Writing Effective Policies and Procedures in Law Enforcement
What you need to know to develop a legally defensible policy and procedure manual.
- What you need to get started.
- Create legally defensible policies and procedures.
- Download a policy template.
Policies and procedures are the backbone of any law enforcement agency.
Like a compass, they direct you and your officers toward optimal safety and professionalism. They help create the culture of your team and set the standard for everyone to be successful on the job.
To set a foundation for these things in your department, you will need to write an effective guide for your officers.
Before you write law enforcement policies and procedures, it’s key to understand the difference between the two. In our article What’s The Difference Between Policies and Procedures, we explain the basics.
While policies are principles behind what an organization does, procedures are instructions for carrying out particular tasks.
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Think of policies like mini mission statements. Procedures, on the other hand, are the practical steps you take to accomplish your mission.
So how can you communicate your department’s values and establish best practices for adhering to them?
What are the core principles that should guide you in writing policies and procedures?
Attorney Eric Daigle recently shared some insight in our white paper Developing Constitutional and Effective Policies.
“We must work toward limiting inconsistencies, developing professional police practices, and identifying why we do certain things,” he says.
“We must look outside our own operations to develop a methodology, application and process to create constitutional and effective policies … and change the pattern of practice within our environment that provides the framework to reduce inconsistencies and provide a direction towards stability.”
Are you ready to bring your department to the next level of excellence?
Here are a few starting points for writing effective policies and procedures.
Form a policy development and review team
Planning is the most important part of creating successful tools for your department.
At the beginning of your process, determine who needs to be involved.
Whose perspective and experience will matter most when it comes to writing legally defensible policies and procedures? Identify chief decision makers and schedule a meeting to collaborate on all pertinent subjects.
Our guidebook, Beginner’s Guide to Policy Management, encourages departments to form a diverse team.
It says, “For quality assurance purposes and to lessen the burden on one person (i.e. the Compliance or Policy Manager), it’s best to form a team to ensure all areas are covered. This team can vary in size depending on the caliber of your organization.
“The most beneficial team will be comprised of staff members from multiple departments so insight is at the highest degree possible.”
Ideally, all personnel should agree on the direction of your manual regardless of their role.
Remember everyone has a unique role and experience that leads them to a unique perspective. Consider everyone’s input as you review existing policies and procedures and begin developing new ones.
Identify and prioritize policies
Next, gather with your team and discuss your department’s core values and standards. Explore topics like goals, responsibilities, and obligations, and use them to create an outline.
Don’t rely on your memory to create the policies that will shape your department. Refer to guiding documents like general orders, standard operating procedures, directives, training bulletins, and chiefs’ orders or memos.
Your department has already established these documents to define officer behavior, so use them to your benefit in the writing process.
It’s important to get all your guiding documents in one place and format as you compile your policies and procedures.
Our Beginner’s Guide to Policy Management contains some practical tips.
It says, “How your policies currently exist is a big factor in what this step means for you. If you already have all the documentation you need in one of the aforementioned formats (hard copy, PDF files, etc.), all you need to do is upload them and make sure you stick to a consistent naming convention. If there are policies you need to author, then [choose] a set of software that allows you to do that.”
Balance is something else to keep in mind in the process.
According to Developing Constitutional and Effective Policies, “When prioritizing and determining policy topics, it is important to look ahead, but be careful of knee jerk reaction to novel issues.”
It continues, “Policies need to have a balance between being strict and leaving a little wiggle room for unusual circumstances. In most situations, policy writers will have to use their best judgment.”
We partnered with experts to create the Developing Constitutional & Effective Policies white paper.
Create legally defensible policies and procedures
As you know, law enforcement is a vulnerable field.
The right policies and procedures can protect your department and its officers from litigation. In his article The Importance of Focused Policy in Modern Policing, Sgt. Lou Savelli writes about the connection between solid policies and procedures and legal responsibility.
He attributes a “lack of focused policy by police agencies” as a primary cause for litigation and negative public perception.
Creating legally defensible policies and procedures is important for this reason.
Once you feel everyone agrees about the overall tone and structure of your policies and procedures, you can begin authoring them.
Our guidebook offers some helpful places to start:
“First, make a list of all policies that address national or state rules, regulations, and laws. Next, make an outline that hones in on expectations and acceptable behavior. If you’ve encountered any incidents that may need specific attention due to situations that arose in the past, a policy is the perfect place to incorporate guidelines that will pave the way for the future.
It’s imperative to address anything and everything during the first go-around to eliminate creating multiple new policies and change notices. Incorporate everything from workplace cell-phone usage to sexual harassment.”
