Early Warning Systems: Part One

An effective EWS shouldn't require an IT expert to use it.


(Ed.Note: Part One of this two-part article describes early warning and tracking systems in general. Part Two will focus on specific early warning criteria, applications and interventions, as well as other research potentials.)

Every law enforcement supervisor has an early warning system in his / her head. Sergeants have things they find troubling and watch for and so do managers and administrators. The value of an organizational early warning system is that it can aggregate such information, make programmed identification of data groupings, and alert supervisors at all levels of possible issues they might not have noticed otherwise. This can be done on paper but computers make it easier and, used properly, do it better.

Whether such a system is called early warning, identification, recognition, assistance, intervention or some other name, the point is it's early. Notwithstanding semantics and their obvious importance, the common purpose of such systems is to identify a problem or potential problem before something more troublesome happens. Ideally, this would occur before an actual negative incident transpires and potentially save everyone some grief. Failing that, it would note the occurrence of such incidents for purposes of review, analysis and possible action.

So, what does an effective early warning system look like? First, it must track certain kinds of "risk" to the department and its members. Second, it must review this and other data and identify combinations of factors that need consideration and possible intervention. This sounds simple but actually requires a great deal of important thinking and decision-making by agency leadership.

For starters, activity to negativity ratios must be identified for different areas and types of law enforcement and alarm thresholds be formulated. In addition to early warning applications, broader uses of tracking systems are possible and beneficial.

Available Technology and Applications
Of course, necessary computer programming can be done in-house by individual agencies, but there are off-the-shelf software programs available that, used properly, can do the job. Many agencies already use a form of electronic tracking that can sort entries into categories, making it easier to locate and retrieve data. Such programs allow co-locating data categories and also separating them based upon division, assignment, time of day, nature of complaint, etc.

Regardless of the system utilized, it is critical the agency makes the system fit the organization and its activities, rather than the reverse. Not all thresholds should be set the same and not all triggers and risk indicators are the same for every agency. Naturally, there are common concerns such as discourtesy and use of force, but there are more nuanced risk indicators that are not always identical. Beyond that, there may be state or local mandates of certain requirements and / or unique organizational factors that merit consideration.

A tracking system should be a user-friendly tool for tracking employee performance and other issues of appropriate departmental concern. Most programs work on positives as well as negatives, tracking both less-than-satisfactory performance and positive performance data, including awards and commendations. It can and should also be used for agency research. Demographic factors like education, training, age, race and gender can be analyzed as they might illuminate the best ways forward.

An agency considering requiring or giving hiring preference to those with four-year degrees might hypothesize this would reduce citizen complaints on the theory that higher education would improve an employee's human relations skills. Actual real-life data on this question could eliminate the need to guess at the answer.

The biggest challenge is visualizing all the possible ways in which data can be utilized helpfully, and building the program accordingly. That is, we don't know what we don't know. Also, there are numerous applications that may be beneficial, but if data is not entered correctly, resulting conclusions may be skewed because garbage in, garbage out.

Off-the-shelf software programs are usually set up with standard features and reports. Although not all the standard, pre-programmed reports fit an agency's needs, they give the user a starting point - direction and guidance to reporting areas it might not realize existed. Considerable customization is also possible.

Some software packages allow the user to link to master files other files of text, video, audio, Adobe and a variety of digital images. This reduces the need for multiple files and creates more centralized repositories. The programs also have a multi-level access screening built in, allowing the user control of who has access to specific features. Several users can contribute information / documents without the agency losing control of security aspects important to internal affairs and other sensitive personnel information files.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, the user should not have to be an information technology expert to operate the system successfully. Vendor-provided training and technical assistance should be available and utilized. Pre-purchase research helps ensure existing customers are able to use the program and are satisfied with its dynamics and benefits.

An agency can have the best software program money can buy, but if it doesn't have clear and enforced policy mandating documentation, routing and entry requirements, the system will be substantially de-valued. Such policy must focus on supervisory accountability and require that even minor misconduct and negative behavior be entered for tracking purposes. Supervisory consistency is the key to fairness and proper function. If relevant behavior or performance is not brought into the database, documented and tracked, the program will not serve its purpose.

Some will argue tracking negative behavior or performance-related issues is wrong and actually does disservice to employees. In fact, used improperly, such systems can be counter-purposeful and even damaging to the organization and its members. The second half of this article will identify early warning criteria and related systems with emphasis on how to use such data and associated interventions properly, without inappropriate negative effect on employees or the organization - and for extremely positive value.

Many law enforcement officers with stellar careers have reached that level of excellence because of feedback they have received from mentors and others, often resulting from review of not-always-positive performance or behavior-related issues that taught them how to succeed. Mistakes and other troubling circumstances, when identified and reviewed purposefully, can be valuable. Many people would not be where they are today had not someone pointed out to them where they could improve and how to avoid potential pitfalls.

Risk management is a high priority throughout law enforcement. An identification and intervention program is an essential part of managing risk and, used right, can help employees to avoid problems, improve themselves, and better succeed. Not only can it make an organization smarter by increasing its self-awareness and accountability, it can offer employees a better chance to work harmoniously with their organization, in line with its mission, values and vision.

Lt. Doreen Jokerst is a 14-year veteran of the Parker Police Department, a suburban Denver-area agency. She currently heads its Professional Standards Unit and operates its early warning and internal-affairs tracking system. Randy Means is a career police legal advisor, consultant and trainer, and a nationally recognized expert in police systems. He may be reached atrbmeans@aol.com and his book, The Law of Policing, is available at www.LRIS.com.

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2012

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