In this article, the term “policy” refers to any organizationally
disseminated written directive—SOP, General Order, Policy and Procedure, etc. —or
whatever else its name in a given organization.]
enforcement work is not like most other professions. We’re not folding sweaters
at the Gap here. This isn’t refrigerator sales. In police work, injury and death
are constant concerns and massive liability exposures are around every corner. Particularly
in the high-risk, high-liability areas of law enforcement, things must be done
exactly right—just so. The stakes are too high to have it any other way.
dynamic that tends to assure proper individual and organizational behavior and
consequently acceptable outcomes is, first and foremost, written policy—directives
that make crystal clear what law enforcement officers can and can’t do and how the
organization will conduct itself. Use of force and emergency vehicle operation
are but two of the countless areas of law enforcement where, if things go
wrong, they can go terribly wrong. The first and most important control over
these matters is the policy guidance that organizations give their members and
the policy choices that precede them.
the absence of specific written directives, individual supervisors and trainers
become the organization’s de facto policy-makers. That might not be so bad if
they would all make the same, correct policy, which of course they won’t.
Instead, the rules will change at shift change and according to what day an
officer attends training—a clearly dysfunctional “system.” Officers must ask,
“Who’s working tonight?” so they can find out how to be that night—because what
Sergeant A wants is unacceptable to Sergeant B. Frustration is inevitable. It
is not having rules and standards that upsets people so much—in fact, the
highest morale is typically found in organizations with the highest standards—it
is inconsistency in the application of rules and standards.
use of written policies, representative of the organization’s aggregate wisdom
and appropriately applied and enforced
through correlated training, supervision and discipline, ensures that employees
and the organization itself are accountable to the standards contained in the
organization’s written guidance.
most law enforcement policy manuals have been created piecemeal over time,
often in direct response to specific negative incidents. Even then, they are
often manufactured by borrowing and using written directives from other police
organizations, sometimes without a great deal of philosophical consideration or
even reflecting on contained language which is obviously inapplicable to the
borrower agency. What they are not, typically, is the result of systematic and
comprehensive thought processes, guided by specialized expertise.
policy manuals, created in fits and starts by multiple administrations and many
part-time authors, are usually incomplete, out-of-date, poorly organized, badly
written, self-contradictory and sometimes extremely incorrect. The solution—the
way out—of these problems is initially a comprehensive policy manual overhaul
and subsequently very careful attention to its upkeep and maintenance. So,
hopefully sooner rather than disastrously later, the time comes to pay the
piper—to do and pay for the tedious and arduous careful work that should have
been done long, long ago, but wasn’t.
Detailed Policy vs. General Principles
problem with the short, general policy favored by many agencies is that it is
non-specific. Its generality typically also makes it vague
in its applications
. The devil is in
the detail, it is said, and certainly it is true here. It is relatively easy to
memorize, and often agree with, broad statements of principle. It is vastly
more difficult to understand how an organization expects those same principles
to be applied
to a broad spectrum of
circumstantial possibilities. It is always the application
of policy that will ultimately be questioned.
work within the tolerances of his/her organization, the officer desperately
requires knowledge of how the organization wishes for policy to be applied
. Leaving these thorny questions
to be answered by the training or supervision functions, or perhaps even to
officer discretion, leaves far too much room for error. Resulting potentials
are far more dangerous than whatever detriments might theoretically lurk in the
provision of detailed guidance.
is true we cannot answer via policy every question officers could possibly
have. So, given that truth, how many of our officers’ perfectly legitimate
questions should we try
to answer? Surely,
the correct answer cannot be, “As few as possible.” The correct answer must be
“All we can, within reason.” So we then set our course, over waters now
charted, providing officers as many navigational aids as we perceive are
necessary to keep them within the channel of acceptability, off the rocks and
shoals that imperil their already too difficult careers.
does it say that
?” asks our employee
when we tell him that his actions were prohibited. Fairness in disciplinary actions requires
that the employee have been clearly on notice of the prohibited behavior.
Lawsuits by our employees against us—alleging unfairness in disciplinary
matters—are probably the fastest growing type of lawsuit in American law
civil lawsuit alleging officer level misconduct no longer leaves it at that. Clever
plaintiff’s lawyers challenge our whole system of guidance to our officers—beginning
by questioning the adequacy of our written policies. And it turns out that not
having a policy on something is actually a “policy” of providing no guidance on
that particular issue.
and above the issues of fairness in discipline and liability avoidance are
those of individual and organizational effectiveness
How is it, exactly, that we want this stuff done? Is just any old way
satisfactory or do we wish to voice our organizational preference for things
being done the right way
, the best
way. But what exactly is
the best way? When our policies do
not speak, that way
illuminated. And, of course, when policy does not govern behaviors and methods,
officers’ questions will be answered by trainers, supervisors and peers who themselves
are without guidance—leading
to predictable inconsistency in the guidance they will issue.
policy is a way of assuring organizational
accountability. It is a promise to ourselves that we will do things a certain
way—a way that is carefully considered and planned, not haphazard or whimsical
or variable by personality. Those who opt for short and general policy—without
detail—will see their choice come back on them. Almost invariably, short and
general equals vague and uncertain. The vagueness that we choose in our efforts
to make sure we don’t get wrapped around the axle of policy detail will play
out also, again and again, in officers not knowing what we want done or how we
want it done. “I can’t do what you want me to when I don’t know what that is
!” exclaims our officer, rightfully.
responsible planning and implementation, law enforcement leaders can minimize the
risk of employee misconduct, increase organizational effectiveness, and sharply
reduce the threat of injury, death, lawsuits and liability. The starting point
is to make a series of decisions, reflected in written directives, that will
govern these dynamics and outcomes.
Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of "The Law of Policing," which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.