Probation and parole officers feel ‘ignored’ by state

DOVER — For years, Delaware correctional officers fretted about their work conditions. The Department of Correction struggled to attract and keep quality officers due in large part to pay below the national average. As a result of the shortage, employees often far exceeded 40 hours a week.

Last month, the state reached an agreement with the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware to raise salaries by about $8,000 over two years, hire more COs and create a committee to address problems raised by correctional officers.

After years of worry, correctional officers feel their concerns are being addressed.

Probation and parole officers are a different story.

Many people are unaware the Department of Correction employs not just 1,600 people responsible for maintaining order within the walls of the state’s prisons but also has about 300 officers who are tasked with handling offenders out on probation and parole.

“We are continuously treated like the stepchild,” said Todd Mumford, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police Probation/Parole Lodge 10.

Starting salaries for probation and parole officers are about $39,000, according to Mr. Mumford. That’s more than what correctional officers currently make, but their pay will soon surpass that of their counterparts out in the field.

Probation and parole officers regularly make contact with dangerous individuals at their homes or in public, Mr. Mumford said. Many correctional officers also deal with violent offenders, but they do so in a controlled environment.

Probation and parole officers, unlike correctional officers, are required to obtain bachelor’s degrees. In fact, they’re the only law enforcement officers in the state with that prerequisite.

Collectively, they make up the fourth largest law enforcement unit in Delaware, behind state, New Castle County and Wilmington police.

Probation and parole officers also work regularly with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

“We don’t do what troopers do. We don’t do what COs do either. We kind of have our niche,” Mr. Mumford said.

According to him, many officers feel especially uneasy now due to a February inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that killed one CO and a fatal shooting in April of a Delaware State Police officer.

“The way we feel is we feel we’re being ignored. And we feel we’re being ignored because we’ve been having conversations for years about things like equipment, things that are going to make us safer, better radios, better equipment like Tasers,” Mr. Mumford said.

“We’ve been in here asking for these things and we’re getting nowhere. We’ve been trying to negotiate for better salaries, for better wages, for better working conditions.”

To anyone who’s paid attention to the concerns of correctional officers over the past few years, Mr. Mumford’s comments will sound familiar.

A June report on the February incident at Vaughn noted many issues that plague the state’s prisons were problems in 2004, when Vaughn inmate Scott Miller took a counselor hostage and raped her before being shot and killed. Correctional officers have long said they are underpaid, overworked and ignored by state officials.

According to Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp, that’s changing now.

But Mr. Mumford is afraid nothing will happen for probation and parole officers unless one of them is killed in the line of duty — something Mr. Mumford believes they narrowly dodged last month, when a probation and parole officer was shot.

According to a news release from the FOP, an officer was “grazed” by a bullet. The officer was taken to Christiana Hospital and was released with no serious injuries.

Mr. Mumford said the incident was the first time a Delaware probation and parole officer has ever been shot on duty.

Through a spokeswoman, Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps declined an interview request.

That spokeswoman, Jayme Gravell, said in an email the agency is negotiating with probation and parole officers to raise salaries.

“DOC management has heard concerns from officers and we have encouraged all staff to utilize an internal email address specifically created for the purpose of airing concerns, providing suggestions, etc.,” she said.

As an example of why probation and parole officers feel the Department of Correction is ignoring them, Mr. Mumford pointed to the shooting, noting the agency did not put out a release informing the public of the incident.

He also alleged no one from upper-level management in the agency visited the wounded officer in the hospital — something he said “resonates” among officers.

Ms. Gravell said the agency informed staff internally and left it up to Wilmington police, the investigating department, to send out a news alert.

Probation and parole officers have been negotiating a new contract with state government since August, but have been unable to gain the same benefits correctional officers are now receiving as part of the deal with the state, according to Mr. Mumford.

The agreement is good for correctional officers but is “a slap in the face” to probation and parole officers, Mr. Mumford said.

He’s irked state police have a better retirement plan than probation and parole officers (and all other state law enforcement agents), as well as different collective bargaining agreement rules.

“For some reason, we’ve been told we have to play by a different set of rules,” Mr. Mumford said.

Legislation that would have allowed a variety of officers working for different law enforcement agencies in the state, including probation and parole officers, to gain a pension after 20 years failed to pass earlier this year due to the estimated $10.6 million annual price tag. Currently, most law enforcement officers cannot gain a pension unless they have worked for the state for 25 years. Members of the Delaware State Police, who are eligible for a pension after 20 years, are an exception.

Mr. Mumford fears the men and women he represents will continue to be neglected by officials unless what once seemed unthinkable happens.

“We had somebody almost die. We had somebody get shot,” he said. “Do we have to have somebody die to get to that road, because that’s kind of where that is at.”

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