|Rescuing Fellow Officers|
|By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)|
Recently I wrote a blog that explored the idea that jail officers act as lifeguards when dealing with suicidal inmates[The Jail Correctional Officer: The Lifeguard ]. Recently, I came across an article by a law enforcement veteran that discusses rescuing our fellow officers.
In the article “Keep cool: How to stay professional despite provocation”, retired police lieutenant Dan Marcou discusses how offenders and inmates conquer officers by angering them. It’s true-those of us who work in jails develop over time a “thick skin” that deflects verbal insults, insulting remarks or the sort of hate-filled speech that some-and not all-inmates spew at us. To them, using “trigger words”, which may get under our skin and push our buttons, is great entertainment. Also, an officer can slip down the slope into the pit of liability if he or she loses control and acts out resulting in excessive force, harassment or other degrading behavior towards an inmate. An officer on the witness stand in an inmate lawsuit saying “he called me an SOB and threatened to go to my kid’s school” is not a justification for violating an inmate’s constitutional rights-no matter what his views of inmates’ rights are. Correctional officers are paid to let a lot of harassment roll off their shoulders. We avoid using trigger words to anger inmates but as we know-they often do not extend the same courtesy to us.
We professional jail officers who believe in doing our jobs in the most effective and ethical ways possible can both keep off the slippery slope and rescue fellow officers who allow their buttons to be pushed.
Lt. Marcou has several suggestions:
Identify your trigger words: Know what your own trigger words are and do everything that you can to avoid using them when dealing with inmates. For example, if you frequently use the phrase “Have a nice day”, it may have a negative effect on an inmate. They may think-“Oh yeah-I’m in jail and you tell me to have a nice day?” One of the phrases that I was very cautious about using was “I don’t care”. True-there are days when you do not want to hear one more inmate complaint or problem….but we are in the people business and you have to listen to them. To a jail inmate, staff using that phrase a lot shows uncaring attitudes when trying to bring staff attention to a problem.
Also, know what subjects are sensitive to you. For example, we all love our spouses and children. If an inmate says “when I get out, I am going to your kids’ school,” or “I know where your wife works,” remember that is a trap-it is bait to make you respond unprofessionally. Think proactively, prepare professional responses and implement them. One of the best ones that I practiced in my jail career was to just walk away. I would tell the inmate that he or she was acting inappropriately and I would return when they were acting more maturely. The satisfaction that I always thought of was that I am going home at the end of the shift-and they are not.
Enjoy the show: Lt. Marcou suggests that you observe carefully how inmates choose their trigger words-it is entertaining! To the overweight jail officer, an inmate may say “Take off that badge so I stomp your fat a__”. While conducting a pat down or strip search on an inmate, the inmate may sarcastically say to the officer “Getting your jollies? Are you gay?” To an officer who is black they may throw around the N___ word; to female officers they may say “you C___ or B___. Inappropriate racial epithets are not off limits to the inmate. Officers should anticipate them and act professionally.
Be ready to rescue an officer: Known as “officer override”, this technique can save a fellow officer from playing into the inmates’ hands. When a veteran jail officer observes another officer-veteran or rookie-losing self control and responding inappropriately to inmate trigger words, he should step in. Use ready techniques such as “Hey-the sarge is calling you on the radio”; “there is a phone call for you at post 4”, or “I need some help here-got a minute?” You are removing the officer from the scene and getting him away from the inmate. Once removed from the scene, you can talk to the officer, telling him or her what you observed and how it could have escalated. Or-you can take over dealing with the inmate while the other officer takes a few deep breaths and calms down, all part of a refocusing process.
Why do inmates act in such a way? To get you to act unprofessionally, lose your cool, and cross the line. Verbal shouting matches could lead to the inmate filing grievances. No matter what happens, the officer looks bad if the inmate gets under his skin. Angry officers lose control. The inmate wins by the officer acting unprofessionally, either verbally or physically. In a stressful occupation, who needs the additional stress of an internal affairs investigation or discipline from the agency supervisors? Remember-the officer has to talk to his supervisor about inappropriate behavior, and the inmate just goes back into the block and has a good laugh.
There are other serious ramifications. If a jail officer responds negatively to trigger words, out of control anger can lead to force, which may lead to violations of the inmate’s civil rights. The officer’s career is over if found liable. Also, other officers will have to defuse the situation, resulting in “hands on” the inmate, use of force and possible injury both to inmates and fellow officers.
Concerning use of force, the jail officer is trained to control inmates, protect others and defend himself. Marcou says-and correctly-that officers may win the fight, but will most likely lose legally and professionally a fight that is motivated by rage. Defensible uses of force to control an inmate, protect inmates and staff and defend oneself will stand up to legal scrutiny. These include kicks, body blows, restraint holds, punches, pepper spray, stun guns and batons. In many circumstances these are understandable. But-calling an inmate an a__hole, an SOB or other slur is difficult to defend.
Finally-if an officer stands by and does not intervene when observing a situation involving excessive use of force on an inmate, he or she can be found just as liable as the officer who is losing control. Remember-inmates will name in lawsuits not just the officers losing control but any other officers present.
In closing-inmates use trigger words to trigger unprofessional conduct. If they are successful, they have won the battle.
Don’t be on the losing end.
Lt. Dan Marcou, (retired). (2010, February 10). Keep cool: how to stay professional despite provocation: Beware of trigger words in an inmate’s verbal onslaught because the man who angers you conquers you! CorrectionsOne News, retrieved from http://correctionsone.com, April 19, 2011.
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