10 tips to keep office visits safe

Use these tips to identify hazards in the workplace and ensure your safety while engaging with clients

In the world of community corrections, it is very easy to fall into a state of complete complacency, because the job can at times feel, well, routine. As we all know, our employment and our work environment come with many hazards. At times, we as probation officers fail to remember that we are in the business of rehabilitating criminals. 

Most of the work in community corrections is performed while sitting in a chair in a climate-controlled office building. This seems less dangerous than other jobs, to the untrained eye. However, a surprising number of hazards can be present in an office setting – hazards that you as an officer can fail to see. In an effort to help my fellow officers, I came up with a few safety tips you can take to make your office environment safer. 

1. Clear the clutter 

Your desk needs to be clear of all paperwork and clutter so that the only paperwork visible is the client's case file. This keeps all of your other work safe from the possibility of criminal eye surfers. Eye surfing is the act of looking all over the office, in an effort to get information. Clients in a community supervision setting understand that it is relatively easy to sit and look around for information. Paperwork that is just lying around when the officer leaves the office or while they are just sitting there conducting their office visit could catch the eye of a client eye surfing for information.

2. Sit on the other side of the desk 

Here at my department, I conduct new hire orientation. One of the key concepts I try to pass along to new employees is the act of sitting on the other side of the desk. When you work in community corrections, you have to wear multiple hats in order to grasp the complexity of the job. One of those hats is your criminal hat. When you sit on the other side of the desk, you get a full view of what a client in your office is actually looking at. Look for telltale signs of things about you (e.g., family photos and calendars).

I once sat down at an officer's desk and saw so much vital information on her calendar that I just had to tell her – hey do you know that your clients can see and read what is on your calendar? Her doctor's appointments, her child's open house dates, her husband’s birthday and her car payment date were all visible. Information like this could mean little to the average person, but to a client with a criminal mindset, it could be the difference between following you home, and following you to your child’s open house.

Do your best to keep your personal information hidden from the world you supervise. 

Wall calendars say more than we think. Consider what information your clients can glean from your paperwork and calendars. (Leo Perez)
Everyday objects like paper clips can be modified into weapons of opportunity in minutes. (Leo Perez)
Arrange your desk so that your computer screen does not block your line of sight to the clients. (Leo Perez)

3. Locate weapons of opportunity 

Weapons of opportunity are best described as improvised weapons that are readily accessible and capable of becoming an active threat to you or someone in the department. Weapons of opportunity could be any handheld object, e.g., scissors, letter openers, pens, pencils and paper clips, just to name a few.

Office coffee pots also present a hazard. Mugs can be used as a weapon in themselves, and hot coffee scalds can damage several layers of skin. Of all the weapons of opportunity, this is the one that I truly do not understand having in an office space. 

4. Check the drawers 

Move items from one drawer to the other, especially if the client sits at arm's reach from the drawer.

Relocate any items you classify as a weapon of opportunity from drawers within the client’s reach. Keep your wallet and purse far from the drawers. Better yet, use the filing cabinet to hold them. The farther they are from your clients, the safer they will be. 

5. Close the coffee cup

Coffee drinking is beyond common in our workplace. What we as officers fail to understand is that drinking coffee in your office means you have to be cautious of where you leave it and who it is next to it. I recommend ditching the everyday coffee mug and going with a disposable coffee cup. Keep the cup with you at all times and when you are done with your coffee, throw it in the trash. This will prevent you from becoming a victim of a spiked drink. It is very easy for someone to throw something in your coffee when you are not looking. Some helpful hints to look out for that could mean your drink has been spiked include:

  • Feeling drunk despite not having had any alcohol
  • Feeling confused or disoriented
  • Losing consciousness
  • Not remembering how you got somewhere
  • Having a hungover feeling all of a sudden
  • Urinary pain

Should you feel any of these symptoms, contact medical assistance immediately. In addition, have any drinks in your office checked for contamination. 

6. Scan at first sight

Naturally, we will walk over to our lobby area to call our clients in for their office visit. This is a critical moment for your safety and the safety of everyone in the building. As your client walks up to you, conduct a visual scan of their walk. You can detect a concealed weapon with just a visual scan. Look for bulges along the belt line – that is a clear indicator that there is something connected to the belt.

You can also spot signs that a person is carrying a weapon by looking at their body language. Clients carrying a gun may walk with an awkward gait. They may also walk uncomfortably because they have guns, knives or other weapons hidden in their boots or shoes, causing discomfort. Look at their jackets. When you place a handgun in a jacket pocket, the coat typically hangs lower on the side where the weapon is located. In addition, you will often see the fabric pulled tight from the weight of the gun, and the weapon may swing as the client walks up to you.

7. Maintain a clear line of sight

Ask any hand-to-hand combat instructor and they will all agree, your target should be clear and you should never take your eye off the target. The target in your office space is your client. It is important to understand that you as an officer need a clear line of sight between you and your client. You need to be able to see your client's hands and eye movements. A clear line of sight ensures you can have eyes on your client at all times. Move your computer screen and adjust the chairs to maintain that clear line of sight. 

8. Take your client with you to the printer 

If you need to leave your office for any reason, take your client with you. Repeatedly, I see clients being left alone in an office. Just think of all the valuable information in your office that is left behind while you gather papers at the community printer. 

9. Dress the part

Select clothing and shoes that will allow you to move freely, without restrictions. I even stay clear of heavy boots, which might impede my speed should I have to move quickly out of harm's way.

10. Changing hats is essential 

Officers wear multiple hats at work. One of the most critical hats a probation officer needs to learn to wear is your criminal hat. As you conduct work and do your daily activities, take some time to think like a criminal and make appropriate arrangements to ensure your safety and security. Think to yourself, "If I wanted to hurt my officer, how would I do it?"

Office safety is essential, and it is everyone's job to take part in it.

Remember, we are each other's greatest teachers. 

Author's 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; e-mail: leo.perez@hidalgocountycscd.org.

Read next: Have a plan: 7 ways to stay safe off-duty

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