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Test Case

Memphis parole officers carry guns for pilot study.

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Not surprisingly, paroled felons aren't allowed to carry firearms.

But the state's on-duty parole officers weren't authorized to carry them, either. Until now.

As one of only 10 states that does not issue weapons to its parole officers, Tennessee is now issuing test weapons to a handful of Memphis and Jackson officers in a pilot program from the state probation and parole board.

Eight officers from Memphis and Jackson attended an eight-week training course at East Tennessee's Walters State Community College earlier this year. The group graduated mid-September and began carrying guns to make home visits and serve warrants to felons who have violated their probation or parole. There are 125 parole officers in the Memphis area, but only four are authorized to carry weapons for the program.

"We picked Memphis because we wanted one area that was totally urban, and we chose the Jackson district because most of the area surrounding Jackson is largely rural," said Melissa McDonald, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. "We wanted to test the pilot in two places that were close enough to confer and share experiences as the project went on."

The eight officers in the study will begin serving warrants to people who either missed probation or parole appointments, failed a drug screen, or violated their probation in some other manner.

"Warrant serving is something we always had to do with the assistance of other law enforcement agencies," McDonald said. "Now our officers will be safer when they do home visits in high-risk areas, and it will make serving warrants safer in some situations."

Though most states have armed probation and parole officers, the American Probation and Parole Association (AAPA) neither supports nor opposes the carrying of weapons.

"There exists a debate over the role the community corrections profession should play in the criminal justice system: should the emphasis be on rehabilitation or should there be greater focus on law enforcement functions? This debate to some extent has clouded the issue of staff safety," reads the APPA's position statement on weapons.

But McDonald said officers are "both social workers and officers."

"We try to ensure that people have employment, a stable place to live, and get the counsel they need to deal with whatever issues might have led them to break the law in the first place," McDonald said.

The pilot project has no scheduled end date, but McDonald said the study would likely continue for about one year. If deemed successful, officers across the state will attend training and be issued weapons at a cost of about $3 million.

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