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Danger: Part of the Job for Probation, Pretrial Services Officers
Tom Gahl was killed on the job 20 years ago, but most of the 5,100 probation and
pretrial services officers working in the federal court system today still know
Gahl, a federal probation officer in Indianapolis, was gunned
down on September 22, 1986. He is the only federal probation or pretrial
services officer killed in the line of duty.
“His is a name recognized by
the vast majority of today’s officers. His name and how he died is a reminder of
the inherent dangers in the work they do,” said Sharon Henegan, chief of the
Office of Probation and Pretrial Services (OPPS) Training Branch within the
Gahl’s widow, Nancy, recently wrote about his
death in a publication for probation and pretrial services officers.
a sunny Monday morning, Tom went to the home of Michael Wayne Jackson, who had
been placed on Tom’s caseload one week before. When no one answered the door,
Tom started to walk toward the neighbor’s house,” she wrote. “Mr. Jackson, who
was carrying a sawed-off shotgun, came from behind and shot Tom in the left
“Tom turned and faced Mr. Jackson, trying to reason with him, but
fell to his knees weakened from the loss of blood. Crying out to God, Tom was
shot twice more, in the head.”
Jackson killed two more people before he
committed suicide 11 days later while pursued by law enforcement
Gahl, 38 and a 12-year veteran, left behind two sons, ages
eight and four. During the difficult times that followed, Mrs. Gahl often was
comforted by the judges and probation staff of the Southern District of Indiana.
They started an education fund for her boys, which served as the primary source
of their college tuition.
“Tom was a conscientious probation officer who
didn’t take unnecessary risks when dealing with offenders,” Mrs. Gahl wrote,
“and he often would take a U.S. marshal to accompany him during home visits.
Over the years, I have wished Tom could have done something to save his own
life, but the shots came without warning.”
She added: “I am pleased to
see that safety training is playing a much bigger role in the federal probation
and pretrial services system . . . Officers are at risk every day in carrying
out their responsibilities to protect the public. Although training can’t ensure
that they will never be in danger, it can greatly increase their chances of
Henegan said the officers’ focus on addressing the needs of
defendants and offenders can distract them from the potential dangers posed by
“We want all officers to know how to do their job in the safest
way. We are working toward that by integrating safety awareness and safety
training into their overall training on how to be a good officer in the federal
Judiciary,” Henegan said.
The OPPS training branch offers such training
to all new probation and pretrial services officers at the Federal Law
Enforcement Training Center in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2007, 13 classes
of 24 new officers will receive six weeks of training to build knowledge and
skills in all aspects of the job, including interviewing, testifying, substance
abuse treatment, assessing offenders’ risks and needs, and conducting purposeful
The curriculum includes specific classes on
self-defense, driving safety, firearms, threat identification and assessment,
Mrs. Gahl wants those new officers, and all officers, to know
she appreciates the work they do.
“I believe it is often
under-recognized, but it is crucial to a functioning Judiciary, a successful
correctional system, and a peaceful society,” she wrote. “I hope you will
continue to take advantage of the training opportunities that come your way, and
that you never take for granted your very important role in protecting and
serving the public.”