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Improving Your Policy Manual

Written by Randy Means

[Note: 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.]


Law 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Proactive 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.

But 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.

Such 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

The 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.

To 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.

It 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.


“Where 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 enforcement.

Today’s 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.

Beyond 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 is not 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.

Written 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.

Through 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 He can be reached directly at

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2014

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