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November 2005

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Centralized Training Promotes Safety

Are federal probation offices engaged in law enforcement or social work?

"Both," says Sharon Henegan in an answer that raises unique training challenges.

"Our people use the investigative skills of law enforcement and the treatment and service-delivery skills of social workers. They need more training, not less, because of the various hats they must wear," Henegan said from the judicial branch’s new enclave at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Charleston, South Carolina.

Until this year, providing safety training for federal probation and pretrial services officers fell largely to the 94 judicial districts, with varying success. Districts were on their own to find appropriate training sites locally and negotiate for access and permission to use the site. The quality and availability of these sites varied greatly across districts.

That changed when the first class of 24 probation and pretrial services officers arrived at the sprawling FLETC campus, a once-abandoned Naval base, in January 2005 for three weeks of training in self-defense, driving safety, firearms, and more. By mid-summer, three classes had graduated.

"Officers spend a great deal of their time in the community managing persons with identified risks. Here, they learn how to do their jobs as safely as possible," said Henegan, chief of the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services Training Branch within the Administrative Office.

"This is a safety training program," she said. "Our goal is not to change the officers’ role, but to share with them skills that can keep them safe on the job."

That goal was met, according to Raul Salazar, a probation officer in Seattle and a member of the FLETC Class of July 2005.

"I would recommend this training because of the unpredictable population we work with—criminals or those charged with a crime," he said. "Hopefully, no one will face a threatening situation, but this training prepares you for that possibility. You have to come home to your family every night."

Unlike police officers and other law enforcement agents, federal probation and pretrial services officers rarely have suffered physical harm on the job. Why, then, is such rigorous training necessary?

Henegan is fond of a homeowner’s insurance policy analogy. "Very few of us have had our homes burn to the ground, but the risk of that catastrophe is such that we insure ourselves against the possibility," she said. "I think of this training in much the same way."

The AO is one of 81 federal agencies that have their law enforcement officers train at a FLETC facility, and one of 27 that maintains an on-site training presence.

The AO’s eight resident instructors at FLETC help tailor training to the Judiciary’s unique needs. "We audited the training FLETC offers and found that some courses they offer, like driver safety, have great application for us, but that some do not. We have fashioned a curriculum especially for new probation and pretrial services officers," Henegan said.

For example, FLETC firearms training includes instruction on various handguns, rifles, and machine guns. Probation and pretrial services officers receive training solely on the Glock semiautomatic handgun, the only weapon they are authorized to carry. (About 4,000 of the Judiciary’s 5,100 probation and pretrial services officers carry a gun.)

Training sessions also are offered to those officers serving as firearms and safety instructors in their districts.

Centralized training offers economies of scale. FLETC charges the AO and all other partners $29 a day to provide each student with housing and three meals a day. That, compared to a Washington, D.C., per diem of about $200 (or any other per diem rate), is "a bargain price," Henegan said.

By the time the FLETC Class of July 2005 had completed its three-week session, the officers had put in 40 hours on the firing range and had been schooled in other aspects of the continuum of force—fending off or retreating from threats during self-defense tactics in the mat room and subjecting themselves to oleoresin capsicum, better known as pepper spray.

The officers also took to the driving course for behind-the-wheel lessons in skid control and other driving-safety techniques, and received classroom instruction on ethics, conflict management, and threat assessment."

"This integrated training is the best I’ve had," said class member Roger Carrier, a probation officer in Columbia, Tennessee. "Our instructors teach us the various aspects of staying safe on the job and then put us through scenarios that show us, in a safe environment, how each is linked to the others. It all meshes."

Because of the quality and affordability of training at FLETC, the new officer training will be expanded in 2006 to include more classroom sessions and interactive instruction on all aspects of the job. Those include interviewing skills and effective courtroom testimony, in which officers are videotaped and critiqued.

The response of the new officers who have been trained has been overwhelmingly positive. "We care about the officers who come through here. We tell them it’s all about them and their safety," Henegan said. "And I think they hear that and appreciate it."