12 crucial law enforcement policies

Read our guide to the 12 key law enforcement policies that promote professionalism and safety. Learn how PowerDMS simplifies policy administration.

December 22, 2020

Police officers have a dangerous job, making snap decisions that can sometimes have a life-or-death impact. Their mission is to serve and protect their local community, but it's often a community that's indifferent, if not hostile, to their efforts. Any law enforcement agency that sends its officers into the street without proper training and guidance is setting them up for failure.

Providing officers with effective law enforcement policies is just one piece of the puzzle in helping them succeed in their roles. Law enforcement policies set criteria and establish expectations for professional and ethical conduct. They equip officers with the tools to make the best decisions in a situation or even relieve them of the need to make a judgment they're not sure about. Law enforcement policies also promote accountability for their actions, which can greatly help build trust between the police and their communities.

These days, policies are under increased scrutiny from the public, the media, and the courts. When an incident arises, they're searching for gaps in policy or lack of policy altogether. And when a problem or a lawsuit comes up, the lawyers and the courts will review your law enforcement policies to see if an officer was warranted in their response or not. If there are no policies to address that specific situation, your agency and your officer have no defense. 

There are 12 rather important law enforcement policies that every law enforcement agency should create, no matter whether it's a major metropolis, or a very small town with a few hundred residents.

1. Law enforcement drone policy

What are drones?

A drone is any aircraft that flies without a pilot or passengers. It's remotely controlled and can be used by a hobbyist shooting aerial photography, by the military for long-range reconnaissance and attacks, by companies like Amazon for delivery purposes, and by the police for searches and surveillance.

Why does law enforcement need drone policies?

There are several federal and state regulations on the use of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration has passed several new regulations on drone use this year, including the Operations Over People Rule, and they are the ones that can grant recreational and commercial drone pilot's licenses. Many states also have their own laws about drone use. If your law enforcement agency uses drones, you're required to follow all state and federal regulations, as well as regulate civilians' use.

However, there are groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of civilians that have concerns about the police using armed drones against civilians or using them for surveillance purposes. A drone policy can help alleviate many of those concerns: Citizens need to trust that law enforcement will use drones to keep people safe, not spy on them, and your policy can help build that trust.

What makes a good drone policy?

A good law enforcement drone policy will establish the purpose and parameters for using drones in your law enforcement operations. It needs to address the laws, regulations, and proper procedures, and to establish how much surveillance is acceptable, as well as how long you will keep surveillance images and video footage.

You can learn more about writing a drone policy for your department here.

2. Law enforcement social media policy

What is a social media policy?

A social media policy establishes guidelines around your staff’s use of social media accounts.

Roughly 70% of Americans use social media, and people under 30 especially use Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook. We've seen many instances where law enforcement agencies use social media to communicate directly with citizens and gather information about suspects and crimes. But people are paying close attention to the things your officers are posting on their personal accounts, and they can do major damage to your department's reputation with a single post.

Why does law enforcement need a social media policy?

Your officers have their own social media accounts that they use in their personal time. And if one of them posts the wrong thing – something confidential, racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive – it can be picked up and spread across the internet and through the media. That can damage any goodwill you've created with your community.

While you can't entirely control what your officers post on their personal accounts outside of work, your social media policy can certainly create guidelines and expectations of their personal integrity. There are already codes of conduct and behavior that they have to follow, so your agency should be able to set those same parameters for online behavior.

Your policy should also state what your department can and should post in an official capacity, For example, some states are even passing laws about what law enforcement agencies can post on social media. In July 2021, California passed a law prohibiting law enforcement agencies from posting mugshots on social media.

What are some elements of a good social media policy?

Your law enforcement social media policy should cover both official departmental use of social media, as well as personal social media use. It should also state who can post on behalf of the department. Since many governmental social media posts are considered official public communications, there may be laws about what you can and cannot delete.

You can learn more about a law enforcement social media policy here.

3. Narcan policy for law enforcement

What is Narcan/naloxone?

Narcan is the brand name of the drug naloxone, which is a prescription medicine used to treat someone and save them from a known or suspected opioid overdose, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine. If the person is having difficulty breathing, is sleepy, or is unable to respond, someone can give them a dose of Narcan and block the effects of the opioids and reduce the overdose symptoms.

