What does 'firm, fair and consistent' really mean?

Officers are always told to be firm, fair, and consistent in their behavior towards inmates, but we may not always know what exactly that means

By Sgt. Barry Evert

In our profession, we are always told to be Firm, Fair, and Consistent when dealing with the inmates under our charge, and the public we are sworn to protect. All too often, that is all that’s ever said about the subject, and we are forced to figure out for ourselves exactly what these three words mean. It sounds like the right thing to do, but how does this realistically apply to what we have to accomplish every day?

This one is easy. To be firm means to be unwavering in your principles, and, in the case of corrections, to demand inmates do the same. Most of us are firm in our belief that it is our duty to keep America’s worst criminals where they belong. We are also firm in our expectations that these same inmates comply with the rules and regulations that society has imposed on them.

There is a fine line between the “spirit” of the law and the “letter” of the law. We can still be firm in our beliefs and goals without quoting statutes and penal code to catch every little violation, every time. This is where we lose a lot of new officers. Officer discretion comes with experience. At times, new officers lack foresight and can behave like “Robocop.” To be firm, you must uphold the basic tenants of our profession; to be fair, you must use the “human touch” to accomplish your goals.

So, how can you be firm, yet fair, and also consistent? The last speaks more to your attitude than it does to your propensity to enforce the rules. To be consistent means to be the same person when you walk through the gates every day. We all have bad days, but, for the most part, it can be done.

While working in a Northern California institution, I was assigned to a rough and tumble unit. We housed the inmates no one else wanted in their buildings. We ran a great unit, accomplished through communication on all three watches and adherence to a simple rule: Enforce the rules in place.

Of the six officers assigned to this unit every day, I was a little on the firm side. I would make it a point to enforce every rule, every day, with very few occurrences of leniency. All of my partners were also firm, as the unit demanded this type of environment due to the large number of aggressive inmates we had residing there.

I was approached at one point by my supervisor and told to quit enforcing every little rule. Word on the yard was that I was due to be stabbed for my behavior. I consulted with my partners, who then talked to some of their more reliable sources of information on the yard. It was eventually determined by the inmates that “Evert is an A**H****, but he has always been like that. We know what to expect from him, so it’s not a big deal. No, we are not going to assault him for that, although we would be highly suspicious if he started to be really nice to us.”

The bottom line
A consistent message can be much more important than the content of the message. This sounds a little strange, and can be used for both good and bad, but seems to hold true. I was able to adjust my style over years of experience, and now have a better balance of being firm, fair, and consistent. The bottom line here is that inmates will find it easier to conform to your style as long as they know what to expect from you.

The balance of these three tenants of our profession can only be achieved through conscious adjustment of style, attitude, and behavior. It will most likely take several years of experience to hone your skills. Watch how the more experienced officers interact with the inmates, and learn from their experience. There is a reason these three words have been drilled into our skulls for so long: the formula works.

Be safe out there and, as always, watch your 6.

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