Do rookie COs need to be 'RoboCops' to maintain order, earn respect?

In this training scenario, two rookie officers have very different approaches to effectively running a housing unit. Which one is right?


By Anthony Gangi

Officer Smith is fresh out of the academy and ready to begin his first day as a correctional officer. He checks the schedule and confirms his assignment as a housing unit officer in a general population unit. 

As a new officer, he feels that he is ready to enforce the rules and regulations of the housing unit to a “T.” If any inmate decides to violate any written rule, no matter how small, he is willing to hold them accountable. 

Inmates pass a correctional officer as they leave an exercise yard at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif.
Inmates pass a correctional officer as they leave an exercise yard at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

As he enters the unit to relieve Officer White, another rookie officer from the prior shift, Officer Smith notices tons of minor rule infractions (eating in the public area, too many inmates out at once, loud music being played, etc.).  

Once Officer Smith is given the keys to the unit, Officer Smith tells Officer White, “I am going to clean this up immediately. The last thing I want, as a rookie, is to be played!”  

Officer White quickly responds back, “I am utilizing discretion. I am picking and choosing my battles. I was informed by the supervisor not to be a RoboCop. Basically, you can’t write everything.”

In Officer Smith’s mind, a rookie has to be on point and set the standards of expectations high. If he is seen as too lenient, the inmates will walk all over him.  

For Officer White, being a RoboCop will never gain you the respect of your peers, your supervisors or even the inmates. He believes utilizing discretion and not always leaning on a written charge to run the housing unit is the best way to be effective as a rookie CO. 

Who is right? Is Officer Smith right for setting the standards high and then working them down once discretion has been developed? Or is Officer White correct in showcasing discretion from the get-go and showing everyone that he can effectively run a unit without going directly to a written charge?  

What do you think? Share your comments in the box below. 

CORRECTIONS1 READERS RESPOND

  • No. I've told so many new officers this as I believe it is the key to corrections. Be yourself. If you're a tough guy in the street, be that here. If you're not, don't try to be. Inmates have a REALLY good sense of who someone really is. If you try to put on a fake RoboCop tough-guy image, you'll get called out immediately. If you want to earn respect, be yourself every day. And GIVE a little bit of respect and you'll get a LOT in return.

  • There has to be a balance of both. Inmates need to know that while you may be lenient, you can be firm when the situation calls for it. Verbal judo can be an important skill during this balance. Knowing how to effectively communicate with inmates. Knowing and having them understand that the game is played as follows: They try to hide it, and I try to find it. Should I find anything, I'm only doing my job. If I don't find it, they won that round. The key is to not take it personally. Being able to discern situations and properly handle them is a key skill every corrections officer should learn.

  • The ability to appropriately and effectively use discretion goes hand in hand with the ability to de-escalate because both require the ability to analyze and adapt to situations. In the end, work within your capabilities and try to develop, but also know your population and adjust as needed. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, unless you like disruptive behavior and riots.

  • I’m not sure there’s an “either-or” here. I believe I’m firm, fair and consistent, but I’m also not one to write an inmate up for every little infraction. Instead, if it’s not a major infraction, I try to talk the situation out (within reason), and I gain compliance more often than not. My problem is, when I come back after my days off, I’m starting from square one. The inmate regulations are essentially written so you can charge anything if need be, and I completely see the “value” there. But you’ve got to use your brain and verbal judo to effectively police a housing unit AND keep the peace. The flip side: I have colleagues that charge everything, and they’re good at their job. It’s what works for you.

  • They don’t have to be RoboCops. They just need to be firm, fair, and consistent. That being said, it’s much easier to turn a “no” into a “yes” after finding out what policy dictates than it is to turn a “yes” into a “no.” There is also nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know the answer currently as long as you follow up after finding out what the answer is. Honesty and respect go a long way.

  • The group that trained me, and when I say group I mean captain, lieutenant, sergeant and unit members, were all trained with the same ethic: JUST DO GOOD BUSINESS. The captain that preached that lived it, therefore his people did it and then we lived it. I was fair, firm and consistent but above all, I did good business. The inmates knew what to expect from me and as a result of that, I knew what to expect. Some days were tough and left a lifetime impression but most days were OK. I made sure I laughed every day. I made sure to make somebody laugh. I was lucky to learn early that correction is one job that requires the CO to give respect before that same CO gets respect. It served me well, and I’m glad I was trained by the old school. I’m also really glad I’m retired.

  • I have found that the best approach is the most natural approach to the individual. I am a fairly stern person but approachable, my buddies are a little more laid back than me, and I have seen ones who are much more stern than I am, but the key is consistency and honesty. If you try to fake your way through it, people are going to see through that and that's for all walks of life. Don't try to act like someone you're not, and they are going to respect you more for being yourself than trying to fake being nice or hardcore or whatever.

