Since the jail has been a topic of discussion for a few weeks I want to focus on that area for presentation of information.
When I first became sheriff the practice of hiring detention officers consisted of anyone 18 or older coming and putting an application in. The chief deputy and/or the jail captain would then call them in, talk to them and decide if they wanted to hire them. If they did want to hire them the applicant would be scheduled to take a physical, psychological and drug screen. If the applicant passed that, then they would be hired in. Typically the new hire would work in the jail for 4-6 months and then be scheduled for the jail academy.
Basically, they went on the floor with no formal knowledge. Some would have to be terminated because they could not pass the course and state exam. This is not an unusual practice for jailers in Texas. The state allows jailers up to one year to obtain their state license. However, during my first term in office several changes were made and the process for hiring detention officers was one of those.
One of the first things changed was the minimum age for hiring. Although the sate allows for 18 year olds, my experience suggested I needed to raise the age to 21. I have found people calling in “sick” on weekends has diminished.
I visited with the jail supervisors and asked what some of their concerns were related to personnel being hired. As a result of their answers several changes in the hiring process were enacted and the jail personnel became actively involved in the hiring of new jailers.
Instead of passing out the 3 or 4 page county application to everybody, we now hand out an interest card. When we are getting ready to test, those folks are contacted to see if they were still interested. Those that actually sign up to take the test are given the county application to fill out.
As each person comes in to take the test they are run on the computer. You would be surprised how many show up that have warrants on them. We even tell them they are going to be checked and they still show up. Those people usually have an arrest team waiting on them.
A written test is then administered. A score of 70 or better must be achieved to continue in the process. After the written test the applicants are taken for a physical agility test. It is here they show they can perform some of the tasks detention officers are called upon to do. Examples are, running a distance approximately equal to the width of the jail. They have to demonstrate they can push a loaded cart, put on an air tank and go up and down stairs. The last thing they do is demonstrate they can pull a person a few yards as if getting someone in the floor out of harm’s way.
Applicants are then scheduled to come in and watch a short video of an actual event that happened in the jail. They are then asked to write a paragraph on what they saw. We are trying to see if they can write or print legibly, if they can spell and if they can reduce to writing what they observed.
Once they pass this portion they are set up for the oral interview board. The board typically consists of current detention officers and a supervisor. All applicants are asked the same set of questions and graded individually by each detention officer.
If they have successfully made it past this point then they are given a personal history packet to be filled out. It is 63 pages long. They are then called in by a background investigator, a review of the packet is accomplished with the applicant and then a background investigation is begun.
Once the background is completed the successful applicant will then be schedule to meet with the chief deputy for a conditional offer. I say “successful applicant” because people would be surprised what we find out in the background phase and how many applicants are removed from the process because of what we find.
During the conditional offer the applicant is talked to about expectations, questions they may have are answered and they are told that upon condition of passing the physical, psychological and drug screen, they will be hired as a detention officer.
We have also changed our training methods. No longer do we put a detention officer in the jail without having their formal schooling. Their first 2 weeks on the job is scheduled at the training center and there they work with an online course developed by Texas A&M law enforcement training unit. There is a training deputy on scene to assist with questions they may have. At the end of the course they take their state exam and upon passing, they receive their state detention officer license.
The full hiring process is lengthy but has proven to provide a better caliber of new hires. Depending upon need, some of the portions of the hiring process can be waived but those areas would not include things like the agility tests, backgrounds, chief deputy interview, or any conditional offer testing required by the state.
The jail is an occupation many folks do not care to do for the long haul. Several start so they can be a part of the criminal justice system and then will leave when a police academy starts up. Others leave because they find a better paying job that does not include working nights and weekends. We lost some when they were afraid the jail was going to go private. Some find they just don’t like working with inmates.
Contrary to some beliefs, we do not intentionally keep vacancies open so we can spend the money later in the year. I have records and can show how often we tested, and how many made it through the process. Also, let me confirm what the county judge said when she said the eight slots that were cut from the budget this year did not have persons active in those slots. That is a true statement. However, we did have to send out letters to the applicants in various stages of processing that were queued up to fill those eight slots. Some had already made it past the conditional offer phase.
Being a detention officer is not for everybody. The jail is a 24/7/365 operation. Employees will be working Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is a time most other people are home with their families.
It takes a special person to be a detention officer. We are fortunate for and appreciative of those we have.
Johnny Brown has served as Sheriff of Ellis County since Jan. 1, 2009, and is a graduate of the National Sheriff’s Institute. He has been in law enforcement for 20 years and holds a Master’s Peace Officer’s Certificate with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.