Trending Topics

Principles for success as a CO: Officer safety

If you compromise your safety, you compromise the safety of your fellow staff as well

In what is the first of a nine-part series, I outline what I call the “Corrections Formula,” an easy way to remember nine principles to optimize your success as a correctional officer.

The formula is designed to guide your thoughts, decisions and actions so you develop an operational mindset where officer safety is your top priority, professionalism is your foundation and legality is your path.

There are three elements of the corrections formula:

  1. Safety;
  2. Legality;
  3. Professionalism.

Each of these three elements contain three principles that make up the nine principles for success:


Contributed Image

  1. Officer safety – Your top priority and your duty to yourself and your coworkers.
  2. Facility safety – Your duty to the communities you serve.
  3. Inmate safety – Your duty to those you have been entrusted to protect.
  4. Federal law – The U.S. Constitution, which shapes state law, major acts of congress and case law.
  5. State law – The laws and statutes of the state, which guide your facility’s operations and practices.
  6. Agency policy and procedure – The guardrails that keep you on the path of legality and in compliance with the law.
  7. Guardianship – Your purpose as a correctional officer and why you do what you do.
  8. Health and wellness – Maintaining both physical and mental wellness.
  9. Firm, fair and consistent –The golden rule in being the same professional every day.

This month we look at the first principle, correctional officer safety.


Officer safety is your number one priority. It is the one thing you should always run through your head. If you compromise your safety, you compromise the safety of your fellow staff. Below are some strategies that will assist you in maintaining good safety practices in correctional facilities:

Distance: Maintain a safe distance from inmates staying properly postured, positioned and aware of your surroundings. You should have your hands up in a non-threatening, bladed stance, making eye contact and close enough to hear and see, but far enough away to be safe.

Awareness: During routine operations, you should be relaxed but aware. This means your mind and body are at ease, however, you are vigilant and aware of what is going around you.

Resilience: Be fit for duty by maintaining physical, mental and emotional resiliency. Each domain is like a battery – for you to be at an optimal state of coherence, each battery needs to be fully charged. Each domain will deplete and renew, working for and against each other, so you must do your best to keep them working in harmony.

Respect: One of the easiest ways to create an unsafe environment is to be disrespectful. Respect gets results, whereas disrespect creates conflict. Many people feel respect is earned where you have to get (feel) respect to give (show) respect. As a professional, you should reverse that formula, meaning you operate with dignity and respect because you respect yourself, the profession and the situation. This path of respect starts with taking a suspicious mindset and turning it into a curious mindset. A suspicious mindset leads to hostility, whereas a curious mindset will typically lead to cooperation.

Ego: Leave your ego at the door when you go to work. Ego can damage relationships and cause you to personalize conflict. You can personalize cooperation, but don’t personalize conflict.

Communication: The way we communicate will either escalate or de-escalate situations. It is critical to keep communication professional, treating people with dignity and respect even when it is hard. Do not let ego get in the way. The way we communicate with others is a prime reflection of our character and our integrity.

Communication is also how we gather information we need to make decisions. While there are benchmarks to consider when communicating with inmates, your conversations should flow and be genuine. Here are some tips for effective communication:

  • Ecology: Know your environment and who you are talking to. Stay safe.
  • Conversation: Initiate the conversation, establish rapport and actively listen.
  • Information: Respond to feeling, suspend judgement, ask questions and validate what is said. Remember the who, what, when, where, why and how.
  • Decision: Be reasonable. Know the rules, policies and procedures. Exercise practical wisdom. Decisions should be legal, professional and safe.
  • Solution: Know your scope of authority and consider all possible solutions. Be able to explain your decision and solution.
  • Notification: Inform your supervisor and the appropriate personnel with pertinent information, as well as your plan of action.
  • Documentation: Always document the incident, your actions and your decisions.

Remember that tone and body language play a huge part in how we effectively communicate.

Choice model: When dealing with negative behavior, use the choice model. Present choices: the negative, the positive and the consequences of both. Take the threat out of the consequences, depersonalize the conflict, personalize cooperation and try to end on a positive.

Emotional intelligence: This is the ability to recognize your feelings and other people’s emotions; to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately; and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. This involves:

  • Perceiving emotions: The ability to identify your own emotions and process emotional information (faces, voices, pictures, demeanor).
  • Using emotions: The ability to harness emotions to facilitate cognitive activities (problem-solving).
  • Understanding emotions: The ability to comprehend and recognize emotional language and appreciate the diversity in various emotions (empathy, patience).
  • Managing emotions: The ability to regulate emotions in both ourselves and other (self-control, awareness of emotional triggers).

An example of good emotional intelligence would be walking into a unit of inmates who are tense and recognizing that something is off and that the inmates are collectively upset about something. An example of poor emotional intelligence would be walking into that unit with an abrasive demeanor and further escalating that tension. Pay attention to the tension.

Trust your gut: If something doesn’t seem or feel right, it probably isn’t. Trust your intuition.

Searches: Know the principles of quality searching. Be thorough, consistent, systematic, curious, professional, safe and objective. The principles of searching never change, only the methods do.

Breathing: Stay in a coherent state of mind by practicing heart-focused breathing. An example of this would be to clear your mind, inhale for several seconds, hold it for several seconds, exhale for several seconds and hold it for several seconds. As you do this for several minutes, try to focus only on your heart.

Threats: Know your threats, your areas of cover and your routes of escape. Don’t be paranoid but stay prepared and ready.

Blind spots: Know all the blind spots in your facility, because the inmates do.

Manipulation: Familiarize yourself with the manipulation tactics inmates use such as:

  • Taking your kindness for weakness and trying to become too familiar;
  • Trying to have long conversations and grooming your emotions;
  • Giving you lots of compliments;
  • Asking for favors and breaking the rules to see how much they can get away with;
  • Using the “us vs they” or “you and me” method where they say to you, “You’re not like them other COs.”

Training: Training is your life insurance and the investment should never stop. Keep your knowledge and skills sharp, and remember that as laws and standards evolve, so should policies and practice. Sometimes current practice isn’t best practice, and policy isn’t the law.


The three things you need to stay safe and survive are:

  1. Training;
  2. Physical fitness;
  3. A winning mindset.

The three things a predator needs to attack you are:

  1. Desire;
  2. Ability;
  3. Opportunity.

You cannot control the attacker’s ability and desire, but you can control opportunity. Never put yourself in a vulnerable situation that leaves you open to attack. Again, don’t be paranoid, but be prepared.

Next month: Facility safety.

Brandon Anderson is a police officer for the Sumner Police Department in Washington State. He has spent the last few years as a sergeant/frontline supervisor with a large regional jail in Washington. He joined the Marine Corps in 2007 and started working in corrections in 2012 at a small county jail. He has worked both indirect and direct supervision as a frontline officer and frontline supervisor. He spent two years as the training coordinator and primary TAC officer for the Corrections Officers Academy in Washington State from 2015-2017. As a Master Defensive Tactics instructor, Blue Courage instructor, Emergency Response Team instructor and Use of Force instructor, he is passionate about training and optimizing the best out of those in our profession. Brandon also provides tactical, wellness and consulting services for his business On Mission Services-LLC. Follow his blog online at