I have always found working with violent offenders one of the most rewarding aspects of working within the Probation Service. Whether it is because I ‘get’ them or because success can be easier to measure (have they punched anyone recently? No? Reduced reoffending – success!), I have never been sure.
The training for working with this group of people is woolly at best. There are all kinds of theories as to why people act aggressively and whether this behaviour is related to anger or social conditioning; from Matza and Sykes to Piaget and Kohlberg or Novaco and Welch. These are all industriously taught during the degree and through the vocational experience. However, it is true experience that teaches you what you what to look out for, and when to duck.
It is hard to teach in training how to face someone that truly believes hitting someone that annoys them is ok (as they won’t annoy you again so problem solved) and produce an exercise based on being calm and serene to allow you to use words to express your annoyance and desire for said person to be good thing and jog along. Especially as this process takes twice as long and is half as likely to produce the immediate desired effect, especially when your mate “Dave” is sniggering at your attempts from a dark corner. But it is possible to impart a different way of doing things if the imparter (practitioner) can be sincere and supportive to the impartee (offender).
Risk assessment, and recording this risk assessment in a manner that others can rapidly access, read and understand is essential. I have been called to reception before to deal with an aggressive male offender who was making his dissent known most vocally. I used humour and honesty to manage the situation (‘your officer is not in the building, they’ve had to go to an urgent meeting. Although I suspect that they can hear you’re in our building’) and gone through to an interview room to talk things through more. I’ve then later accessed the offender records and seen that that particular offender was noted as high risk and requiring all supervision sessions to be conducted in pairs of POs. It’s only a funny tale to tell because it worked out okay; risk assessments and using them is no joke.
My first case on qualifying was, at that point, serving time at Her Majesty’s leisure having murdered his partner and son. A simple post sentence report was all that was required. However, all the theory in the world was not sufficient to help me prevent said offender from describing how he was definitely not guilty because the blood splatter patterns around the room were wrong for his height and ‘the way I did it’. He was also innocent, he informed me, because he was David to the Goliath of society and anyway he regularly spoke with god who told him so. Experience; a reasonably sized word with a lot to answer for.
The young violent offenders are also fun to work with. In the main, this is due to the embarrassment that simple words like ‘contraception’, ‘specimen’ or ‘shaft’ can cause. But it is also because they tend to be young and keen to be ‘let at’ the world. It is a beautiful thing to work with and help redirect enthusiasm. Encounters with young offenders have been memorable; conducting a home visit where the person in question had forgotten I was coming and the air in the flat was so thick with the smog of cannabis that I needed a good long time in the fresh air afterwards before I was fit to drive home is one particularly vivid recollection. But there is always a flip side. The cannabis story is not so amusing when I recount that there was also an 18 month old child in the flat, to whom the cannabis cloud was causing no effect whatsoever so used was everyone to inhaling in quantity.
Only in particular newspapers are violent offenders recognisable by craniometry, for the most they are the other person walking down the street. The Crime Survey of England and Wales noted 2.1 million incidents of violent crime in 2011/12. This sounds horrendous but amounts to 3% of adults being a victim. Still 3% too many by any standard but this country has not become a state of the nation of fight club.
Being a Probation Officer takes not only a piece of paper telling anyone who reads it that the named bearer has written some essays on some tricky topics to which no one has a definitive answer, and so therefore is a qualified professional, but also a desire to work with people and enable them to change. Most of the time this means the practitioner entering into situations which common sense is screaming against. It means being able to stay calm when every nerve ending has pressed the ‘flight’ button internally with a burst of adrenaline. It means keeping a welcoming face which encourages the imparting of information with an active brain which filters this information, through the mesh of training and years of experience, into a defensible, usable and tangible sentence plan and risk assessment. Most importantly, it means remembering that the person in front of you is another human being and, except for the rare cases, totally rehabilitable.
Should you wish to learn some new specific strategies to address offending behaviour, then please check out the Probation Workbook Series. These workbooks give step by step guidance on working with various typologies.