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11 home visit safety tips for probation and parole officers

Home visits are fluid, so officers need to be able to adapt and quickly shift gears to prioritize their safety

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In this June 20, 2017 photo, Scott Tubbs checks in on one of the 140 cases he handles in Baton Rouge, La. Tubbs is the Baton Rouge probation and parole office’s lone mental health specialist.

AP Photo/R.J. Rico

Officer safety is the most important part of our job when conducting home visits and field checks. Here are some key considerations to help protect probation officers and parole officers when conducting home visits.

Get to know the offender

Probation/parole officers have access to an offender’s criminal history, pre-sentence investigation and risk assessments, and probably have met with, or at least talked to the offender to get an idea of how they are reacting to being supervised.

When meeting with an offender, the supervising officer will learn an offender’s thought process, body language, speech patterns, personality, likes, dislikes and attitudes toward the officer.

Probation/parole officers should get to know an offender’s schedule, as humans, for the most part, like routine. If the offender’s routine suddenly changes, this could be a red flag for the probation/parole officer to make a home visit.

By getting to know an offender, the officer can notice when something does not seem right. If the offender is normally talkative, but now will not look at the officer and provides only short or coy answers, the officer should be able to determine if this is normal behavior for that person. The offender may just be going through a rough patch, or it could indicate something more serious, such as the offender has relapsed or is associating with old friends again. Either way, investigation is required.

The offender will dictate an officer’s approach

The approach to a home visit or public location check will be different depending on the offender.

When conducting a home visit on a first-time offender in compliance, the probation/parole officer may go into the home and have a casual conversation with the offender in the living room. The officer might ask the offender to give the officer a tour of the residence. This will give the officer a chance to see the layout of residence, and look at living conditions and items in plain view. This is where we can use more covert officer safety tactics to protect ourselves. Most of the time the offender and public do not notice the things officers do to keep themselves safe. If there is an indication of noncompliance or other people in the residence are being argumentative or aggressive, the approach to the home visit can change. Home visits are fluid, so officers need to be able to adapt and quickly shift gears to prioritize their safety.

When conducting a home visit on an offender with a history of violent crimes and noncompliance, we know through risk assessment that this individual could present a substantial risk to officer safety. Probation/parole officers may encounter the offender at the front door and have the offender exit the residence to remove him or her from any potential weapons inside the residence. Every home is littered with weapons, which includes kitchen knives, forks, ink pens and heavy blunt objects. By having the offender exit the home, you do not have to worry about the unknowns in the house. This is an example of using overt officer safety tactics. The offender is fully aware and can see the officer is trying to fully control the visit.

Logistical considerations on a home visit

There is a difference between doing a home visit in a metro area versus a rural residence on a farmstead. In a metro area, if an officer calls for backup, they might have 10 cars there in a matter of minutes, where if you are in rural area, it may take 20 minutes for one car to get to the officer. This is definitely a consideration when planning a home visit.

Some home visits may pose such a threat that operational planning needs to take place ahead of time, especially if it is the first time an officer has been to that location. An example of this would be if the offender has a past history of engaging law enforcement in standoffs and/or making threats to kill officers. The offender’s residence may also be in a location that presents officers with an extreme tactical disadvantage on approach. In this case, the officer could justify denying the placement based upon officer safety concerns.

Probation/parole officer safety tips

Here are 11 tips to consider when preparing for and conducting home visits:

  1. Get to know the offender. Review criminal history, trial information and previous contacts with other probation/parole and law enforcement officers if available.
  2. Know who is living in the residence with the offender and whether they have criminal histories and/or a history of drug use or violence.
  3. Research the residence. Is it an apartment building with secure access, or is it a house with a long drive on the top of the hill with one way in and one way out? This could change your approach.
  4. Know the primary law enforcement agency where the offender’s residence is located.
  5. Use visualization techniques to run through different scenarios in your head prior to conducting home visits. By doing this, it could cut your reaction time and potentially save your life.
  6. Do not conduct home visits on your own.
  7. Once you enter the residence, split from your partner. Stand in different areas of the room and practice contact and cover. The backup officer should be able to see the fellow officer, the offender and any doorways leading into the room you are currently in.
  8. Even if the offender says there is no one else in the residence, always assume there is.
  9. Discuss an exit strategy with your partner before going into the residence. If the home visit starts to get dangerous, know how to communicate with your partner that you need to leave without making it obvious to the offender. There is no shame in backing out and regrouping. No warrant or volume of drugs is worth risking your life.
  10. The offender’s residence is not the place for a debate. Make your directives clear and to the point. If the offender does not agree, schedule an office appointment so you remove them from their territory and into a controlled environment.
  11. Stay alert and do not become complacent. If you are authorized to carry weapons, carry them! If you have access to body armor, wear it! Put the odds in favor and be prepared for the day the fight is brought to you, all while hoping that day never comes.

Unfortunately, in this line of business an officer can do everything right and still be seriously hurt or killed. Officers must be prepared for any situation by using good officer safety tactics. If you have questions about safety tactics, reach out to your defensive tactics instructors for guidance. If your department does not offer defensive tactics or personal safety training, speak with your supervisor to request they provide this type of training. This will not only be valuable to help protect you while at work, but also when off-duty.

Tyson Howard is a probation/parole officer with the 4th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services in Iowa, assigned to the High Risk Unit. He is a current member and coordinator for the Iowa Law Enforcement Intelligence Network and a member of the Iowa Narcotics Officer Association. Previously, he held the rank of officer and then sergeant with the Centerville (IA) Police Department for 6½ years. In addition, he was assigned to the South Central Iowa Drug Task Force Special Operations Group for 5 years. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from Buena Vista University.