Why does law enforcement need a Narcan/naloxone policy?

Law enforcement officers and first responders now carry naloxone, which was usually administered by injection, but is now available in a nasal spray. The FDA has also approved generic versions of naloxone and recently approved uses of higher dosages to help fight opioid overdoses.

Because it's now easier to use, many more police departments have begun using Narcan. However, it doesn't cure addiction, which means officers may find that they are using naloxone on the same person more than once.

Also, while most states allow police to use Narcan, some states do not. A law enforcement Narcan policy should comply with state and local laws, as well as Good Samaritan laws that protect overdose victims or bystanders who administer naloxone from prosecution.

What are some elements of a good Narcan/naloxone policy?

A Narcan policy should include a basic overview of drug abuse and addiction, how to recognize the symptoms of overdose, when and how to administer it, what dosage is necessary, how to work with people coming out of an overdose, and what to do once the subject is stabilized (i.e., follow up with emergency medical services, addiction referral programs, and so on).

You can learn more about a law enforcement Narcan policy here.

4. Law enforcement body camera policy

What is a body camera?

A body camera, or body-worn camera (BWC), is a camera that an officer wears to record interactions with the public and suspects. Departments around the U.S. have adopted body cameras to increase police accountability. Studies have shown that body cameras can reduce excessive force incidents, reduce complaints against officers, and even cause civilians to moderate their behavior.

Why does law enforcement need a body camera policy?

There have been too many news stories of officers that turned off their body cameras before managing a situation or dealing with an individual. A clear policy will protect officers from accusations of misusing BWCs or violating privacy. It also ensures that BWC use follows the laws and regulations and that they're helpful rather than a burden.

What are some elements of a good BWC policy?

A good body camera policy should outline when officers are expected to turn cameras on or off. It should specify the limits of recording victims, witnesses, and private situations. It should also cover how long the department will keep videos, whether officers can view the video before writing a report, and when the department will release videos to the media and the public.

You can learn more about a law enforcement body camera policy here.

5. Policing the mentally ill

Policing people with a mental illness is one of the biggest challenges facing the police today. Because of budget cuts to mental health facilities and services, more people with mental illnesses are left to their own devices and are often struggling just to survive. Many are homeless and have addiction issues.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 43.8 million adults in the U.S. struggle with mental illness each year. Nearly 10 million have an illness that interferes with major life activities. People with mental illness aren't necessarily more prone to violent behavior than anyone else, but when someone is in a mental health crisis, bystanders often call 9-1-1.

If officers don't have the proper training or guidance, interactions can often escalate, which puts everyone in danger. And studies have found that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other suspects. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that one-quarter of police shootings that year involved people "in the throes of emotional or mental crisis."

In most of the cases, the individual was armed, but police weren't responding to a crime. Instead, they had been called by relatives, neighbors, or bystanders "worried that a mentally fragile person was behaving erratically. More than 50 people were explicitly suicidal."

As a result, many departments have begun teaching officers to recognize the signs of mental illness and best practices for policing the mentally ill. They include tactics like crisis intervention training, crisis intervention team (CIT), and de-escalation. They're also revisiting and revising their use-of-force policies, and partnering with the local mental health community.

You can learn more about policing the mentally ill here.

6. Law enforcement use-of-force policy

What is a use-of-force policy?

A law enforcement use-of-force policy states how much physical and deadly force an officer may use when dealing with a potential suspect or a general member of the public. This policy establishes appropriate levels of force when dealing with subjects who resist arrest, act aggressively, are potentially or actually armed, or threatening to harm someone.

Why does law enforcement need a use-of-force policy?

Use-of-force is one of the most crucial policies for law enforcement because officers have to make split-second decisions about how to protect themselves and the public. Incidents can escalate quickly, and officers need to know how to respond with the right amount of force to bring a situation under control.

Use-of-force incidents are one of the most high-liability areas for law enforcement and result in thousands of lawsuits every year filed against police departments. And the U.S. Supreme Court has made it even easier for people to sue police for excessive force. So it's imperative that your department has an up-to-date use-of-force policy on the books and officers are regularly trained on it.

What are some elements of a good use-of-force policy?

Your use-of-force policy should define levels of force, including what constitutes deadly force. It should detail weapons use, de-escalation tactics, and spell out what is appropriate and inappropriate uses of force.

