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Personnel Early Warning Systems for Small Law Enforcement Agencies

Personnel Early Warning Systems (EWS) first appeared in 1981 when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended all law enforcement agencies have an early warning system. Among the first permanent early warning systems were systems found in the police departments in Kansas City, Mo. (1972), Miami Dade County, Fla. (1980), Los Angeles Police Department (1991) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (1992).

The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) requires law enforcement agencies of all sizes have an early warning system to be certified. The liability watch words for police admin are, of course, “you know or should have known.” From the police admin view, the EWS documents if you looked for problems and when you saw them, you tried to fix them. Importantly, EWS saves careers – not ends them.

An effective and efficient Personnel Early Warning System is also something the department should make the community aware of. Being able to correct personnel problems when they are small, and before they become a major issue, will build trust and support from the community. (This will help extend the tenure of the Chief of Police.)

Additional benefits from an effective Personnel Early Warning System include: 1) improved officer performance, 2) reduction in number and severity of citizen complaints, 3) more accountability from first line supervisors, 4) problem employees leaving the agency, 5) improved morale, 6) reduction in lawsuits and department liability, and 7) identify training needs.

Leading By Legacy

A current leadership philosophy is the concept of Leading by Legacy. The concept is, “How do you want to be remembered?” Specifically, what have you created in your law enforcement agency that will stand the test of time, that will make the agency better, stronger and more effective? The development and implementation of a Personnel Early Warning System is one of the best ways to do this. The creation of a Personnel Early Warning System will not only make the agency better in many regards, it will also create a positive, long-lasting legacy for the Chief of Police who implements it.  

Smaller agencies might find it a daunting task to develop and then administer a formal early warning system. Yet the benefits of such systems, and consequences for not having them, matter just as much in a smaller department as a larger one. The EWS does not have to be complicated to be effective. It simply needs to record pattern and practices and then flag conduct or activities that lead to remediation or training.

This Personnel Early Warning System is based on an easy administer model that does not require much staff time, resources or a full-time Internal Affairs function. In other words, it is ideal for small agencies that have limited resources.

How Does It Work?

A total of 18 categories of performance data are tracked. The 18 performance categories may be tailored to your department, i.e., rural versus urban. Twice a year, this is summarized by a commander assigned to the Internal Affairs function of the department. Performance data is extracted from the officer’s personnel records, evaluation files and internal affairs files. It takes two hours every six months to complete the review process in small law enforcement agencies consisting of less than 50 sworn officers.

If an officer has more than two trigger events in any one category, or more than three events total during the review period, that officer is flagged. A written referral is generated to the officer’s immediate supervisor requesting a further review. The number of trigger events may also be ranked in terms of the need for immediate action.

For example, two preventable accidents in a six-month period, or two complaints from prisoners seems like the right number to flag an officer. On the other hand, the first incident of garnished wages or incident of workplace violence may be the right number to flag an officer. This can all be decided ahead of time by the chief or Internal Affairs.  

The supervisor is one of the key players in the review of the employee’s performance. After he / she reviews the information, it is up to the supervisor to make the next step. One step is the need for further action. On the other hand, the supervisor may determine there are legitimate reasons for the events that have occurred. The supervisor’s review and determination is in turn reviewed by his / her immediate supervisor, who is often a commander.

