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December 2006

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


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 about him.

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 Administrative Office.

Gahl’s widow, Nancy, recently wrote about his death in a publication for probation and pretrial services officers.

“On 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 elbow.

“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 officers.

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 survival.”

Henegan said the officers’ focus on addressing the needs of defendants and offenders can distract them from the potential dangers posed by the job.

“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 home inspections.

The curriculum includes specific classes on self-defense, driving safety, firearms, threat identification and assessment, and more.

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.”