There have been a number of growing trends within the world of law enforcement. More departments are seeking accreditation, policies are becoming standardized, the number of written policies is increasing, training requirements are increasing, and disciplinary practices and processes are more rigid and closely watched by outsiders.
While some of these changes have improved the day-to-day operations of police agencies nationwide, this strict commitment to written policy and procedure has, in some cases, resulted in the development of stifling work atmospheres that suffocate employees and decrease morale.
Many senior officers once worked during a time when police officers were “above the law” and infractions were overlooked and even encouraged by peers and supervisors. The thin blue line allowed for corruption, discrimination, and a variety of other abuses. The tides have turned and many of today’s rookie officers operate in work environments that maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding employee infractions.
Violations are typically met with well-documented internal affairs investigations and the resulting progressive disciplinary procedures. In some cases, members of the public and police administrators are hypersensitive to employee errors and this can result in ineffective disciplinary practices. A critical component of any disciplinary process is to ensure the supervisory response to the infraction is one that will reduce the likelihood of the event recurring and hold the employee accountable.
Only the most diligent supervisors will successfully navigate through effective employee correction. However, response to policy violations is a critical component of a supervisor’s job and poor performance in this area can result in a tarnished police image, financial loss, and injury or death to citizens or officers.
There are some violations that involve criminal acts or major infractions that must be handled by strict protocol. These actions warrant significant administrative responses that are likely detailed in a union agreement or written contract. Examples include drinking alcohol on the job, stealing from the evidence lockers, misappropriating department funds, or participation in domestic violence. Responses likely include a written reprimand, suspension or termination. But such egregious violations do not comprise the majority of employee problems.
Most violations and complaints include minor infractions such as talking on a cell phone while driving a cruiser, rudeness, failure to complete reports, being late to work, not wearing the proper uniform, not following proper investigative procedures, misuse of departmental computers for personal activity, or sleeping on duty. This article is specifically aimed at these violations, which are the most common employee issues a supervisor will face.
Many supervisors find addressing policy violations can cause as much anxiety in the supervisor as it does in the officer. Some supervisors prefer to avoid conflict in an effort to preserve their fragile personal relationships with subordinates. Any effective supervisory training program will target this common rookie supervisor affliction and will emphasize the importance of swiftly dealing with conflict head-on. Although transitioning to this role may be a challenge at first, supervisors who don’t shy away from employee conflict and who deal with violations will ultimately find their jobs easier.
A supervisor who overlooks violations will constantly struggle to gain the trust and respect of subordinates. Ignoring bad behavior can be as bad as the behavior itself and disregarding policy violations is the equivalent of supporting them. If a supervisor sees an officer arrive at shift change in violation of a departmental policy that requires all personnel to wear a ballistic vest and does not address the issue, the message to the violator and all other officers present is that the supervisor does not support the policy and will not enforce it.
Not only could this result in other officers violating that same policy, but it could result in other policy violations. Officers who work under negligent supervisors may be more likely to disregard departmental policies if they believe these policies are not supported or enforced. The ability to react appropriately to policy violations is often what makes the difference between a great supervisor and a mediocre supervisor.
It is essential to recognize that every single person in an agency will and should make errors. Policing has become incredibly complicated. Every call is unique, every situation is different, and each officer is likely to respond differently in similar situations. Policing is riddled with constant decision-making and the outcomes of those decisions can have dramatic effects.
Laws are constantly changing, new court cases surface that alter proper procedure, technology changes, new training briefs are issued, and internal policies are modified or new ones are introduced. There’s a lot to remember and most officers do their best to act in compliance with established laws and policies. Proper training, preparation and education will reduce policy violations, but will not eliminate them. Violations should be expected and progressive supervisors will recognize this and should focus on correction instead of punishment.
Investigate the Matter
The worst supervisor will learn of a possible violation and will immediately pull in the offending employee, question him / her, and perhaps discipline him / her. The best supervisor will take his / her time to gather the facts before acting. Knee-jerk responses to perceived policy violations are likely to be ineffective. If a supervisor is made aware of a possible infraction, he / she should first thoroughly look into the matter to ensure he / she has the correct information.
Certain allegations of policy violations may require review of written reports, interviews with involved parties, review of digital surveillance, review of written policy, or assessment of past training. The investigation should be thorough; a supervisor who jumps to conclusions may find himself / herself embarrassed by his / her ignorance of the facts.
The best supervisor, upon discovery of a policy violation, looks inward. Is there something the supervisor did that would have caused the employee to be confused? Sometimes poor communication between the supervisor and the subordinate can result in error. This communication can be direct, such as a conversation between a sergeant and an officer. Communication may also be indirect, where a supervisor said something to someone else or did something that caused the employee to misinterpret the supervisor’s expectations.
Miscommunication is a common cause of employee errors. Using the prior example of the officer who arrives at shift change without a ballistic vest, although the supervisor did not say, “It is OK if you do not comply with this policy,” his failure to act clearly communicated this message. The next day when an officer arrives to work without a vest on because it’s too hot, where should the blame lie?
Review Past Training
It is important to consider whether or not the department has adequately prepared the officer for the situation in which the error occurred. The quality and substance of that training on that particular issue should be assessed. Some supervisors are quick to point to an employee’s brief exposure to a policy that occurred during field training or years prior to the infraction. Once an officer signs a training reception form, he is then held accountable for that knowledge.