  1. Allegations of Misconduct: the number of allegations; the number of substantiated complaints; the profile of the complainant; the number of off-duty events; and a pattern of allegations.
  2. Number of Use of Force Incidents (including K9 bites): the number of allegations; the types of force used; the comparison year to year.
  3. Preventable Motor Vehicle Accidents (the highest area of police liability): the seriousness of the accident; the type of violation or activity that lead to the accident, i.e., backing up in a parking lot or the result of a pursuit.
  4. Civil Litigation: the number and types of lawsuits; the findings form the suits; the adverse effects of media attention, if any.
  5. Notices of Intent to Sue: the number and types of intent to sue notices; the findings form the suits; the adverse effects of media attention, if any.
  6. Abuse of Sick Leave (a big red flag): the number of sick days; the type of illness (specific or vague); the remaining number of sick days; the days of the week, i.e., always Monday, always Friday.
  7. Habitual Tardiness: the number of tardy days; the typical reasons given (excuses); the number of times verbally (informally) warned.
  8. On-Going Poor Performance (retired on-duty): the exact nature of the performance problem; the relative severity of the problem; articulatable attitude issues.
  9. Inability to Work with Co-Workers: the number of complaints; the nature of the inability, i.e., mouthy or openly hostile. (This may be a fitness-for-duty issue. If the officer cannot work with other officers, can they work with citizens?)
  10. Unusual Behavior: Officer takes unnecessary risks that endanger self or co-workers; inappropriate language or conduct (that may lead to harassment or hostile workplace discrimination issues); out-of-character behavior; excessive overtime or extra duty or off-duty job (profound need for more money, opening the door for bribery or other criminal conduct).
  11. Injured Time: the number and type of injuries; the type of events leading to those injuries; the severity of the injuries (minor, major); on-duty or off-duty events (where an off-duty injury may become an on-duty expense).
  12. Discretionary Arrests: the number and type of arrests (looking for a high number of “contempt of cop” arrests); the number of resisting arrests.
  13. Incidents of Workplace Violence (in the locker room, in the office, on the street): the number and type or severity, i.e., push versus punch. (This kind of physical violence may also be noted under Unusual Behavior or Inability to Work with Others.)
  14. Being the Subject of a Criminal Investigation (either misdemeanor or felony): the nature of the investigation; whether suspended with pay (misdemeanor) or without pay (felony). (in either case, remove from field operations.) 
  15. Garnishment of Wages (same money concern as Unusual Behavior, above, but more critical): review the assignment and re-assign if assigned to property room or undercover operations.
  16. Being the Subject of a Restraining Order: the nature of the court order (this may affect the ability of the officer to carry a firearm.)
  17. Prisoner Problems, Reports of Complaints from Prisoners, including Prisoner Transport issues: the number and type of complaints. (Investigate these even if they seem very hard to believe.)
  18. Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Data (including inappropriate patterns and/or complaints): the demographic of the data, i.e., teen girls, etc. (Look for a pattern that fits the complaint profile.)

The Supervisor’s Role

After a supervisor receives the written referral of a possible Personnel Early Warning System notification, he / she must investigate the situation to determine if it is founded – this would include a mandatory interview with the subject officer. If additional action is deemed to be warranted by the supervisor, he / she may provide additional guidance and counseling, additional supervision, remedial training, and / or education-based discipline.

All actions by the supervisor need to be clearly documented with copies sent to the officer’s evaluation file, personnel file and internal affairs file. In severe cases, this documentation may be used for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. The officer’s immediate supervisor should continue to closely monitor the situation for a minimum of six months to a year to ascertain if the additional oversight is improving the officer’s performance.

If improvement is noted, then the officer should not be flagged on the next Personnel Early Warning System Review. If improvement does not occur, then the officer will continue to be flagged on the bi-annual Personnel Early Warning System and additional personnel action may be necessary to include reassignment, reduction in responsibility, reduction in rank, or termination of employment.

The Commander’s Role

Command officers have a responsibility to monitor this process from the review of the 18 categories of performance data, to ensure the actions of the officer’s immediate supervisor are appropriate and timely, to ensure the subject officer receives the assistance he / she needs, and to ensure phases of this process are documented correctly.

If any step in this process is not carried out correctly, the entire system is subject to failure. It is imperative the system is fair to all involved. Once a year, the commander assigned to the Internal Affairs function should meet with the chief of police and present all data that has been garnered from the Personnel Early Warning System.

The Chief’s Role

The chief of police should pay close attention and monitor this system at every step. The chief should ensure all employees have a comprehensive and fair review of the data the Personnel Early Warning System generates. The chief should also review and authorize any formal sanctions taken against an officer as a result of the Personnel Early Warning System.

When the commander of the Internal Affairs function meets with the chief for the annual formal review of the Personnel Early Warning System, the chief should sign off as reviewing the files for that year. An annual review of the entire process by the chief and executive staff is critical. Policy adjustments based on staff input and / or outside consultants’ input can and should be made where necessary. The chief should keep the entire department informed at all steps in the development, administration and revision of the Personnel Early Warning System Policy.

Paul D. Schultz is the Director of Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training. He has almost 40 years experience in law enforcement with over 15 years as a Chief of Police with La Vista, Neb. Police and then Lafayette, Colo. Police Departments. He can be reached at Photos courtesy of Mark C. Ide.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2012

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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