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Top Ten Rookie Officer Mistakes
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 11/23/2009

Prison guard handcuffs Depending on the agency size and department manpower you may or may not be working alone. The following are some keys to success that you can place into your mental toolbox that will assist you in making it through. Take everyday as a learning experience and allow your mistakes to be tools to your success.

  1. Most situations that you will encounter will not be as described in the academy. Don’t lose sight with what is going on around you. You will be tested mentally and physically so as to understand your courage and stability.

  2. Never lose sight that you are not the punisher but instead the routine director and behavior modifier. Most inmates will need you or your services to get through the day. When you get jaded or your outlook on what inmates should or should not have turns black, this will send you down the slippery slope to destruction.

  3. If you have a punishment orientated mentality with overtones of dictatorship and superiority you will generate resistance. If you draw the metaphoric line in the sand, even though there will be times for this, inmates will certainly step over it just to see what you will do.

  4. There are three principals to controlling aggressive individuals and that is:

    • Never fight WHEN the individuals wants to fight
    • Never fight WHERE the individual wants to fight, and
    • Never fight HOW the individual wants to fight.

  5. There are three main reasons for anger as it relates to the correctional environment:

    • The individual feels that they have no control in a specific situation
    • The individual feels as if they have been wronged, either by you or someone else, and
    • The person feels that they did not get what they wanted. Out of those three main reasons for anger you will notice that you will be dealing with a lot of feelings during an aggressive encounter. Never forget your professionalism!

  6. Above all, you must understand that you are the professional and you must remain so even under the utmost stress. If you lose your bearing and temper you have lost the battle even before it begins. When dealing with criminals they will attempt to establish an environment of chaos, because there is where they feel most comfortable. They can excel when others are vulnerable and fearful. Understanding this, you can anticipate their tactics and thereby cut them off at the pass.

  7. The key to combative verbalization is:

    • Keeping the officer from being attacked and
    • Keeping the officer in control of the situation. These tactics can be summed up simply as “Don’t give them a reason to go off, but do give them a lot of reasons not to.” Those reasons not to attack you aren’t just because you are the authority figure standing before them. Fair, Firm and Consistent!

  8. Verbal tactics are so very important today because more than 80% of all officers who fail at their careers do so because they fail to communicate and relate to inmates appropriately. Don’t take things personally! This can never be stated too many times.

  9. The use of force, whether justified or not, can have grave effects on the individual officer, the agency, the state, and the community. The true test of reason is to ask yourself, “Do I get to use force; or do I have to use force?” The answer must be obvious.

  10. Inmates are not our friends; we are the keepers of the kept.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


  1. debmac on 12/23/2009:

    Excellent reminders....not only for Rookie Officers but those who have been around a few years.

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