Writing Policies and Procedures Best Practices for Law Enforcement
A step-by-step guide to crafting legally defensible law enforcement policies and procedures.
- Downloadable checklist to guide your policy-writing.
- How to utilize accreditation standards as starting points.
- Tips and tools for distributing crucial content to employees.
Writing policies and procedures can seem like a daunting task. Do you use the policies and procedures of similar agencies as reference points? Where do you find the most up-to-date legal information to inform your content? How do you know that this policy will hold up in court?
It’s hard to know where to begin when creating a policy and procedure manual.
Whether you’re launching a new program in your department or revising long-standing policies, you may find yourself wondering how to write a particular policy. Crafting effective policies takes planning, research, and revision, but the process doesn’t have to be painful.
Below are some best practices for writing policies and procedures for law enforcement. You can also download a handy checklist to follow along with the process.
Policy Writing Checklist
Download this free checklist to help you with writing policies.
Check your inbox for a link to download this resource.
Philosophy of Good Policy
Policies and procedures are far more than lists of rules that employees need to follow.
At the core, policies communicate the mission, values, and guiding principles of an organization. Before you start outlining and writing policies and procedures, you’ll need to think through the big-picture goals and values of your agency.
Established goals and values help focus policies and practices.
The philosophies behind policies matter because policies and procedures can’t address every possible situation officers will face. Some procedures will outline a process that never varies. But, more often, employees will have to exercise their own discretion in critical situations.
Well-written policies help guide decision-making. For example, a law enforcement use-of-force policy can’t give officers step-by-step instructions on every situation they’ll encounter.
But a well-written policy that emphasizes things such as the value of human life, open communication, and safety practices can help officers make the best decision at the moment.
Avoiding deliberate indifference
Simply put, deliberate indifference happens when an organization ignores a potentially risky situation that could result in the violation of constitutional rights.
For example, an agency could be charged with deliberate indifference if leaders failed to follow through on investigating a report of sexual harassment.
Avoiding deliberate indifference starts with good policy. When writing policies and procedures, organizational leaders should anticipate potential risks and dangerous situations in their industry.
Effective policies hold all staff accountable by outlining how to handle critical incidents, creating checks and balances, and establishing disciplinary measures.
Three Pillars of Excellence
Policies and procedures are the starting point for organizational excellence. However, they are not the only piece of the puzzle. The excellence of a law enforcement organization is upheld by three pillars.
If any fail, the chances of that department failing increases.
Policies and procedures guide day-to-day operations, set clear expectations for officers, and guard against liability issues.
Training communicates expectations and teaches employees how to apply policy in real-life situations. Effective training will allow employees to practice regular procedures and prepare them for critical or emergency situations.
Of course, organizations have to follow through on policies and training in order to hold employees accountable.
This doesn’t mean that command staff supervisors have to constantly be looking over officers’ shoulders. But it does mean establishing firm discipline structures.
How to Write Effective Policies and Procedures
Step 1: Get organized
Identify key policies
Not all policies are created equal. Certain policies are more important than others in laying the groundwork for smooth operations. Before you start writing policies and procedures, make a list of all the policies that address national, state, or local laws and regulations.
Identify the high-liability issues in your industry—the issues most likely to land your organization in court. You’ll want to spend more time on these than on others.
Along with high-risk issues, think through expectations and acceptable behavior for different areas of operations. Which procedures are essential for employees to complete correctly?
What incidents has your agency faced in the past? Consider the 80/20 principle. Which 20 percent of your policies will give you 80 percent of your results?
According to the State of Policy in Law Enforcement report, the top ten most important policy topics for law enforcement are:
- Body-worn Cameras
- Sexual Assault
- Social Media
- Use of Force
- Bias-based Policing
- Active Shooter
- Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Begin with the end in mind
Policies need to be clear, focused, and consistent. Before you start writing policies and procedures for a specific area, try to anticipate questions or objections officers may have.
Policies can’t cover every situation, but they should provide clear guidelines and action steps. This means that along with considering the mission and purpose behind policies, you need to consider the following questions:
- How should officers report on this?
