May 31, 2014

Kansas parole officers want to be armed for protection, their attorney says

Kansas parole officers want to be armed for their protection, but the state agency that employs them is resisting, their attorney says.

Kansas parole officers want to be armed for their protection, but the state agency that employs them is resisting, their attorney says.

Parole officers, who supervise convicted felons after they get out of prison, want the state to pay for the weapons and provide training, just as law enforcement agencies do, said Steve Bukaty, an attorney representing the parole officers.

The push to be armed comes when the prevailing national trend is for parole officers to carry weapons. The effort also has surfaced after two recent incidents in Wichita that arguably highlight the risks that parole officers can face.

Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said Friday: “The safety of our (parole) officers … is paramount to our agency. That’s why we have such rigorous training” for safety, including de-escalation methods.

There has been a lack of violence against parole officers, Barclay said.

KDOC knows “this is a risky, risk-taking business, but that does not mean that we take the risks any less seriously,” Barclay said. For example, he said, the agency dictates that whenever possible, there be two parole officers at each home visit with a parolee. In situations where a second officer isn’t available, the agency recommends that the parole officer team with an armed KDOC special agent or a local law enforcement officer, especially with high-risk offenders, he said.

Because of the jobs and resources in and around Wichita, Sedgwick County had by far the state’s largest contingent of parolees – 1,083 – released to supervision in fiscal year 2013, according to KDOC. The county also has a large contingent of the state’s approximately 120 parole officers.

Bukaty, an Overland Park attorney who represents the parole officers’ union, argues that parole officers face many of the same risks that police do. Parole officers deal directly with the same offenders that police put in jail, “and a police officer would never think of confronting these individuals unarmed,” Bukaty said.

“In my opinion, your parole officers are dealing with violent offenders much more than the FBI is,” he said.

Barclay, the KDOC spokesman, said parole officers have the option of getting a license to carry a concealed weapon. The distinction, he said, is that the conceal-carry weapon is for their personal use and is not part of their official job function. So if they were to use a conceal-carry weapon while on duty, it would be considered a personal action, not an official one, he said.

Barclay noted that KDOC has 11 armed special agents to assist parole officers.

But a recent incident illustrates the parole officers’ concern, Bukaty said. A couple of weeks ago, a Wichita parole officer was attacked by a man who had just gotten off parole. The officer had gone to a home to give a routine notice to another person to report to his parole officer. According to a police report on the May 12 incident, in the 1000 block of South Market, the parole officer was on official duty and properly identified when two suspects beat him. The parole officer suffered “visible bruising and swelling” on his left cheek, the police report said.

Unlike police, parole officers normally don’t have other officers backing them up, Bukaty said. They also don’t have emergency radios to call for help. The parole officer who was beaten had only a cellphone when he was confronted by a large man who slammed his leg in a door, Bukaty said. A second suspect punched him in the face.

“I think it’s irresponsible … for their own safety and the safety of the community,” for parole officers not to carry weapons, he said. “Whether the state wants to acknowledge it or not, it’s a dangerous profession.”

In December, a man whose parole had recently ended jumped over a counter and broke out a window to get to a second-story ledge of the state parole office in Wichita. The man came into the office, in the 200 block of South Market, apparently seeking help for a substance addiction, police said. Police blocked off the downtown street in front of the office for nearly two hours while they tried to negotiate with the man, whose criminal record included convictions for criminal possession of a firearm and arson. The man fell to the sidewalk as officers struggled with him in an attempt to bring him in through a window. Police said he wasn’t seriously injured.

Bukaty couldn’t cite specific numbers but said Kansas is in the minority of states that don’t arm their parole officers. Police officers in the state are stunned when they hear that Kansas parole officers don’t carry guns, said Bukaty, who also represents police officers in Kansas and other states.

The state’s parole officers, represented by a lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, have tried through collective bargaining negotiations to get weapons but have been met with stiff resistance by the state, he said.

The main argument by the state is there isn’t enough money, he said. Parole officers also would need training and have to meet state qualifications, he said.

Robert Thornton, director of the Community Corrections Institute, in Springdale, Wash., said the national trend is that more and more parole officers are being armed, and Kansas is in the minority in not arming its parole officers.

Most parole officers who have been killed while on duty were making routine visits to homes to check on parolees, Thornton said.

The consideration of whether to arm parole officers comes down basically to this, he said: If a state is trying to maximize safety, then parole officers should be armed all the time, especially if they are involved in arrests or searches, or for general safety.

Although guns are relatively expensive, for an officer “it fills a void that really can’t be filled by anything else,” Thornton said.

Administrators might be concerned about the liability the agency might face if it arms parole officers, but parole officers tend to have very few cases in which they are accused of excessive force, he said.

The American Probation and Parole Association says on its website that it “neither supports nor opposes the carrying of weapons by probation and parole officers.” Carl Wicklund, the association’s executive director, agreed that there has been an increase in arming around the country. It is more common for parole officers to be armed than probation officers, Wicklund said. Parole officers deal with offenders who have been released from prison; probation officers handle offenders who have been given another chance to avoid prison.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has armed its parole officers for at least 40 years, said Jerry Massie, the agency’s spokesman.

The Oklahoma agency suffered a tragedy in May 2012 when a parole officer, Jeffery McCoy, went to visit a parolee at a home in Midwest City, near Oklahoma City, and was assaulted by another person. According to Massie, the assailant knocked down McCoy, got the parole officer’s gun and shot and killed him.

McCoy is the last parole officer in the nation to be killed criminally in the line of duty, said Thornton, with the Community Corrections Institute.

In Missouri, parole officers have the authority to carry firearms; it’s up to the officers whether they carry one. The officers buy the gun and holster, and the state pays for the ammunition.

This past legislative session, a Wichita Republican, state Rep. Steven Anthimides, sponsored House Bill 2707, authorizing the arming of parole officers. Anthimides said he had spoken with a number of parole officers and knew that their jobs require them to go to homes of convicted felons. He said he thought that arming parole officers would “greatly increase everyone’s safety.”

But after he learned that the estimated cost of implementing the legislation would have been about $500,000 – including the cost of the weapons and training – he withdrew the bill, he said. At the time, he said, the state couldn’t afford it.

In written testimony on the bill, Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts drew a distinction between parole officers and police officers, saying that police “typically must respond to active crime scenes, stop vehicles and make arrests. Parole officers are trained to identify and are counseled to avoid those confrontational situations and call upon special enforcement officers or other local law enforcement personnel for assistance.”

Still, Anthimides said, he would be willing to revisit the issue.

“I think it’s definitely needed,” Anthimides said. “They (parole officers) put themselves in very dangerous situations every day. They’re pretty much going in and risking their own lives.”

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