Command presence in community corrections

Looking and acting the part begins with your very first interaction with clients

The father of probation (a.k.a. community corrections), John Augustus, had to have had some type of command presence back in the 19th century when he worked with minor offenders in Massachusetts. How else could he have convinced a judge to release a criminal into his care?

If my suspicions are true, Augustus taught us a valuable tool, and we have failed to include it in officer certification training. Command presence has been the topic of countless training classes and articles, for ages. But regardless of how much training you obtain, or how much research you conduct, mastering your personal command presence is difficult to achieve.

Where is our training?

Personal appearance is one of the most valuable, unspoken tools that officers have at their disposal.
Personal appearance is one of the most valuable, unspoken tools that officers have at their disposal. (Photo/Getty Images)

Command presence is a subject that I don’t recall being taught during certification. During my 17 years of service, I have witnessed first-hand how command presence is truly critical in the world of community corrections.

In the early years of my career, I supervised a caseload of between 125-140 clients. My office visits always ran about 30 minutes or so, and I loved speaking to all of my clients about various issues and concerns, especially when the client had a long term of community supervision.

The starting line 

I remember how some of my clients would comment on certain officers, using language such as, “they mean business,” or, “that officer is by the book.”

One client who had spent a large percentage of his life under supervised release told me he sized up probation officers from the moment he met them in the lobby. 

“It all starts with the sound of the voice,” the client told me. A weak tone of voice could signify a “walk in the park,” while a loud and firm voice signified a military-type probation sentence to this client.

Next, the client would size up the POs, looking for signals like clothes not matching the voice (someone trying really hard to make a good first impression) or pressed business casual clothes, which he equated to a 100% professional.

The client confirmed voice and style of dress go hand-in-hand, and that prisoners evaluate COs the same way. In his opinion, those who don’t take pride in the way they put on the uniform don’t really care for the job.

This conversation intrigued me so much that I went in search of all I could find on command presence, to see if I could enhance my image, in an effort to more easily obtain compliance from clients. 

Look the part 

After reading all that I could on the matter, and watching a few YouTube videos, I was convinced that every time I walk out to the lobby area to call a client in, anyone sitting in the waiting room is sizing me up, from my shoes to my hair.

Your personal appearance is one of the most valuable, unspoken tools that officers have at their disposal. Dressing the part is not difficult: make sure your clothes are washed and pressed, and match your clothing colors appropriately.

Stand up straight and look confident when you’re speaking out into the lobby. Your physical presence will draw your clients to listen to you and follow your instructions. If you project a sense of self-confidence through your body language and your dress attire, it demonstrates to your clients that you know what you’re doing. 

Continuous learning

While there’s no instruction manual for command presence, I can attest through my personal experience and observation of others, we are each other’s greatest teachers. Command presence will always be a continuous learning process and an element I believe should be a critical part of certification for every probation officer. 

A lack of command presence in our profession can be hazardous to you and your department. As odd as it sounds, a lack of command presence will be one of the building blocks of a negative work culture, which, in turn, will lead to ineffective safety procedures in any department, regardless of the size.

Command presence is just as essential at controlling a major incident in a community supervision department as the actual emergency response plan.

Promoting a positive command presence among officers will lead to a positive work atmosphere and a level of situational awareness that will project to the employees and the general public.

Watch for more

Watch for more

Why command presence is not about being the loudest person at the scene

Over the years, the concept of command presence has evolved into something it was never intended to be, notes Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham. Find out what command presence should mean in this tip.

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