  • New boot here. I'm three months out of the academy by way of a career in law enforcement and almost 50 years old. I am not in a maximum-security prison, so my response is a little bit of both works here. I wouldn't call it leniency as much as diplomacy. This may not work in all correctional settings. In fact, at my institution, there are particular housing units I would not suggest any leniency. I pick and choose my battles. I say "no" often, but on Friday and Saturday nights, holidays, maybe football Sundays, I am slightly more lenient, but also much more vigilant. With things like count we honor policy to the letter, and I hold them to it. However, dayroom tactics like the TV going off at 11 p.m. vs 11:30 p.m. on a Friday if they are watching something is trade and barter. Congregation can be good for intelligence; it allows you to observe what is "moving and shaking," perhaps for future searches, etc. Bad behavior equals no leniency. I am not trying to be the most popular CO, but if they pass inspections with flying colors, yes, I reward by staying in my lane a bit, within reason. 
  • I say no, Robos are highly problematic. Consistent, agency-wide fair application of the rules and policies will promote and provide operational efficiency and safety for all involved. No silos, team effort required, with role modeling and operational oversight and support by supervision. Robos are the exact opposite of what a professional officer should look like, think like and act like. I did several presentations on professionalism for COs and for LE officers many years ago and went over the attributes of four types of officers: RoboCops, Hobo Cops, Ticks and the professional officer. Here are attributes of the Robos of the jail and LE world: 1) Part man, part machine. 2) Para-military and professional in appearance. 3) Poor communication skills. 4) Poor body language. 5) Inability or unwillingness to consider the feelings of others (including co-workers and supervisors). 6) Knows the law, rules and regulations very well. 7) Very rarely uses discretion, unless it's to their personal benefit. 8) Rarely lives by the rules they apply to others. 9) Inflexible; it's their way or the highway. 10) Do as I say, not as I do, type personality. 11) Gets lots of complaints (more so than hobos or ticks). 12) Their presence alone can incite non-compliance and challenges from inmates. 13) Has lots of use of force issues. 14) Only sees two colors: Black & white, no gray, no middle ground.
  • When I first joined my department I had been told very conflicting (in my mind) directions for offender control in regards to this subject. Training and leadership directed, "Firm, fair, and consistent," and my fellow staff said, "Pick your battles." At first I believed both were mutually exclusive concepts. As I have grown, however, I don't believe them to be that anymore. I can take the rule book to any staff and ask, "What rules in here do I not enforce?" They will laugh at me and tell me to enforce them all. What they won't tell me, though, is how to enforce those rules. I don't have the time to write every minor violation in a housing unit. If I wrote every minor violation, I would do nothing else and very quickly it would be used against me. Now, that does not mean I can't enforce all the rules. As I am walking the common areas and see even minor violations I can give directives to get the offender within compliance. If they chose to follow my directives and in turn are now in compliance with the rule, I have enforced the rule. I win. If they chose to ignore my directive and continue to disregard the rules? Now they have made it worth my time to "write them up." It shows I'm still willing to do my job. It shows I made the attempt to be reasonable. I find that both of the choices (RoboCop and the "soft officer") in this article are going to need to evolve to survive in corrections. I think it's easier to start off "hard" and lighten up than to start "soft" and then get stricter as you progress in this profession. But that is my opinion. I'm only eight years in, so I think I'm still new.
  • I was in corrections for about 13 years in a Level 4 state prison. Everyone had their own way of running housing units; mine was to enforce the rules. Tried to be fair with all inmates, tried to hold all to the rules as written. This usually worked well for me. Inmates knew what to expect; I tried to be the same each day.
  • If it were possible to write everything and not detract from safety, security and orderly operations, I would say go for it. Such is not the case however. There is not enough time in the day nor enough disciplinary resources to simply be so pen-heavy. On the other hand, a rookie relying on discretion that has no evaluated experience behind it is a very bad idea as well. I expect new officers to lean on the pen a bit, but I also expect them to be cautious about what they overlook. I also don't want disciplinary services to be unduly overloaded. Clear directives and plenty of training rather than leaving them to their own ideas are key. The officer that allows eating in the day area but fails to realize the fruit they have could be used for alcohol is a huge issue and is just as bad as the officer writing the charge who gets so bogged down he never searches enough to find that alcohol. So teach them how to use both and most importantly the WHY, which helps them understand the basis for action, inaction and other remedies.
  • I am just under 2 years in for reference of my answer. I believe that both ways could possibly be right given the population. Some inmates genuinely do better behavior-wise and unknowingly mentally better with the structure. I will not say there is never a scenario where being "robo-cop" does not work for certain individuals. That being said a majority of the time I have found that using discretion, talking to them like people tends to go a very long way for everyone. This is not the same thing as being inconsistent. Showing consistency every shift with the inmates is what truly gains respect, not being a rulebook thumper. There are times for rigidity in keeping your word and ensuring that the inmate keeps theirs. In other words ensuring that they maintain consistency as well. This is a unique relationship in that you are, for lack of a better word, "living" with them for 12 hours a day. You are the leader of this facility by default and it must always stay that way. Incarceration itself is the punishment for the inmate, the job of the CO is not to further that punishment for punitive reasons and make their life difficult simply because demanding respect when it first is not given, breeds misery.

Do rookie COs need to be 'RoboCops' to maintain order, earn respect?

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