Think of your policy and procedure manual as a means of liability risk management.
Marty Drapkin writes about this proactive stance in his article Training Staff On Policies and Procedures.
He says, “Good liability risk management means being proactive – thinking ahead to possible negative or undesirable outcomes and then taking steps, in advance, to prevent those outcomes from occurring.”
Basic policy structure
Our Policy Summit Panel of experts believes policies are often ineffective due to “lack of clarity and structure when it comes to key guiding principles.”
Make a priority of structuring your policies in a clear and organized fashion.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to writing law enforcement policies and procedures. What matters most is consistency in tone, organization, and basic structure.
Consider using the same template for every policy to keep things neat and straightforward. Surprisingly, an organized manual may lend credibility if your agency is ever in court.
Organization also means carefully considering the critical components of your policy and procedure manual.
Since your ultimate goal is compliance, make your documents easy to navigate.
An index is a helpful tool. “The first thing I always look for when evaluating current documents is an index,” says Consultant Charles Reynolds. “If you can’t find the policy you are looking for quickly, what good is it? Everything needs to be quickly accessible.”
You may also want to include a glossary of keywords, a purpose statement to guide the document, permitted and prohibited behavior, and training and reporting requirements.
Get an example of an easy-to-use policy template.
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Moral versus legal obligation
What’s more important? Adhering to your area’s moral code or meeting its legal requirements?
Our experts say a healthy policy and procedure manual considers and balances both. As you develop your policies and procedures, keep this in mind.
“The policies and procedures dealing with shooting at moving vehicles is a good example. One could argue, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plumhoff case allowed a standard whereby an officer could shoot at a vehicle when the officer reasonably believed his life was in danger,” reads Developing Constitutional and Effective Policies.
“Many agencies create policy language that prohibits officers from shooting at a vehicle where the force used is the vehicle itself. These policies often contain additional language emphasizing good officer safety tactics to prevent officers from putting themselves in a dangerous position and, thereby, preventing the need for the deadly force option.”
There will always be some gray area when it comes to balancing moral and legal expectations.
Agencies must be mindful that their policies must both address community standards and meet basic legal requirements.
Are policies themselves enough? Attorney Eric Daigle argues “no.”
Training and supervision are two important aspects of ensuring compliance.
According to the failure to train standard, “departments must train their officers in all subject areas where it is reasonably foreseeable that the officer’s action could lead to a constitutional violation.”
Training and supervision standards exist for your protection. Make sure you develop policies on supervision from the get-go.
Without proper training, your officers won’t be prepared to comply when it matters most, like when lives or litigation are at stake.
Take an extra step of care in your training process development and configure a documentation system.
Drapkin writes, “Documentation … is very important. Such a record better enables management and training staff to know what staff has been trained to do, and to better plan for future training.”
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Review and final editing
Before distributing or publishing your policies, give them a final review.
This will not only ensure lack of errors and clear verbiage but also compliance with state and federal guidelines.
A careful review could also protect your agency from lawsuits or other employment or administrative issues.
To streamline the revision process, include experts in the process. Invite subject matter experts, legal experts, supervising staff, or collective bargaining units to collaborate.
Spend time in critical review of policies that meet accreditation language requirements and current legal standards. Also, make sure your policies meet legal standards and best practices.
Some of them may require an entire rewrite to meet said standards, but it’s better to be protected on the front end than deal with legal issues later.
When the time comes to distribute policies to your staff, accessibility is key. All documents including policies, procedures, training records, and tests should be easy to locate and use.
Use a system with a dynamic ability to search so users can find what they need quickly.
Personnel will more likely retain and apply the information you have worked hard to develop if they don’t have to rifle through stacks of paper.
Electronic, cloud-based storage is one way to keep all your documents at your officers’ fingertips. Be sure to train everyone in operating tech equipment and accessing relevant software if you choose to take this route.
Is it time to lead your department into a new realm of success through a refreshed policy and procedure manual?
You may spend a lot of time and effort writing policies and procedures, but the process will be worth it.
Just keep in mind that you may never completely “finish” your manual. Law enforcement policies and procedures evolve over time so that updates will be necessary.
In his Developing a Police Department Policy-Procedure Manual, Chief W. Dwayne Orrick writes, “The operations manual should be considered a living document. Routine inspections and reviews should be completed to ensure compliance with its directives so that the manual remains current.”
If you keep an open mind and continue planning ways to sustain success in your agency, you will ensure your officers’ safety when it matters most.