Have a plan: 7 ways to stay safe off-duty
Enhancing your situational awareness and communicating your action plan can make the difference in a dangerous encounter
Working in the world of criminal justice means, you work with criminals. It is easy to forget that when you are rushing to work or going out to dinner. Once you understand that your job in the world of community corrections will influence your personal life, you will live your life somewhat differently than before.
You will no longer just sit at the restaurant and gaze into your significant others’ eyes; you will scan the restaurant for ex-clients. You may even find yourself looking into the kitchen, trying to get a glimpse of the cooking staff. This is all part of your personal commitment to enhance your situational awareness.
1. Communicate your emergency plan
Talk to your family, talk to your kids, talk to your significant other, and let them know, that things can go bad in a fraction of a minute for you because of your job, and you need to have a plan of action in place to be proactive in your response to risky situations.
I use the codeword “ponle” (south Texas slang for leave). My wife and I have an understanding; if I turn around and use the word “ponle,” my wife will do the following:
- She is to escort our kids to our vehicle immediately.
- As soon as she enters the vehicle, she is to turn on the vehicle and begin the countdown (I have 5 minutes to communicate with her via cell or in person).
- If my 5 minutes are up, she is to contact our local law enforcement agency, advise them that I am in a situation that involves my employment (she is to advise them of my place of employment and my job title), request an officer to her location, and provide the police department with a description of what vehicle she is in and what my clothing description is.
- She is to wait for my call or my presence while charging her cell phone with the vehicle charger.
I have used my plan of action once already and I must say, it was a complete success. Step up your plan of action and rehearse it as often as you can. Practice makes perfect.
2. Learn your caseload
Try your best to remember your clients’ place of employment. This is the best way to stay safe. “Can we go somewhere else?” gets old, and sometimes you are going to feel negative, but it is for your safety and the safety of those around you, so everyone should be somewhat understanding of your need to avoid certain places.
3. Blend in
When attending any event, regardless of location, do yourself a favor and learn to blend in. Start with wearing a non-law enforcement shirt. Trust me (and if you don’t, ask your clients and they too will agree), we are so easy to spot when we are wearing a law enforcement support T-shirt. Now, do not get me wrong, I own a ton of them; I just do not wear them to events or dinner. There is no need to tell the world what you do for a living. In our world, you must learn to blend in and look like everyone else, for your own safety.
My personal vehicle does not stand out by any means. It looks just like the other 10,000 pickup trucks that came out that year. I blend in, everywhere I drive and everywhere I park.
The threat of losing your belongings, or even worse, department-issued items, is a major concern. Items such as department jackets or spare uniforms hanging from a hanger in the back seat are tell-tale signs to a criminal. They are some of the most sought-after trophies in the criminal world. Get them out of view and in a safe and secure place in your vehicle.
4. Stay with your group
If you are attending an event with your family or a group of friends, take a few steps to keep everyone safe:
- Take a picture with everyone. A group selfie works great because now you have a picture with everyone and you have a description of everyone’s clothing, without taking notes.
- If you have children with you, keep a close eye on them and put your phone number in their pocket so they can easily reach you if you become separated. It is extremely important to remind them to avoid talking to strangers and be sure they know who to go to if they get lost (police officers, event security, etc.).
- Think carefully about all situations that could potentially arise and have a plan of action in place. Doing so will go a long way to helping you feel safe.
5. Identify exits
Once you have arrived at your destination, it is critical to ensure you know where the exits are. Do not forget to share the knowledge – tell your friends, tell your kids and tell your significant other where they are. This will provide you with a clear and safe way to leave the area in case you need to activate your emergency plan.
6. Beware of exposing private information
Trust me, all it takes is for one of your ex-clients to tell a coworker to card you, and all of the sudden, your physical address is exposed. Oh and let’s not forget your credit card information. Trust me, once you experience a credit card/debit card fraud situation, you will truly understand why cash is king in our world too.
Learn to carry cash, especially if you are going out to eat. Paying with cash alleviates many worries and concerns – and can allow you to leave a tricky situation without waiting for a server to run your card.
7. Live a secret social media life
Stay vigilant in the world of social media. Use a different name, and advise your friends and family of the need to shield your identity. Keep your personal life as private as you can. Be mindful of all of the photos you place on social media. Keep your contacts close and do not accept anyone who is unknown to you. Adjust your settings and keep as much of your social media profile as private as you can.
Be proactive, not reactive
Our personal lives can be impacted so quickly because of our profession. In my training classes, I use the following phrase, “Satan survives in hell because he is aware of every demon in his lair.” Being proactive with our safety means we too must be aware of the danger that surrounds us daily. If you premeditate issues and concerns and create solutions to possible problems, you will be one step ahead of dangers. If you wait to be reactive in your endeavors towards your safety, you risk personal injury to yourself, a loved one, or anyone close to you.
Read next: Command presence in community corrections. Looking and acting the part begins with your very first interaction with clients
Authors’ note: I would like to thank my Executive Director, Faustino "Tino" Lopez, for allowing me the opportunity to submit this article for publication. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Leo Perez, Hidalgo County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, 3100 S. Bus Hwy 281, Edinburg, Texas 78539; firstname.lastname@example.org.