between personnel and offenders, all of which leads to an increase in financial costs through turnover, medical and litigation, just to name a few.

There is an ever-growing set of legal firms that now specialize in ensuring due diligence is a key component of our detention facilities. They are revealing that many of our jail systems are outdated and, in some cases, broken. I understand if you don’t agree, but I challenge you to look at the measurable data, which I will outline below as I defend my stance: Policing and detention are distinctly separate law enforcement professions and must be treated as such.

Let’s start with the desired outcomes each profession seeks. Deputies enforce laws; detention officers enforce rules. Deputies patrol streets: detention officers ensure that order and safety within their confined housing unit is maintained so no one is preyed upon. Deputies arrest or refer people for specialized help. Detention officers are the only help the offender has to access. If you’re sick, you turn to the detention officer to help you go to the doctor. If you need toilet paper, a toothbrush or your water is cold, you turn to the detention officer.

With these small variances alone, it is evident that training requirements likewise differ. While I concur they are somewhat parallel, in the same context that oranges and apples are fruit, they are nonetheless distinctly different, and, moving forward, we must create very defined pathways for each career.

As a statistical mean, deputies receive 16 weeks of training. In comparison, there are many agencies that only provide one week of detention officer training. If you find four weeks or more, that is the exception, not the industry standard. In some areas, we are even allowing 18-year-olds to supervise several hundred offenders by themselves having only a fraction of the training required by deputies.

There has always been the debate about whether deputies must have more training because of the potential dangers they face alone daily – a sentiment with which I concur – but think about the 18-year-old who is in a room full of those people just arrested by those deputies. Is the danger decreased simply because of the room size or has it increased to everyone residing or entering the room?

We clearly owe our citizens, who pay our salaries – including those who happen to find themselves in our jail – a commitment to increase detention officer training. We have shortened training to get bodies out into the jail faster to replace the 50% turnover being experienced nationally, but the lack of training is only feeding that turnover rate.

There is, however, more to consider.

A distinct pathway

If there is not a designated career pathway for detention separate from certified deputies, there will be a lower success rate. They are two different mindsets that require different skills. Why should we not embrace those differences and give each the tools they need to be successful? These tools may include quality training, measurable outcome-based policies, monitoring of policy compliance, as well as distinct and separate promotional opportunities.

And as mentioned above, adding deputies into the detention environment, particularly those who don't want to be there, creates a toxic environment for all employees. We've even witnessed deputies resistant to orders from detention supervisors, which only adds to the unnecessary conflict. On the flip side, there is no job in the jail where a trained detention officer cannot excel. There are many positions with limited offender contact that a non-uniformed civilian can even perform.

And, whether true or perceived, the presence of deputies and detention officers competing for the same positions in a facility often creates conflict. The belief is that deputies at times obtain preferred assignments based on their title. There are those who would argue against the accuracy of this assessment, but I have witnessed and would challenge that this can be found across the country. Let's face it, most leadership and decision-making roles are also deputies.

I challenge those decision-makers, however, to step back and look at their facility and simply reassess their staffing patterns and training unit. I get the concept; it’s worked for years. It may work until a new election or until there is an administration change. But an administrator’s legacy is usually not what they did but what they left. Administrators, I encourage you to treat your jails as a separate and very important division within your agency. That division will operate efficiently with its own career pathway. 

I hope this advice starts the kind of conversation that is a preface for change. The National Institute of Corrections is a great and free resource. I also am open to helping start the necessary dialog. While large jails usually see public accountability and litigation first, small jails soon follow. Corrections1 has my contact information.

You can simply choose any internet search engine and type in “jail litigation," and you will find years’ worth of reading just from the last five years. As long as the courthouse doors are open, litigation can and will be filed. What will you be doing to make sure it’s unnecessary because we did the right things for the right reasons?

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