The gold-tinted, 9-millimeter shells rattle faintly in the cup holder beneath the dash as the car winds its way along the pitted dirt path, slowing as it approaches the weather-scarred trailer on the left.
“It’s hard to believe people live out here like this,” says the driver, 38-year old Kris Harris, as he scans the car parts, metal barrels and discarded children’s toys littering the woods surrounding Panther Drive. “I had to come out last Thanksgiving to arrest this guy.”
The bullets are a souvenir from a recent curfew check on one of the 48 offenders Harris supervises as part of his duties as an intermediate probation and parole officer with the Day Reporting Center in Halifax. The job takes Harris to some of the most remote regions of Halifax County, down back roads and dead ends, into the heart of drug and poverty plagued neighborhoods littered with gang graffiti, prostitution and the rotted, half-collapsed signs of more prosperous times.
For Harris, it’s all in a day’s work.
“You get used to it,” said the Halifax county native Wednesday, as he prepared to check on an offender at a residence in Weldon’s Scocco Park area. “When I was growing up here, I didn’t know we had crack, heroin, etc. I didn’t know until I started working here.”
A graduate of Weldon High School, Harris originally planned to attend law school after he graduated from Elizabeth City State University, where he majored in criminal justice. Having a child changed those plans, he said, and led him to a job as a corrections officer at Polk Correctional Institution, where he worked for four years before coming to DRC in 2000.
Located on NC Highway 301 in Halifax, the center is an adult community corrections program that provides offender supervision and intervention treatment services. The program includes substance abuse counseling, G.E.D. preparation, employment search assistance and vocational adjustment placing. Offenders participate for a maximum of six months, followed by two months of aftercare follow-up.
Earlier Wednesday, Harris joined DRC Director Joslyn Debraux-Reagor as they led three offenders through a Cognitive Behavior Intervention class, a mandatory, 9-week program that teaches offenders to consider the consequences before acting out in negative ways. During the class Harris related a recent, real-life episode in which a GPS navigation system was stolen from his car. “I could have said, ‘They broke my window, I’m a man, I’m going to handle this thing myself.’ I could have let my ego, my pride guide my actions. But I’ve got a wife to think of. I’ve got kids to think of. There’s nothing I can do about it by getting angry. If you can just think, if you can keep yourself out of those situations, it’s better not to go there.”
Following the class, participant Timothy Bailey talked about the decisions that led to his arrest and the hard wisdom he’s gained since coming to DRC. “I got caught up in the economic downturn. I was trying to make some quick money and got put in here,” he stated plainly. “At first I didn’t want to be here; it was for the best though. Being in the class has taught me I don’t have to be high just to talk to people.”
Bailey said prior to his arrest he ran a small country store, an occupation he hopes to pursue in the future. “I want to take some small business classes. I’ve been clean about 45 days and I’m learning how to keep my business straight. Being in here has given me more self esteem and confidence.”
As part of his duties at DRC, Harris does routine curfew checks and residence verifications for offenders that fall within the centers intermediate to intensive supervision assessment. The offenders have a curfew of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and must provide DRC with an accurate address for their current residence. Reports must be filed on each offender, adding up to what Harris describes as a “plethora of paperwork.”
Trained in CPR, search and seizure, firearms and blood born pathogens, Harris also serves as a general instructor at the center.
As he strapped on his protective Kevlar vest and prepared to head out into the field Wednesday, Harris did a quick check of the items he would be carrying for the night: Handgun, pepper spray, handcuffs, flashlight and a handheld radio.
During his first stop of the day, at an apartment behind B&J Mini Mart in Weldon, Harris pointed out gang graffiti on an adjacent building. As he snapped a photo on his cell phone, Harris said the gang problem has spread from larger urban areas to smaller communities across the country. “We have gangs in Halifax County,” he stated. “You have guys coming in from the larger cities. The ones you want to look out for are the wannabe’s, because they’ll do anything to get into the gang. It’s something we need to keep an eye on.”
After verifying the addresses on several new offenders in the Weldon area and making notes for his case narratives (a daily log of each individual the officers check on), Harris turned the car south, heading deep into the county to begin the night’s curfew checks.
In the field
One thing about this job — you learn the county really well,” Harris said, as he navigated the winding side roads of Hollister through the gathering dusk.
As his car approached a trailer set back off a narrow, muddy path, Harris explained that the offender he was looking for was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and has been missing since February. “I think he’s in Rocky Mount but I’m going to keep checking. We don’t want an Eve Carson type case around here,” he stated calmly, referring to the University of North Carolina student body president who was murdered in March of 2008 by suspects who were in violation of their parole.