Many agencies are transitioning to online training courses that require officers to read curriculum from a computer screen. However, the vast majority of people do not learn through reading alone. Different learning styles include reading, listening to instruction, observing the policy put into action, or actually engaging in the action.
It is not realistic to expect that new employees can read a hundred policies during their Field Training and Evaluation Program and have the details committed to memory. Who can remember every detail written on a piece of paper that was read a year ago? It’s probable that many readers won’t remember the details of this article in a month. It is critical to recognize the absorption of information takes time and effective learning strategies vary among different individuals.
Supervisors should also consider whether or not the employee has ever successfully engaged in the behavior before. If an officer signed the policy and then two years later responded to a bank robbery but failed to comply with the written policy, it is imperative to determine if the officer had ever handled this type of call before.
Although the employee may have signed off on a policy that addresses an officer’s response to a bank hold-up alarm, he may not have understood the application of that material until his first actual response. Therefore, a supervisor who is tasked with addressing the policy violation should consider past performance of the task.
When considering past performance, supervisors must treat each incident as an isolated event. Sergeants cannot allow prior violations, overall job performance, or their own opinion of the officer impact the investigation in any way. It is the role of the disciplinarian, likely a person who is higher ranking than the sergeant, to consider past infractions in the determination of any necessary discipline.
Meet With the Employee
Once the matter has been investigated, the supervisor should meet with the employee to discuss the issue. Every effort should be made to pull the officer aside privately, out of view of peers. The meeting should be in a comfortable setting, such as a private office.
When supervisors call in an officer to meet with him about a policy violation, it is important to recognize the employee is likely feeling very nervous and fearful of disciplinary action. The supervisor should be clear and calm in his explanation of the violation. It is imperative the specific details of the violation be presented by the supervisor and the problems with the violation are detailed.
Once the supervisor details the violation and the concerns and implications associated with the violation, the employee should be given an opportunity to explain what happened. Employees, particularly the newest generation of individuals, need to feel like they are being heard. The interviewer should use open-ended questions and should allow the employee ample time to talk through the issue. Ineffective supervisors fail to ask questions and instead simply accuse the employee and lecture him. Listen to what the employee says and consider why he did what he did. Many times violations are based on confusion and ignorance to proper procedure.
Once the information has been gathered about the incident, a supervisor should then consider the best course of action. The two essential questions to consider are: 1) Did the employee intentionally violate a policy? and 2) What supervisory response is most likely to prevent future violations?
The first question will assist the supervisor by determining whether the violation was a mistake or an intentional act. For repeated intentional violations of a policy, employees will likely require a form of progressive punishment. However, for employees who did not know they were violating a policy and have not violated the policy before, the best action is corrective coaching, completely omitting any disciplinary action.
All corrective measures should be private and done one-on-one. The issues should be discussed and any confusion should be eliminated. Start by explaining the workplace rule and then communicate standards clearly. The response should be corrective and educational without being condescending and demeaning. Employees should walk away having a better understanding of their error, while also feeling supported by their supervisor.
An effective technique may involve collaborating with the employee to determine what would most assist them to prevent future violations of the policy. An employee may suggest that reading policies is not an effective learning technique and may recommend another educational method. Employees may also report they did not understand a policy or found it confusing. In these cases, a review of the policy and / or a rewriting of the policy may be in order. Whatever the suggestion, the focus should be on prevention of future violations.
Sharing Information with Other Supervisors
Depending on the size of an agency, it is possible that a single employee has multiple supervisors. Policy violations and the department’s response to those violations should be shared among the employee’s direct supervisors. This will allow rotating supervisors to watch for further violations from that employee.
All infractions should be documented. Many supervisors keep a notepad or computer document that contains brief notes (including time, date and a summary of the incident) of violations. These notes should serve as a reference during annual or six-month reviews. This is a critical component of any successful supervisory team. Chronic violations of the same policy warrant a more punitive response from supervisors. If these violations continue, suspension or termination could result. Documentation of policy violations and attempts at correcting problem behavior will be an essential element of an employee’s personnel folder.
In summary, simple guidelines for effective disciplinary action of minor violations are: 1) Act swiftly; 2) Be thorough; 3) Treat everyone fairly and impartially; 4) Discipline actions and not personalities; 5) Determine the cause: human error or intentional violation; 6) Listen to the employee; 7) Focus on prevention of future violations; 8) Be consistent; and 9) Avoid grudges.
Employees are the most valuable asset of any police organization. The higher the morale, the more successful the agency will be as a whole. Supervisors can often set the tone for their shift. Those who are active in responses, fair, welcoming to discussion, and reasonable in their approach are more likely to have diligent and motivated officers. Overzealous and iron-fisted managers contribute to suffocating work atmospheres that deflate employee morale. Successful supervisors will use considerable time and effort to best respond to employee violations.
Jody Kasper has been a police officer since 1998 and is currently a lieutenant with the Northampton (Mass.) PD. She is an adjunct professor at Elms College and teaches courses for the Municipal Police Training Council. She has written a book titled, Progressive Police Supervision: A simple and effective approach for managing a police agency. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.