In deadly year for jails, Special Operations Group forms
HENDERSON, N.C. (AP) — During his decades-long career, Capt. Neal Urch, jail administrator for Henderson County, has seen first-hand the dangers faced by law enforcement both on the streets and behind prison walls.
To increase safety at the jail, Urch is helping the county bring in a Special Operations Group, created to better control the inmate population, mitigate use of force and prevent officer and inmate injuries.
Urch believes the SOG team will help secure officer safety, increase professionalism in the jail and be better for inmates.
“We are going to show the patience and professionalism that we demand of this team, because that is what the public expects of us,” said Urch, who began working at the jail in 2017.
One of the main priorities of the team is to provide the tools and knowledge needed to respond to a wide-range of situations and inmate incidents, and to be able to justify that response.
An increasingly dangerous job
The past year or more in North Carolina has been marred by inmates injuring and killing correctional officers.
In one escape attempt, inmates set fire to a prison sewing plant Oct. 12, 2017 in Elizabeth City, leading to the eventual death of four prison employees. Four inmates were charged with first-degree murder in connection with the incident at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
An officer was attacked by an inmate with a homemade weapon in March at Foothills Correctional Institution. The inmate attacked the officer with a shank, according to news reports, and later charged with assault.
An officer at Bertie Correctional Institution in Windsor was assaulted by an inmate last month, about a year after a corrections sergeant was fatally attacked at the same prison in April 2017.
These tragic incidents around the state influenced the decision to bring SOG to Henderson County to a point, Urch said, reiterating the increased focus on officer safety.
Since Urch has been with the jail, two officers have been sent to urgent care facilities due to injuries, but none of them were serious, he said.
“I don’t want to see my folks hurt for any reason,” Urch added.
An officer doesn’t know what kind of situation he or she is going into when handling an inmate situation. Inmates have been known to mess with the sprinklers in their cells, flooding the ground and making it wet and dangerous for officers when they come in. Others have been known to try to bring in or make shanks in the jail.
Research has shown that correctional officers experience high stress levels, burnout and a variety of other mental health-related consequences as a result of their jobs, according to a recent report from the National Institute of Justice. Increased demands with fewer resources and a high turnover rate add to the stress.
Special Operations Group details
Detention Officer Seth Summey, Detention Officer Stephen Greene and Detention Cpl. Nathan McCray were honored as the first Henderson County Detention SOG members at a pinning ceremony June 14. SOG team commander is Lt. Neil McDonald.
The officers completed a demanding four-week training course. Before being selected, they went through physical performance tests and an interview process.
“I definitely feel safer,” McCrary said of the training. “I’ve added so many more tools to knowledge of the job.”
McCrary said he took this next step in his career to learn ways to better handle high-risk situations, such as removing inmates from their cells when they don’t want to leave.
Typically, five to six officers are called in to remove an inmate. In such a small space with multiple hard surfaces, the chance for injury increases. When Urch worked in Spartanburg County, an officer injured his knee removing an inmate from his cell, had to have surgery and was out of work for the year.
With the new approaches, if an inmate’s non-compliance dictates a need for a cell extraction, officers are not sent into the cell. The inmate is called out, and if the inmate does not respond, the SOG team uses “whatever force is necessary to gain compliance,” Urch explained.
Officers do not like to use force, but it can be necessary, he added.
Summey has been in law enforcement for about a year and a half, and says he already feels an increased sense of safety following the training.
“Better techniques keep everyone safer,” he added.
The local group just got back from shadowing an SOG team in Charleston, South Carolina for further training.
SOG members are given three less-than-lethal-force options — OC pepper spray, taser and a 12-gauge shotgun with rubber bullets, designed to not penetrate the skin.
The SOG team is instructed to wear cameras with audio during their interactions with inmates.
An important factor to the three methods is they all use what Urch describes as “measureable force.” The velocity of a rubber bullet can be tested, along with the voltage of a taser.