You can learn more about a law enforcement use-of-force policy here.

7. Understanding the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force

What is the National Consensus Policy on use of force?

In 2017, a group of law enforcement leadership organizations released their National Consensus Policy on Use of Force, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association, to name a few. 

The collaboration began as a way to provide guidance for law enforcement agencies to improve their own use-of-force policies and includes a section on de-escalation and less-lethal force, as well as justifications for lethal force.

What does it do?

First and foremost, it stresses the need to "value and preserve human life." In doing so, it instructs officers to use only the amount of force necessary to regain control of an incident, as judged from the perspective of the officer involved. It gives officers license to use force "only when no reasonably effective alternative appears to exist."

However, it does limit the level of force to that which a "reasonably prudent officer" would use in a similar case.

What are some of the elements?

  • It provides guidelines for every incident that involves the use of force, and it instructs officers to stop using force once the incident is under control.
  • It says officers should not use force against people who are restrained unless necessary to prevent bodily harm or to prevent them from escaping.
  • It encourages accountability and says officers should stop other officers from using excessive force when it's safe to do so.
  • It admonishes agencies to document and investigate all use-of-force incidents.
  • It spells out the minimum effective action and details the scale of force, including de-escalation, less-lethal force, and deadly force.

You can learn more about the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force here.

8. Communicable disease policy in law enforcement

What is a communicable disease policy?

A communicable disease policy sets the standards for how police officers will deal with people who might expose them to a communicable disease. It should explain the most common diseases and the steps officers need to take to protect themselves against possible infection.

A communicable disease policy is designed to protect law enforcement officers as well as the public by minimizing the risk of exposure and educating police about possible methods of transmission. In a time of COVID-19, the risk is even greater of getting a life-threatening or debilitating illness.

Why does law enforcement need a communicable disease policy?

Since law enforcement officers interact with the public in a number of different settings, whether subduing a suspect, making an arrest, writing a ticket, or a simple conversation, there are myriad ways officers can become infected with bloodborne and airborne illnesses. 

The more times they interact with the public, the greater the risk. Plus, there's a greater chance they can bring that same illness into the station house, sharing it among fellow officers and civilian employees.

What are some elements of a communicable disease policy?

Your communicable disease policy should have input from experts like your local hospital and EMT leaders – research their communicable disease policies, as well as those from neighboring police agencies. Borrow definitions, contagions, and procedures from those policies and tailor them to fit your own agency.

Your policy should also contain information from CDC, OSHA, and NIOSH on communicable diseases for the workplace. Many law enforcement communicable disease policies contain language and information from those three organizations.

You can learn more about communicable disease policies in law enforcement here.

9. Law enforcement active shooter response policy

What is an active shooter response policy?

An active shooter policy details the steps responding officers should take when dealing with a gunman (or gunmen) who are shooting people in a public setting. It details the agency's response to the shooter, sets up an incident command, and provides roles for all first responders who arrive on the scene.

It answers questions like the number of officers needed to enter a building, who is in charge, how do you decide which roles are important, and what should be done as other officers arrive? 

Why does law enforcement need an active shooter response policy?

The policy should take you step-by-step, in chronological order, through the entire response scenario, beginning with the first 911 call through to the after-action debriefing and additional training.

This policy needs to be developed ahead of time because you don't have time to figure out your deployment and dispatching strategies when a mass shooting begins. The more detailed your policy can be, the better. It starts with the dispatcher getting the call, details how the first officer should respond, how to search for the subject, what to do for the injured people, establishing a perimeter, and so on. Because this is a high-stress, very intense situation, spell out as many steps as possible beforehand to remove any kind of guesswork or arguing over possible strategies.

If you can imagine 50 officers responding from different districts, cities, counties, etc., you'll understand why having this policy in place is important.

What are some elements of an active shooter response policy?

Each policy should include many of the same elements, regardless of the city, county, or region. There may be differences due to location, size of the city, and size of the force, but they should all have some elements in common.

The policy should include several major steps, including (but not limited to) situation assessment, individual officer intervention and response, rescue task forces, incident command, and community notification.

It should also include sections on debriefing and additional training.

You can learn more about a law enforcement active shooter policy here.

10. Law enforcement pursuit policy

What is a pursuit policy?

