Trending Topics

Knock, knock: A look at home visits for probation and parole

While training, equipment carried and policies vary widely in probation/parole work, officer safety remains the priority


Olmsted County probation officers Holly Busby, right, and Bernie Sizer visit with a recently released sex offender in his temporary housing apartment in Rochester, Minn., Monday, April 25, 2005.

AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

On a late January afternoon in 2001, a probation/parole officer received information that an offender was violating the terms of his probation. As the offender was on electronic monitoring, the probation officer was able to determine the offender was home. The probation officer, along with a colleague, decided to conduct a home visit at the offender’s house.

On the way, the probation officers discussed their strategy for the home visit. They decided they were going to arrest the offender based upon the violations that had been committed. Both probation officers were wearing body armor, but were unarmed per department policy. They decided to contact the local police department for assistance prior to going to the home; three officers were dispatched to assist.

The officers met and conducted a briefing and proceeded to the home; where they made contact with a resident and were allowed inside the home. At 5:20 p.m., while speaking with the offender in his bedroom, one of the police officers noticed a bullet in an ashtray. When the police officer questioned the offender about the bullet, the offender pulled a handgun and pointed it at the police officer. The police officer drew his duty weapon and shot the offender, saving his life and the life of one the probation officers.

This incident shows how home visits can be inherently dangerous for officers due to all the unknowns. It is common for probation officers to work with law enforcement agencies to conduct searches and arrests of offenders and they must always be ready for a “routine” home visit to take a turn for the worse.

Home visit statistics

A study into home visits and field contact polices in community supervision by Abt Associates and the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) found that 94 percent of agencies and 92 percent of probation/parole officers conduct field visits. Additional findings of interest include:

  • 36 percent of staff other than line officers conduct field visits;
  • 90 percent of probation/parole officers were trained on awareness of surrounding and exit alternatives;
  • 56 percent of probation/parole officers had firearms training and certification;
  • 87 percent of agencies stated they had a firearms policy, but only 26 percent of probation/parole officers said they always carry a firearm when conducting a home visit
  • Only 31 percent of probation/parole officers reported always wearing body armor, and 34 percent stated they never wear body armor.

While training, equipment carried and policies vary widely in probation/parole work, officer safety must remain the priority.

Why conduct home visits?

For most probation/parole officers, the majority of contacts with offenders come in the form of office appointments, which allow for in-depth conversations with the offender in a controlled environment. In the office, probation/parole officers are not fighting for the offender’s attention along with the television, children, spouses, phones and other distractions. Office visits allow us to better review collateral information on the offender and check records.

Home visits and field checks should not replace office visits, but be used to complement them. The nature of an office visit makes it easy for offenders to create cover stories, enlist family members to lie for them and forge documents to give false impressions of behavior. Any probation/parole officer who has been on the job for a few years can probably recall at least one time when an offender reported that everything in their life was going well, but when further investigation was conducted, that turned out to be a gigantic lie.

Home visits and field checks are critically important in probation/parole work as they provide officers with a truer understanding of what is going on in the offender’s life. Officers can meet an offender’s family, see their living conditions, check for illegal items and items in violation of probation/parole conditions, and confirm offenders are living where they say they are living. By doing this, it allows probation/parole officers to adjust case plans accordingly and help identify needs the offender may have, referring them to proper intervention programs to hopefully repair the situation before a criminal act occurs.

There are no ‘routine’ home visits

While home visits are usually uneventful, probation/parole officers need to have the same level of situational awareness as a police officer has during a traffic stop.

On a traffic stop, an officer must be prepared for any situation, which could include being shot on approach by a vehicle occupant, being ambushed, being struck by an oncoming motorist, or the driver of the vehicle immediately jumping out of the vehicle to flee on foot or engage the officer in a physical confrontation.

It’s easy for a probation/parole officer to become complacent when conducting home visits and field checks, because the majority of the time nothing happens. But there is a lot happening on every single home visit and field check, just like there is a lot happening when a police officer conducts traffic stops.

Probation/parole officers regularly work with some of the most violent and dangerous people walking around in our communities. The offender is aware of what they have been doing and who they have in their residence. It’s no secret that offenders go to great lengths to hide their criminal activity and will use manipulation, intimidation, confrontation and violence to avoid arrest.

I have seen home visits become dangerous in a matter of seconds through discovering large amounts of narcotics and firearms to an offender hiding out other individuals with warrants.

Officers should remember it might not be the offender you are supervising who could cause the problem. It could come from a friend or family member at the offender’s home who is under the influence of alcohol or a narcotic and they become argumentative or combative for no other reason than you being at the residence.

If the situation is beyond repair, probation/parole officers need to know how to switch into the role of an investigator and secure the scene and properly investigate the violation for a probation/parole revocation or a new criminal charge. This could include contacting the local law enforcement agency, conducting interviews, processing evidence and making an arrest on scene.

If the probation/parole officer’s policies and procedures prevent them from investigating violations on scene or making arrests or if they lack the training and knowledge of how to handle this type of situation, they need to know how to safely disengage and leave the residence. Probation/parole officers also need to understand their limits; there is absolutely nothing wrong with disengaging if things start to go south. Retreat, regroup, call for backup and try a new approach.

In conclusion, home visits are unpredictable and inherently dangerous to the safety of officers conducting them, yet very necessary in providing supervision to enhance public safety. In future articles, I will provide information to other probation/parole officers conducting home visits and field checks who may not be getting the proper training to keep themselves safe, provide different approaches for officers who are regularly conducting home visits, and discuss ways to further cases through investigations and intelligence gathering.

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.