Kent police, probation officers team up

(Original publication: March 16, 2002)

KENT While working toward a common goal of ensuring public safety, police officers and probation officers in Putnam County have rarely worked together until now.

Kent police and the Putnam County Probation Department began a trial program last year in which a Kent officer accompanies a probation officer on home visits to probationers in town.

The program, which probation director Gene Funicelli said he hopes to expand to every police agency in Putnam, has resulted in the two agencies sharing information and resources.

It has also put the 75 or so probationers who live in Kent on notice that police are aware of the terms of their probation, said Kent Police Chief Donald L. Smith.

"For so long, probation has been on one side of the equation, the police have been on the other, and the probationers are running around somewhere in the middle," Smith said. "That all changes by closing the communication gap between police and probation."

Take, for instance, a probationer convicted of drunken driving who is forbidden to drink. In the past, a police officer might not bat an eye when seeing that person in a bar or liquor store. But after accompanying a probation officer to the probationer's home, the police officer now knows the person isn't allowed to drink and can take action. The police officer also can make an arrest if contraband is found in the probationer's home.

The program was suggested by veteran Probation Officer Karen Birch, vice president of the New York State Probation Officers Association. At an association convention last year, Birch learned of a similar program that has been run for years in Nassau County. The programs are run elsewhere in New York, including in Westchester County. Birch approached Funicelli with the idea, and he agreed to launch it in Kent.

"We've always had a good relationship with Kent police and thought it would be a good place to start," Funicelli said. "We took time in developing it. We had cross-training with the officers so that they understood our role better, and we understood theirs. One of the main goals is offender accountability. We can take advantage of what's going on out there by having the police along as an extra set of eyes."

Probation officers adjust their schedules to make rounds at night, accompanied by an officer who is already on patrol.

"We were able to start this program without relying on state or federal grants and with no additional cost to the Probation Department or Kent police," Birch said. "We were able to work it out without any impact on either budget."

If the police officer gets a call while making rounds with the probation officer, the two will respond. The probation officer carries a gun and is trained.

"I don't lose a police officer when I send someone out with Karen," Smith said. "I gain a probation officer."

Funicelli said the program is part of a probation trend to make unannounced home visits. In years past, probationers would visit the probation office. Putnam has 12 probation officers overseeing about 1,000 probationers.

"Visits involve checking on the progress of probationers, but also assuring they are not violating terms of probation," Birch said. "In case laws are being broken, it's good to have an officer along, because he can make an arrest."

Probation should not be confused with parole. Probation is run by the county and is for people who have not been in state prison, although they may have stayed briefly in the county jail. A judge may sentence an offender to probation, setting certain conditions on the offender's conduct, as an alternative to jail. Parole is supervision for people who have been released from state prison before their sentences are up.

Sheryl Zuna, a Dutchess County probation officer and president of the New York State Probation Officers Association, said the program's main benefit is sharing information.

"We're all working with the same population, and it allows us to utilize our resources better toward a common goal of community safety," she said.

Karen Fuller, spokeswoman for the American Probation and Parole Association, said that while the organization supports such programs, probation officers must keep sight of their ultimate goal, to rehabilitate the offender. Funicelli and Birch say the program allows them to maintain that balance while gaining an ally.

"We feel like we're doing a much better job because we now have the eyes and the ears of the police," Birch said.


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