A law enforcement pursuit policy establishes the parameters for a police officer to engage in a high-speed car chase of a suspect. It deals with a dynamically unfolding, high-liability situation where a lot of damage can be caused by the driver fleeing and the officer's response during the pursuit.

For that reason, most pursuit policies prohibit any kind of high-speed pursuit unless the suspect has committed a violent crime or is in danger of committing a violent crime. Officers are instead urged to use detection methods to catch the suspect later. Some policies use a logic-based decision tree, others allow the officer's best judgment, and still, others require supervisor approval and monitoring.

Why does law enforcement need a pursuit policy?

Many high-speed pursuits are determined to be unjustifiable, especially when many of them result in accidents, injuries, and deaths. Those pursuits (and even the justifiable ones) lead to more lawsuits being filed against different police departments as a result.

What are some elements of a good pursuit policy?

A pursuit policy is usually written in chronological order and explains what goes into a decision-making process. It should include guidance in terms of road and traffic conditions, the weather, and the condition of the suspect's vehicle.

Plus, each department may have its own particular details to contend with, such as what kinds of vehicles can make pursuits, whether an unmarked vehicle can engage, and whether it should break off pursuit once a marked vehicle joins.

You can learn more about a law enforcement pursuit policy here.

11. Law enforcement racial profiling policy

What is a racial profiling policy?

A racial profiling policy, also called bias-based policing policy, sets the tone for your agency and officers about what's expected of them when it comes to dealing with people of a different race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation. It sets the standards for what is expected of your officers and what the department will not tolerate.

The policy says that officers may not use race, color, ethnicity, or national origin as the motivating factor for enforcement action. Most accreditation commissions require that a law enforcement agency has a formal racial profiling policy.

Why does law enforcement need a racial profiling policy?

First, it enhances trust and cooperation between the community and its police force. Second, it reduces liability and prevents lawsuits. The cost of the racial profiling lawsuits filed across the country is in the millions of dollars.

Police departments are considered high-risk, high-liability organizations, so your insurance agency already thinks you're at higher risk for a lawsuit. But without liability insurance, your agency could be sued into bankruptcy or worse. When cities in California, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee lost their liability insurance, they chose to disband their police departments entirely.

What are some elements of a good racial profiling policy?

One of the most important elements of a racial profiling policy is the language used in prohibiting using race, color, national origin, or ethnicity as the motivating factor for officers interacting with an individual. 

The policy should also include training, both online and in-person. Training shows that you're trying to promote diversity and that your police standards are fair and impartial.

You can learn more about a law enforcement racial profiling policy here.

12. Law enforcement take home car policy

What is a take home car policy?

A take home car program allows a police officer to take their assigned vehicle home with them at the end of each shift, and to drive it for off-duty use. It's a way to avoid putting mileage and wear on their own vehicles.

There are critics of the program, however, especially when officers are found to abuse the program. A take home car policy can reduce some of these complaints by showing you're committed to your officers using the vehicles responsibly. Plus it establishes parameters of acceptable use and details consequences for misuse.

Why does law enforcement need a take home car policy?

A take home car policy protects the department from certain issues. It establishes who's responsible for insurance coverage while commuting to and from work or during off-duty hours, establishes standards for representing the agency, and sets rules for things like speeding, maintenance, cleaning, and responding to an incident or emergency.

The take home vehicle is just as conspicuous as a uniform, and the driver is representing the department. Even if the officer were off-duty and wearing civilian clothes, if he or she is speeding or driving recklessly, they can create PR problems for the department.

What are some elements of a good take home car policy?

Your policy should cover what is or isn’t allowed while operating a take home car, as well as the conditions in which someone can have one, and how to be proactive in terms of operations, maintenance, and responding to an emergency. It should also establish restrictions to off-duty driving; whether family members can ride; and dress code while driving off-duty.

You can learn more about a law enforcement take home car policy here.

Final thoughts

There are more than these 12 law enforcement policies, but these are the biggest, most important ones we've seen in the last couple of years. You only have to read the news to see the importance of policies like active shooter response, high-speed pursuits, policing the mentally ill, use of force, and take home vehicles.

PowerDMS has spent decades helping police departments navigate these tricky waters and create policies that guide their officers, give their communities peace of mind, and re-establish a sense of trust between the department and the community.

Read more today about how policy management software can help your organization function at its best.

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