DALLAS - Dallas County Community Supervision and Corrections, also known as Adult Probation, is adding hundreds of officers to the field this year by training current officers with desk jobs to conduct field work on their own cases.
Dallas County tracks about 25,000 people on probation. Three-thousand are considered high-risk for crimes like repeat DWIs and Sex Offenses.
By the end of 2016, all 337 probation officers in the department will be required visit probationers at home in addition to regular check-ins at the office. Previously, only 22 field officers handled all home visits for the entire department.
Javed Syed is the executive director of Adult Probation. Syed acknowledges his new directive has created serious concerns about safety.
“Actually we're getting a lot of push back from the staff because they're scared about going into the field,” Syed said.
Probation officers don't carry firearms. Starting this year, they will conduct field visits in pairs and carry large flashlights and pepper spray.
To bolster those resources, the department is also putting every officer through a week-long training program, consisting of classroom training and self-defense tactics.
The curriculum, developed by the Community Corrections Institute, teaches probation officers how to avoid and diffuse dangers in the field.
In February’s training session observed by Fox 4, an instructor showed officers several field tactics, including how to strike back if attacked and how to avoid a choke hold.
“The palm of your hand is a much more effective thing to strike an assailant with rather than a fist," said the instructor. “Let him know what you want him to do: ‘Get back, get back!’"
Teri Garza, a probation officer for 20 years, used to only work behind her desk. Garza said repetition helps her make the training second nature and thinks the program will help her in the field.
“I think it’s going to be good to see our clients in their element rather an in our office,” Garza said.
Syed said that is the most important reason behind his ambitious plan.
“Many of us [leading the department] believe when an officer makes field visit on his own person, he is much more productive then somebody else doing it for them,” Syed said. “It's much more valuable."
With the same officers visiting their own clients each time, Syed is confident the department as a whole can better track progress or spot potential problems.
For example, an officer can see if a DWI offender has alcohol in the home. Or, for sex offenders who have been court ordered to stay away from children, officers can also look out for children in their home or signs of children, like toys. In situations where an offender is in need of food or other assistance, an officer can help link them up with community resources or counseling.
In addition to officers’ safety, there are also concerns about some officers’ ability to conduct field work.
For example, veteran probation officer David McClure is 75 years old and suffers from wrist pain. He knows he not be able to handle the physical challenges, but is still embracing the change.
“I did [field work] before and I really enjoy it,” McClure said.
Syed said employees with a documented medical condition can opt out for different duties.
“So what I will do is I will trade with you,” Syed explained. “I'll do your field work and you'll do something in return."
Fox 4 went along for a ride in February, to observe two field visits.
Officer Theron Gregory and his partner Officer John Messenger visited two repeat DWI offenders who each have three or more convictions on their record.
At each location, Gregory knocked on the door and talked to the probationer, while Messenger stood back with his hands visible in front of his body, a defensive tactic he learned in training.
Gregory asked the probationer several questions.
“Definitely no alcohol use?” he inquired. "Your old peers you're staying away from them?”
“Oh yes sir," the probationer replied.
The second probationer told Fox 4 “bad friends and a whole bunch of downward spirals” led to him “falling into the wrong path.”
He said seeing Gregory in the field helps build trust.
“We just connect,” he said. “I tell [Gregory] basically everything that's going on in my everyday life."
Probation officers in Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston are all required to conduct field visits.
As of February 2016, 62 Dallas officers have been trained and by the end of 2016, all will be working in the field.