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County considers allowing probation officers to carry guns

Probation officers seek safety; sheriff fears introducing firearms into equation

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Officials within the Howard County Community Corrections Advisory Board are debating allowing those who make home visits to citizens on probation or in-home detention to carry firearms, and the prospect drew mixed opinions.

The discussion of whether to allow probation officers and field officers within the local community corrections and probation departments to carry firearms has been debated before, most recently about three years ago, before being shelved. That debate again resurfaced last week during a meeting of the Howard County Community Corrections Advisory Board.

On one side of the debate, officials hope that such officers, who do not possess arrest power, will be safer if able to carry a gun into the homes of high-risk offenders who can react violently and unexpectedly to situations. On the other side of the issue, law enforcement officials were concerned that such a policy could introduce firearms into situations where one previously wouldn’t have been present. This, they argued, opens the door to clients disarming the officers of their weapons and creating potentially deadly scenarios.

Howard County Community Supervision Director Dustin Delong broached the subject during this month’s advisory board meeting, hoping to garner approval from the board before moving forward with crafting a policy that would allow probation officers and field officers to carry firearms while conducting in-home visits to clients.

At the core of his request was the subject of his employees, who conduct surprise home visits during all hours of the day, normally without law enforcement officers accompanying them. During such visits, said Delong, the field officers wear a bulletproof vest but aren’t allowed to carry any sort of self-defense device, such as a Taser. Such officers once were allowed to carry Tasers, which lasted for about four years. Delong said a Taser only was utilized once during that time period, and it was on a dog.

During these visits, Delong said it’s not uncommon for potentially hazardous situations to arise.

“These people sometimes react in ways we would consider outside normal behavior, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Delong. “If a person is willing to go to the extremes, that day is your day, and there’s no way you can determine that.”

To highlight his point, Delong told of a home visit he went on years ago, prior to making his way into management of community supervision.

At that time Delong, accompanied by two other community corrections employees, made a home visit to a trailer in the county. Upon entering, Delong encountered four individuals who were using methamphetamine.

As Delong and the other field officers attempted to build a rapport with the individuals, the situation grew tenser.

“As we’re talking with them and engaging with them, it’s not adversarial, and there’s no issue,” said Delong. “We wound up hearing other noises in the house, and before it’s all said and done there’s probably 11 methamphetamine addicts. We’re in a dope den … That situation could have went awry very quickly. People under the influence of drugs, people coming off of drugs, and people in an unstable mental status do absolutely crazy things. If things were to go awry, I would like my officers to have the ability to defend themselves and back out of it as quickly as possible.”

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Delong said other counties, such as Noble and Allen counties, allow field officers to be armed, and his proposal fielded inquiries from multiple officials during nearly half an hour of back and forth.

One point of contention was how wide-ranging the policy would be. Would every field officer be required to carry a gun, or would it be at an at-will basis? Would the field officers carry a personal firearm, or would there be a department-issued gun? In the latter option, the question arose as to who would purchase the firearms.

Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher said in the meeting that he believed, if the policy were enacted, that each field officer should carry the same model of firearm because, in emergency situations, the field officers would be able to exchange ammunition and magazines.

And then there was the question of who would train the field officers, and what would be the required training? Delong said a training policy also would have to be crafted for those who do carry a gun while conducting in-home visits. Such training, said Delong, could occur through HCSD.

In the meeting Judge Bill Menges, Judge Doug Tate, and Judge Brant Parry said they weren’t opposed to such a policy. Circuit Court Judge Lynn Murray said she was concerned about potential “unintended consequences” with allowing the field officers to carry firearms.

Asher, however, voiced the most doubt about the proposal.

“I’m not really excited about probation and in-home detention officers carrying firearms,” said Asher. “I understand the safety reasons. I see my officers going out to these climates … that you guys see every day. There are dangerous situations there. The only problem I do see is when we go out to a domestic violence call our officers ask if there’s weapons in the house. Even if there’s not, you’re bringing a weapon into the house that can be taken away and used against that person. That is always the fear.”

He also noted that emergency management workers once acted as special deputies who carried and partook in department training, but his predecessor, former-Sheriff Steve Rogers, axed that policy.

“We saw that was not the greatest, necessarily, thing to do,” said Asher.

Tate, who chairs the board, said further discussion will be had about the proposal, but at this point it had advanced further than similar proposals had in the past.

“I think it’s going to be an issue for further discussion … As we’ve seen in the past where it’s been tabled immediately, I think this one will move forward, and we’ll see if we can’t come up with a policy that addresses all of the concerns,” said Tate.