DECEMBER 2, 1996
Monroe - Bill Carpenter's mother was shocked when as a junior in high school he said he wanted to work in law enforcement. She was still confused in 1976 when he left his job as a deputy sheriff and became a probation officer, mixing social work with the police role.
"No one grows up wanting to be a probation officer because no one knows what they are," Carpenter said. "You have to be a little different to like this work. If you come from an upright, middle-class background, you have to get beyond that. Yet, it still surprises me when probationers look me right in the eye and tell me lies."
Carpenter, who figures he has traveled about 250,000 miles supervising caseloads, was one of the first 50 intensive supervision officers hired following a 1985 pilot program.
Traveling alone at night, checking to make sure probationers are keeping their curfew, can be dangerous work, not so much because of the probationers, but because of the neighborhoods officers must enter.
"One of the very few times I felt like someone was about to hurt me was when I encountered a man in an apartment complex with what appeared to be an M-16," Carpenter said. "What made it worse was he was drunk and did not speak English."
When he saw Carpenter, the fellow ran around the apartment complex. Carpenter radioed the police, and as the drunkard came back in his direction, Carpenter drew his gun, his car between them. Just then the law enforcement officers arrived and captured the man.
Another time, Carpenter was checking on a probationer who lived on a dead-end street, in an area where drug dealers gathered for nightly sales. As he was leaving, a car pulled in front of Carpenter, blocking his way, and 20 to 30 young men surrounded his car. They began to chant, Rodney King, Rodney King. "All I could think about was the rage that let loose on that truck driver in LA right after the Rodney King verdict," Carpenter said. "This was just after that time and tensions were still very high. I was about to play the truck driver."
From the back of the group came a voice saying let him go. "It was like the voice of God, and, like the Red Sea, they parted. I drove out like I wasn't scared. I went on down the road and when I got out my legs were like rubber."
Carpenter had been reading daily Bible passages and the one for that day was from Psalms 17:9, assuring God's abiding presence and protection: "My enemies encircle me with murder in their eyes. They close in upon me and are ready to throw me to the ground."
"For years we worked without guns and we did not need them. We had the occasional wrestling match with an arrestee, but people didn't carry weapons like they do now," Carpenter pointed out. "You're talking about people who had stolen a sweater or maybe got caught with a couple of joints in their pocket, not at all the kind of offender we see today. Now, the gun is just essential, unfortunately."
Two other intensive officers and three surveillance officers share an office with Carpenter. Although a full caseload is considered to be 25 cases, each team carried more than twice that number after a newly-elected district attorney ordered that every felony drug plea include intensive supervision. "It was just an impossible situation, but we did the best we could do," Carpenter said.
During a typical ride with this intensive officer on his rounds, Carpenter drove 60 miles and checked on 16 probationers, all but two of whom were home obeying their 7 p.m. curfew.
With a heavy-duty flashlight, Carpenter taps on the door of the first house. David, a cocaine addict, had been placed on probation. He, as were all the other probationers, was polite and cooperative. Carpenter shines his light into a parked car in front of David's trailer, looking for beer cans, joints, or weapons.
The next stop was at the home of Tony who raises wild turkeys. Carpenter said Tony has no car, his license was revoked and he lives in the country, so it is difficult for him to make his required office visits. Because the number of technical violations were adding up, Carpenter said Tony is probably headed to prison.
When Carpenter worked in Charlotte, he could visit several probationers in one housing project. Because of the distance, visiting offenders in the rural communities of Wingate and Marshville slows him down in his work.
Carpenter tells Jason, a 17 year-old alcoholic living at home with his mother, that the van to take him to a Goldsboro drug and alcohol program, DART, for a month or more would be delayed a few days. Carpenter is high on the program which gives practical help for drug and alcohol abusers. He would like to see judges give probation officers more latitude in giving probationers options such as the DART program.
The lights were out in many of the probationer's homes, even though the night was young. Carpenter said many had to rise early for their jobs, so they went to bed early, or some had not paid their electricity bill and had no power.
Once a month, Carpenter and a surveillance officer search the homes of probationers looking for drugs, alcohol or weapons. "This is just a deterrent, one that hopefully discourages them from keeping drugs or alcohol on their property." One time Carpenter said he found a deer's leg in the bed and antique rifles under the bed.
Hunting dogs greet Carpenter at the next stop where 19 year-old David, with 20 breaking and entering charges, may be headed for the IMPACT boot camp program, if he doesn't get with the program Carpenter said.
A little girl opens the door at the next stop. Carpenter asks if Richard is in and the toddler points to a bedroom door. Carpenter enters, and the probationer is asleep. The mother comes from the other side of the house and doesn't seem the least bit concerned that a man with a gun and a woman with a camera are in her living room.
The next stop is at a trailer park where Carpenter said in the summertime people shoot into the trailers just for larks. The probationer doesn't answer the sharp taps on her trailer door and Carpenter suspects that she may have split town.
Carpenter questions the next probationer as to his whereabouts the past few nights. He claims he was sleeping in the back room and that he told the surveillance officer just to knock on his back window. Carpenter tells the probationer that he doesn't do windows.
The best probationer on his beat is Carroll, convicted of larceny and drug charges. He has never missed a curfew, works two jobs and does his community service work on his day off. "Carroll is one who aged out of his crime," Carpenter said.
Authorities are about to take one of Angela's three children. She is a professional shoplifter and her 14 year-old son has followed in her footsteps.
When his surveillance officer was promoted, and Carpenter was forced to work alone for three months, Carpenter received nightly hang-up calls at his residence. If he answered, the offenders knew he wouldn't be making his rounds that night. Now his wife answers and always says he is working. "It keeps them worried," he added with a smile.
The job of intensive officer brings a tremendous amount of responsibility, Carpenter said, but in recent years, much less authority. The laws and department policies have evolved over the years to limit the officer's options. "Too much liability and way too many lawyers," said Carpenter.
Despite the limitations, "I still like the work after 20 years because I always wanted to do this work. I would like to be able to talk to probation officer trainees and tell them they need to come in with the right attitude. If you hate people you supervise, it will consume all of your energy and you can't get the job done."
Carpenter's supervisor, Chief Probation and Parole Officer Libby Ruth, said, "Bill is the most professional person I have worked with. He cares more about the offenders he supervises than anything else."
The Division of Adult Probation and Parole now has 338 intensive officers and 338 surveillance officers working in similar situations as Bill Carpenter. Division Director Theodis Beck, who himself has met many a menacing dog, said, "I am very proud to have been a part of this program at its inception. To see the growth of Intensive Supervision from its humble pilot program beginning with eight teams makes me very proud. The tremendous growth is a vote of confidence in the Division of Adult Probation and Parole. It is officers such as Bill Carpenter who restore the public confidence in our profession and our ability to safely supervise a high-risk offender population in the community."