“It does not discriminate and it does not matter if you are white, black or Hispanic; it will treat you the same,” Urch said.
Before using force, officers are to consider what is “reasonably necessary,” he added. Other means of physical force can be deployed if necessary.
Some hands-on situations are harder to gauge, and can create a gray area if the matter is brought before a jury, Urch explained. Any action of a detention officer has the chance of being taken to court and is open to litigation. Urch hopes the elements of SOG will help clear up any questions of how a situation played out.
When an officer physically restrains an inmate, it is difficult to measure the force used, as it differs with each individual. When possible and as time allows, SOG members work with the medical staff before some of the options are used. For instance, an inmate with a heart condition ideally shouldn’t be tased, and pepper spray shouldn’t be used on someone with asthma.
Jails are increasingly seeing inmates with mental health issues and/or substance abuse disorders, which can considerably contribute to behavior issues, Urch said. He estimates 75 to 80 percent of the inmates coming through the jail have a substance abuse issue.
The SOG training curriculum covered multiple factors, including high-risk corrections special operations and mitigation. It included blocks on cell extraction, operations planning for individual and team responses, first aid, physical training, use-of-force options, inmate searches, weapon management, reading threat indicators, tactical positioning and detention operations involving the mentally ill, non-English speaking inmates, barricaded inmates, high-risk inmates and more, according to information from the Sheriff’s Office.
“All of our actions are reactions to what the inmate has done,” Urch said. “We don’t go looking for a fight, but we’re not going to run from a fight.”
In Henderson County, a detention officer trainee’s annual starting salary is $33,841.60, or $16.27 per hour, working 43 hours a week.
After training is complete, the pay bumps up to $35,388, or $17.01 an hour.
“I don’t think the general public expects these men and women to come in here, put up with anything and pay them what you do to get hurt,” Urch said.
Officers are required to complete training within the first year of employment. Classes are offered in Henderson County, and trainees from multiple counties attend. The next class is Aug. 6.
Fifty people are assigned to the detention division at the jail, which includes Urch, administrative staff and transportation crews.
Four shifts of nine officers rotate, similar to patrol units. Shifts are typically 12 hours long. Urch wants to bring one more SOG member on board to have one on each shift. The current SOG members were previously detention officers at the local jail.
Three shifts are currently down to eight officers, and it can be difficult to recruit new ones. Vacation and sick time can also impact numbers. If an officer is injured on the job, that not only means worker’s compensation claims, but more time off. One of the goals of SOG is to decrease those two factors, Urch said.
After he brought the program to Spartanburg County a few years back, there was a 50 percent reduction in use of force the following month, according to Urch. While Spartanburg County has a larger jail than Henderson County, Urch is expecting and hoping for a significant impact here as well.
The jail’s count Thursday morning was 201 inmates. While the rated capacity is 222, that doesn’t mean all the beds can be used, Urch explained.
If inmate overflow got out of hand, the jail could contract with other counties that have space, Urch explained. That hasn’t happened during his time at the jail, and he hopes it never does.
Finals steps coming together
The Henderson County Sheriff’s Office contracted with U.S. C-SOG, an organization specializing in corrections special operations training, to start up the training here. Urch worked with the Corrections Special Applications Unit senior team leader, Joseph Garcia, to bring the program to Spartanburg County and Henderson County.
When jails follow the matrix of the program, Garcia said, they will have officers who are able to handle low inmate intensity conflict and high inmate intensity conflict.
Garcia’s team has been doing this work for about two decades around the world, he said.
Urch estimates it will be another two weeks to a month before the program is fully implemented and instituted. A few equipment orders need to be made before then. Sheriff Charles McDonald will need to sign off on the program. Sheriff-elect Lowell Griffin will, too, when he assumes his role in December, according to Urch.
“I know the general public wants our officers to be safe and they appreciate what they do,” Urch said. “I want to try and better protect them as much as we can.”
Information from: Times-News, http://www.blueridgenow.com