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Evaluation and Recognition Systems

 Assuring core competencies and adherence to professional standards is as important as anything we do internally. But police work is sufficiently different from other types of governmental endeavor as to require a separate and different system of employee evaluation.

Last month’s column discussed why law enforcement evaluation systems have failed historically. This article describes an evaluation system that is more relevant and less subjective than those used in the past. The system can be used as a tool of employee recognition even if it is not used as a system of official evaluation.

Evaluating the Lifeguard

A useful analogy can be drawn between the work of a law enforcement officer and that of a lifeguard. A vast difference exists between what a good lifeguard does most of the time and what one has to be able to do. An evaluation that only considered actual performance during a rating period would often completely ignore the matter of preparedness, which is, of course, a primary professional requirement of a high functioning lifeguard.

In fact, one can sensibly argue that preparedness to do things that a lifeguard rarely (or never) does is the most important aspect of the professionalism of a lifeguard. Because this is also true in police work, professional evaluation in law enforcement must also take major account of the matter of preparedness. So, the officer is properly evaluated by measurement of his ability to do certain things, even if those particular things did not actually play out in real-life performance during a particular rating period.

For example, even if an officer didn’t have to do anything particularly physical during a given evaluation period, the officer would nonetheless be evaluated partly on his ability to perform physical tasks. Though they are rarely (or maybe never) used, these are still critically important in certain defining (sometimes life and death) moments in law enforcement.

The ‘Ten Star’ System

In the “Ten Star” system of evaluation and/or recognition, “stars” would be awarded for each of 10 rating categories, provided the officer met certain high standards during the rating period. A gold star would be given for an “excellent” rating; a silver star would be given for a “good” rating. An officer who was rated good or excellent in all 10 rating categories would be recognized as a “Ten Star Officer.” Good or excellent ratings in nine categories would be recognized with nine stars, and so on. The officer’s “stars” would be worn on service ribbons on the uniform as visible symbols of excellence.

The Preparedness Ribbon

The first star in the “Ten Star” system would represent knowledge. There are, of course, certain things that an officer must know in order to make proper decisions and to take appropriate actions. At a minimum, this would include knowledge of law, policy, and other critical professional information. So even if an officer did not have to use a particular point or area of professional knowledge during the evaluation period, the officer would nonetheless be evaluated partly on the basis of professional knowledge. The measuring stick would be performance on a test administered during the rating period. A good score would earn a silver star, an excellent score a gold star.

The second star would represent the presence of good human relations skills. Interpersonal communication skills are part of the most important skill set in law enforcement, and proper evaluation of a professional law enforcement office requires measurement of those skills. Assessment of this skill set would involve graded role play performance analogous to firearms proficiency tests. One’s score on a series of role play performances would determine the officer’s rating in this critical area of preparedness, even if the officer didn’t have to actually do those particular things during the evaluation period.

The third and fourth stars would represent the officer’s level of physical preparedness to perform essential physical tasks that don’t always occur during a rating period and the officer’s ability to apply competently the tactical skills that are critical to professional law enforcement. So the officer’s score on a valid physical fitness test and scores on a series of tests of tactical proficiencies would determine the officer’s eligibility for the “physical fitness star” and the “tactical proficiency” star.

Driving skills might be included with the tactical proficiency measurements in view of their obvious (often life and death) importance to safe and effective law enforcement work. These two stars would complete the “preparedness ribbon” that would be worn with gold or silver stars in recognition of good or excellent levels of preparedness in these critical areas of core competency.

The Performance Ribbon

Like the “preparedness ribbon,” the “performance ribbon” would allow display of up to four stars. The first star would be earned by demonstrated reliability during the rating period. The first criterion for attaining this star would be adherence to rules—avoidance of misconduct. Additional criteria would be identified by committee.

The second star would represent attitude. While attitude is not everything, it is one of the most valuable attributes an officer can bring to the workplace. Good and excellent attitudes would earn silver and gold stars, respectively. The third star would be earned by good or excellent productivity during the performance period—the amount of work performed. The key to proper measurement of productivity is careful recognition of the differences in officer work types, work areas, geographic assignments, work shifts, and in some places, even seasons of the year.

The last star of the performance ribbon would represent not the amount, but the quality, of work performed during the rating period. Unlike most of the previously identified ratings areas, this one—like the attitude rating—unavoidably involves a good bit of subjectivity. This is dangerous in evaluation systems but is necessary in this case.

The Remaining Ribbon

Academic education is generally valued as a positive in society at large and in professional workplaces in particular. Most law enforcement agencies show at least some preference in both hiring and promotion processes for those who have achieved certain levels of academic attainment. Some agencies will even pay for officers to go to college.

In view of the importance obviously attached to academic achievement, it seems natural that it would also be recognized by a star in the evaluation system. A silver star could represent a bachelor’s degree, a gold star a master’s degree. Alternately, an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree could be symbolized by silver and gold, respectively.

The second star on this ribbon, and the final one in the Ten Star system, would reflect the officer’s level of community involvement outside his on-the-job requirements. Law enforcement agencies hugely value the participation of police officers in community affairs and activities. Working with youth programs, helping the elderly, assisting the disabled, and other similar initiatives all tend to show police officers in a favorable, humanitarian light and tend to improve police-community relations.

The critical importance to law enforcement of good community relations suggests the appropriateness of recognizing the extra effort that some officers bother to invest in the community. A committee could establish pre-identified criteria by which officers could earn gold and silver stars and could consider applications for stars based on other involvements not contemplated in pre-identified criteria.

Objectivity-Subjectivity Ratio

The four “preparedness” ratings would be based on assessments that one’s own supervisor(s) would not control and would involve entirely objective criteria. The four “performance” ratings would involve some supervisory discretion but would still rely heavily on objective criteria. The education rating would be strictly objective, and the community involvement rating would be controlled by objective criteria applied by committee rather than a supervisor. So, two of the 10 categories would rely on partially subjective supervisory ratings. Eight of the 10 categories would be entirely in one’s own control.

This article is a thumb-nail sketch of a system that has far more sophisticated facets than have been described here. For more detailed information on the tests and scoring methods mentioned and the ways that this system can be used to create overall numerical ratings, contact the author by e-mail.

Randy Means is a partner in the Charlotte, NC law firm of Thomas and Means, LLP, and specializes entirely in police operations and administration. He formerly served as head of legal training for North Carolina’s state law enforcement training center and then police attorney for the city of Charlotte. He is the primary legal instructor for the IACP. He has conducted law enforcement training in 47 states and Canada and is the author of a “The Law of Policing.” He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2008

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