If any of you in corrections have not heard of the events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York in 2014, then you either must be living in a cave somewhere, or you have no access to the media or the Internet. We all know that in these two jurisdictions, two black males died during incidents with police officers. There was no grand jury indictments of the police officers involved. The fallout was severe: riots and property destruction in Missouri and large scale demonstrations in both Missouri and New York City. There are now anti police demonstrations throughout the nation. Another result of all of these events is the ongoing rift between the Mayor of New York and the officers in New York City Police Department (NYPD) demonstrated by officers turning their backs on the New York mayor at the funerals of two assassinated New York police officers.
I, like many of you, no doubt, have several thoughts on all of this. Two young black men and two officers of the NYPD are dead. What I will not do is weigh in and opine on the individual cases, including the differences between the NYPD and the mayor. The facts of both will be debated for years along with the reasons for the grand jury decisions.
But-let’s take a look at how incidents such as these affect us correctional officers (COs) who like police officers, wear a badge-but work inside correctional facilities.
In closing, there are people-the public eye-watching out for what we do, what we appear to be and what actions we take in our day to day duties. They do not see what we see or know what it is like to work in corrections every day.
- The “public eye” is on us: In this age of Internet video, the twenty four hour, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year cable news cycle, actions of law enforcement are easily seen by the media-the “public eye”. This was evident in the Missouri and New York incidents-they were reported fast, and commentators and reporters began to weigh in quickly.
- Use of force incidents in correctional facilities occur very quickly. Just like on the street, incidents where force is used may occur in a very quick time. People outside of law enforcement do not generally understand this. There are times, however, that some incidents where staff can plan a strategy. These include barricade situations, inmates refusing to come out of their cells, inmates acting irrationally and need to be controlled, etc. But-in many situations, the correctional officer must decide what he or she will do in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately these actions run the risk of injury or death to both the inmates and COs.
- We must exert control: We know that control of inmates must be maintained in any type of correctional facility. Sometimes control is accomplished by the use of force to prevent escape, to prevent damage to the facility, to defend ourselves, to defend inmates and staff and to gain compliance with facility rules and regulations. Occasionally we put inmates in restraints, including the restraint chair. Besides the use of force, there is another control tool that we use-segregation. But the ‘public eye’ has looked at segregation, resulting in a recent debate on the necessity of using segregation and its long term effects on inmates. Some think that it is over used; others think that it is necessary.
In future columns, I will explore the segregation debate.
Now that we know the ‘public eye’ is on us, as it is looking at anyone wearing a badge, what should we do?
- Never, never, NEVER forget that the ‘public eye’ is watching! Do not think that just because you work inside a corrections facility that your actions cannot be seen by others. I have seen videos of jail officers restraining inmates posted on line and in news media reports. Also-if inmates can see what is happening, they can let their families and friends know. Word will get around. Remember your training and professionalism. The use of force continuum is an excellent tool. In your reports, be clear as to why force had to be used. The media loves stories of ‘COs Gone Bad’.
- Trainers and supervisors must regularly have refresher training is use of force, restraints and professional conduct. This training should include stating the reasons for use of force and restraints. COs may become complacent and jaded. Training should emphasize the proper use of force, proper use of restraints and how not to let our emotions control our actions. Stress professionalism and not viewing inmates as enemies to be treated inhumanely.
- Always be aware that all aspects of your life-professional and personal-may be scrutinized. If you take action off duty as a law enforcement officer, or engage in conduct that violates your agency’s code of conduct, you can bet on those actions making their way to the local news or on line.
Corrections.com author, Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He conducts corrections in service training sessions and has taught corrections classes at George Mason University since 1986. Gary’s books include The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition (2009) from the American Correctional Association and The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Second Edition (2010) from Carolina Academic Press.
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