- How will this be supervised?
- Can this be investigated?
- Can employees be trained on this?
Thinking through these questions will make sure employees can live out your policy in the real world. Reporting, supervision, investigation, and training make your policy “come to life” and affect the everyday decisions of employees.
Step 2: Find reliable source material
You don’t have to start from scratch when creating a new policy. Policies should be tailored to your agency, but don’t make the mistake of creating them without consulting outside sources.
Accreditation and certification standards
Referring to accreditation standards can help ensure that your policies and procedures follow the best practices in law enforcement.
Accrediting bodies like CALEA often have resources and forums that can help with writing and revising your policies and procedures.
Similar agencies with sample policies
Law enforcement agencies often publish policies online and are more than happy to share their department’s stance on particular issues. These can serve as helpful templates for your own policies. A similar approach is to start with model policies on sites such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Some organizations may even seek input directly from other, similar organizations. In a study conducted by PowerDMS and the Police Foundation, 96 percent of law enforcement agencies surveyed said they sought input from other agencies.
Case law is constantly changing in law enforcement. Therefore, consulting legal experts is a crucial step in risk management. Talking with a lawyer or a representative from an organization such as the ACLU can help you write policies and procedures that keep your officers out of court.
Step 3: Create a policy structure
Build a template
After writing policies and procedures, you’ll want to create a template for the finalized versions of your policies. Each policy should have a similar layout and use the same font.
Having consistent, consistent, professional-looking policies will help your organization’s credibility with future employees and partners and during litigation. Save your policies as PDFs to allow for easy indexing and searching.
Establish a normalized structure
Creating a similar framework for all your policies will help you cover all the necessary aspects of every policy. It will also make policies more consistent and easier for officers to navigate.
A common policy structure might include:
- Purpose statement – What is the policy about?
- Policy statement – What is the policy statement of your organization specific to the topic?
- Definitions – Define terms as you go, especially for words and phrases with multiple meanings. This will make policies as clear as possible and save you from having to argue about definitions in court.
- Procedures – Step-by-step instructions for routine tasks
- Allowed conduct – Guidelines for proper behavior
- Prohibited conduct – Restrictions on employee behavior
- Reporting requirements – What officers need to report after an incident
Step 4: Distribute the policy for feedback
Policies and procedures won’t be perfect on the first shot. After completing the first draft, you’ll need to gather feedback and insights from other leaders in your agencies (specifically, those who will be enforcing the policy stipulations and taking incident reports).
Policies will need to travel up the chain of command so all agency leaders can sign off on them. Gathering notes and changes will help you hone policies so they can best serve your organization.
Some law enforcement administrators print copies of the policy draft and hand it out to leaders. They then collect the notated copies and input the changes in the digital file.
This can be tedious and time-consuming. And since leaders can’t see one another’s notes, they may overlook important points.
With an electronic policy management solution such as PowerDMS, you can easily create a workflow to collaborate on policy drafts. This will automatically send the draft up the chain of command and allow collaborators to see who made which changes.
With PowerDMS, administrators can track where the document is in the process, so the draft never gets stuck or goes missing.
Step 5: Distribute the policy to staff
Once you have the sign-offs from leadership, you need to make sure the new policies make it into the hands of every single officer. This is easier said than done.
You have a few options to distribute policies and procedures to your staff:
“Beginning of shift” physical sign-off
Many administrators send out paper or emailed copies of policies, and then gather employee signatures on a paper sign-off sheet. However, this method provides little accountability and isn’t sufficient for record-keeping.
Sign off sheets can get lost or destroyed. Some officers may forget to sign for policies or note the date.
And leaders have no way of making sure that every employee actually read the policy before signing.
PowerDMS lets you send out policies to every staff member with just the click of a button. You can track employee signatures, schedule automatic reminders, and see timestamps of when each employee read and signed a policy.
With PowerDMS, employees never see conflicting copies of policies and procedures. And you can even create customizable quizzes to test comprehension.