Anoka County now requires probation officers to wear bullet-resistant vests during home contacts with some offenders. Ramsey County is weighing a similar policy. Hennepin County already has one.
The moves are driven by a variety of factors, including increases in higher-risk offenders on probation, greater scrutiny of past practices, and increased availability of funding for vests.
They also come as national research indicates that, while violent encounters are rare, the job has become more dangerous. Early last week, a vest saved the life of a probation officer in Kentucky when an offender shot him as he got out of his car.
The Twin Cities has generally avoided that kind of incident. Several corrections officials said they couldn’t recall any officers facing gunfire or having a weapon drawn against them. While no visit is routine, dog attacks are the prime injury threat, said Dylan Warkentin, director of community corrections for Anoka County.
Still, “we need to keep our people safe,” said Marc Peterson, Ramsey County’s safety coordinator for community corrections. “In order to do their job, they need to feel safe.”
Anoka County recently received an $11,000 federal grant to buy 14 vests, which replaced worn-out vests from 10 years ago. The purchase coincides with a new mandatory-wear policy for any of the county’s 97 officers who do a search of an offender’s residence or visit an offender with an active warrant; a supervisor also can require an officer to wear a vest. Any officer contacting a higher-risk offender can check out a vest, Warkentin said.
“We want officers to wear them more frequently,” he said.
The Anoka County probation staff makes up to 10,000 home contacts a year. The number of offenders on probation statewide has remained stable and, unlike in some counties, Warkentin said he hasn’t seen an increase in high-risk offenders coming out of prison.
Warkentin said probation officers are well-trained in how to de-escalate situations and not to engage offenders in fights. The goal is to make sure offenders successfully complete probation and to prevent a violation that would return them to prison, he said.
Ramsey County is reviewing vest use and will have a mandatory policy in a couple of months, said Peterson, a former probation officer hired as safety coordinator a year ago. More than half of the county’s 125 adult-probation officers are assigned vests, and the county plans to buy them for the entire field staff, he said. Probation officers frequently team up with a police officer if visiting a predatory offender or an offender who is under intensive supervision or has gang ties.
Probation officers receive training on dealing with intoxicated and aggressive offenders, shooting scenarios and animals. Classes on mental health issues are also provided because “it is a really unique challenge and it’s pervasive throughout the entire criminal justice system,” Peterson said.
Some states, such as Oklahoma, require probation officers to carry a firearm when they make home visits, said Bob Thornton, director of the Community Corrections Institute, a private organization in Springdale, Wash., that does research and consulting on probation and parole safety issues. There is a moderate trend toward correction departments issuing vests and making their use mandatory, but it’s still the exception rather than the rule, he said.
The only national data on probation officer safety are supplied by the federal probation officer system. Statistics show an increase in hazardous duty incidents, which could be an altercation, physical or verbal threat or finding a weapon during a search, Thornton said.
Assigning vests only to officers handling high-risk situations isn’t supported by research because in most cases when an officer was killed, it was during a home visit and the officer had had previous contact with the offender, Thornton said. If there is a conflict, it’s over within five seconds, he said.
When he hears the argument that vests are cost-prohibitive, he counters, “How much is an officer’s life worth?” Probation officials are placing more emphasis on visits made by two officers, reducing caseloads and teaming up with law enforcement or task forces, Thornton said.
In Hennepin County
Like other counties, Hennepin isn’t alone in trying to balance budgetary constraints with the nonstop flow of offenders. About a quarter of the 220 probation officers are required to wear vests, said Brian Kopperud, division manager of adult probation and parole. There are currently 27,000 offenders on probation and officers use sophisticated tools to assess which ones are high risk and need the most attention, he said.
“Officers know their clients well enough to determine if something is off when they visit,” he said. “It is more risky to do visits at home and not in the office, but it helps build better relationships by engaging in their natural environment.”
Field work can be even more challenging in rural areas, said Kay Arola, whose staff covers five counties in northern Minnesota. Many of their clients live in remote areas where the nearest police station could be two hours away, she said. In rural homes, there is a higher likelihood one of the residents other than the offender may own a gun, she said.
“And working in smaller towns, you are going to run into an offender or your children may go to school with their children,” she said.
It’s mandatory for some of the 78 probation officers to keep a vest in their vehicle, she said. Any officer can check out a vest, she said. When she was a probation officer, a juvenile pulled a gun on her. She was hesitant to talk about it because such incidents are so rare, she said.
“I believe people are called to this profession,” Arola said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job.”