Apart from the occasional absconder — the official term for someone who flees from law enforcement— Harris said the majority of the offenders he deals with are home on time each night and in compliance with the terms of their parole or probation. “We try to work with individuals,” remarked Harris, “I tell them that if you miss three curfews you will be arrested. We try to give them warnings if they’re behind on their monetary obligations, especially if restitution to the victim is involved. If they’re in jail they can’t pay that money back.”
With his youthful looks and laid-back demeanor, Harris seems to take his job in stride. When pressed however, he admits that the ever-increasing workload and the reality of the grinding poverty he witnesses daily can take a toll on even the most optimistic officer. Said Harris: “I do better at work because I’m constantly moving. When I have time to think, that’s when things start to sink in and affect me.”
The married father of three has also witnessed first-hand the stress the job places on officer’s home lives. “It takes away from your family. There’s not enough time in the day to do everything you need to do; you’re constantly playing catch up. We take on a lot of different roles and we end up working a lot of late hours. You have to have an understanding spouse.”
Dealing with some of the areas more violent offenders, Harris can reel off a list of dangerous encounters and close calls. “We had an arrest warrant for a guy who was on parole. He was in a gang in Enfield… He ran and we had to go after him through a group of gang members. They didn’t mess with us but we had to chase the guy through a wooded area, running all through the neighborhoods. We caught him though.” Harris also related an incident where a gun was discovered in an offender’s jacket and a case where he had to wrestle to the floor a man threatening to commit a murder-suicide.
“We’ll get called at one, two, three in the morning to go after someone who’s broken house arrest. You never know what you’re going to run into.” Harris, an Iraq war veteran currently on reserve with the Army National Guard, said that although he’s drawn his weapon as a precaution, he’s never been forced to fire on an offender.
Harris said because of his work he remains cautious off the job as well. “I can walk into a Wal-Mart and see five or six people I know. Sometimes I don’t know them but they know me. I’m always careful. I’ve rarely had an instance where someone wanted to do me bodily harm. I’ve heard things from other people, but I’m not going to let it dictate how I live.”
As rising turnover rates have led to more work for fewer officers — Harris said his case file has nearly doubled — many have come to view the job as merely a stepping stone to a more lucrative career. “I don’t feel we’re paid appropriately for all the things we do,” he stated. “You have to have a four-year degree to do this job. When guys come in here and they start at $31,000 or $32,000 a year, a lot of them are just using this as a foot in the door then leaving.”
Despite the concerns he has about the job, it’s clear Harris has mastered the art of dealing with members of society most people would rather avoid, acting not only as an officer of the law, but as mentor and psychologist as well.
Speaking to an offender outside of his residence in Enfield, Harris talked with the young man about his family obligations. “I told him he needed to be a man and take responsibility for his kids,” said Harris, driving away from the residence and shaking his head as he watched a group of children, shoeless and smiling, playing in the dirt road beside the trailer park.
A helping hand
One of Harris’ early stops was at the home of Weldon resident Joseph Wood. Unable to find a ride to his DRC substance abuse class, Harris offered to help. “It’s a problem they run into. We do what we can to help. We’ve got a small van we can use, but mainly they’re expected to find transportation on their own.”
During the ride to the center, Wood spoke about his descent into drug abuse. “I got on drugs. I started with herb and then powder, then crack cocaine. It affected a whole lot: I couldn’t pay the bills; I couldn’t take care of my family. It nearly took away everything and nearly sent me to prison. It hurt me all the way around.”
Wood said his downward spiral ended in a violent episode after a friend failed to return from a drug buying trip with Woods’ money. “When I caught him I just cut him up,” he stated matter of factly.
After being convicted and facing a three-year prison sentence, Wood said he’s grateful for the opportunities offered at DRC. “The classes have helped me a lot. They’ve taught me how to stop using drugs and clean my life up.”
According to Harris, cases like Woods’ are all too common. “Probably half the cases we deal with are drug related,” he stated, adding that many other crimes, such as breaking and entering and domestic violence, can be directly linked to drugs.
At the end of the day, said Harris, the job comes down to one simple thing: Trying to help people.
“I remember I had an individual who was on probation, I went to the house, there were three people on the couch and two young ladies …We found needles with substances in them. It turned out one of the young ladies was HIV positive. This guy thanked me for coming back. He was thankful to me because they were sharing needles. He had used the needle first but he could have ended up using after her. “You get satisfaction knowing you had a hand in changing somebody, helping them to turn their life around. I just try to get them to think about their actions.”
As he pulled away from his final home visit of the night and headed back toward Halifax, Harris reflected on the unique and often solitary nature of his work.
“This job definitely has its moments. We’re out here by ourselves. Driving down some of these roads, especially in winter when it gets dark earlier, these are places most people wouldn’t want to go.”
Despite the danger, the dirt roads and the late nights, Harris seemed satisfied with the day’s work as he made his way back home.
“It can get boring out here sometimes, but like I always say, ‘a quiet night is a good night.’”