Best practices for police policy and procedure manuals

Key tips to help you modernize your department’s policy manual.

July 2, 2021

Article highlights

  • Take your policies and procedures manual online
  • Save money and help the environment
  • Easily make updates to your manual
  • Resources to help you create your manual

Most every police department has a policy manual, but just because you have one doesn’t mean it’s effective. The manual could be lacking, or out of date, or your officers could be unaware of your policies.

An effective police policies and procedures manual can boost safety and increase professionalism. It is a foundational document for operations within any police department, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

“When properly developed and implemented, a policy-procedure manual provides staff with the information to act decisively, consistently, and legally. It also promotes confidence and professional conduct among staff,” writes Chief W. Dwayne Orrick of the Cordele, Georgia, Police Department.

As a leader in your department, it’s your job both to create your policies and procedures manual and then to enforce those guidelines. The process of developing an effective police policies and procedures manual is a complex one. It begins with including the right policies, but the work extends to organizing your content and then communicating it effectively to your officers.

Complex doesn’t have to mean difficult. By following some best practices, creating and communicating a police policy and procedure manual can be easier than you think.

Best practices for your policy and procedure manual

Here are a few important things to think about when developing law enforcement policies of your own.

Move your policies and procedures manual online

Step one in modernizing your department and ensuring maximum compliance is to be open to new ways of operating. One key step would be taking your police policy and procedure manual online.

As more and more departments move toward cloud storage, the old-fashioned method of issuing three-ring binders for officers to store in their vehicles is a thing of the past - and for good reason.

With your department’s policy manual online instead of in a vehicle’s trunk, your officers can access policies and procedures anytime, anywhere from a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. Whether on the field or in the office, they will be able to pull up important documents and search quickly for what they need.

Even more importantly, online storage gives your team access to the most up-to-date policies. You don’t have to print out new pages and go to each officer, replacing pages in a binder. 

Instead, you can simply update and revise your policies while collaborating with multiple users, track changes or comments, and create a more seamless review cycle than with a printed manual. 

Those changes then can be pushed automatically to all users. Your officers will be able to spend more time focused on their jobs rather than sorting documents.

Additionally to those benefits, you’ll save costs by not printing out new copies and help the environment. To date, PowerDMS customers have saved over 229,000 trees and $57 million in paper costs.

Make policies legally defensible

Moving your policy and procedure manual online makes it easier to make it accessible to the public. Some states require law enforcement agencies to put their policy manuals online.

Using the PowerDMS sharing tool, you can easily change the visibility of a document, making it available to the public. By sharing information, this helps your community to better understand your operations and to know why officers react the way that they do in certain circumstances.

This culture of transparency with those you serve can go a long way toward building trust.

Keep procedures current

In the PowerDMS 2018 State of Policy report, we gathered data from more than 340 law enforcement officers regarding a number of policy and training topics. Not surprisingly, we found that the majority of police departments value consistent updates to policy manuals.

While 73% of respondents said that policies should be reviewed and updated constantly, only 48% do it annually - or even less often. And 5% never review or update their manual.

With laws always changing, a department that is slow to update its policies could quickly find itself out of compliance. And if officers aren’t adhering to the most recent laws because they haven’t been given updated policies, that puts them and the department at risk from litigation.

Risk prevention and management are two crucial aspects of building effective policy manuals.

With solid policies at the core of your department, you can take great strides toward making sure your organization is in a legally defensible position. 

When building out or updating your policies, you should consider involving legal experts, such as lawyers or representatives from the ACLU. They can help verify that your policies meet all legal requirements.

Other available resources to turn to as you create or update your manual include accreditation standards or sample policies from other states.

The first step is to create a strong policy and procedure manual, but it’s equally important to continue to update frequently. Because technology changes so quickly, you may even have to update your procedures more frequently than your actual policies.

One way of doing this is to schedule a regular review of your procedures to look for outdated processes. You will also want to update language and references to irrelevant technology. All of this will protect you from liability issues down the road.

Notify officers of policy and procedure changes

Every time you update your policy and procedure manual, your team needs to know. Sending out e-notifications is crucial. But you also need to highlight exactly what has and hasn’t changed.

Your officers don’t have time to re-read your whole manual every time you update a single procedure.

Online software like PowerDMS will show your officers a comparison, highlighting what you updated or removed.

Create an implementation plan

You can’t simply hand officers a policy manual and expect them to stay current with every change that occurs. Part of an effective manual is creating an implementation plan around it.

A proactive plan creates certainty that every time an update is made, you know that everyone who needs to see the change will do so.

This can reduce liability for your department, because it creates proof that shows you have done everything you can to make sure officers know how to comply in a given situation.

Develop a training plan

They key to making sure officers know how to comply is by ensuring that they’ve undergone the necessary training. And to make sure all officers are compliant, a training plan is a great tool to utilize.

Thankfully, online training makes this process much easier. Keep in mind not every policy or procedure change needs formal, classroom training. 

In fact, in-person training may be a waste of resources in some cases. Some policies may just need a mention at roll call or a short, online presentation. Others need more thorough, scenario-based training.

Either way, make planning training a regular part of your policy-review process to feel confident that your officers know how to act on your standards.

Test for comprehension

Another alternative to costly, formal in-person training is to send out short quizzes or tests about aspects of the policy manual to see how well your officers know what to do.

This keeps your officers informed of your policies, but in a much quicker and more cost-effective way. 

Tools like PowerDMS allow you to customize tests so your officers can quickly demonstrate their knowledge. And if, during testing, you see that officers consistently struggle with a particular subject or policy, it can help to identify gaps where you might need more training or clearer policy language.

Track officer attestation

A tool like PowerDMS allows your team to not only review new documents more easily, but also to sign off on them. Simply viewing documents isn’t enough for compliance standards. They must be read and understood.

By tracking signatures, you also provide a legal defense for your department. If you can push documents to your officers and prove that they have read and signed off on those documents, you demonstrate your agency’s commitment to compliance.

A complex task made easy

As we’ve seen, creating an effective police policies and procedures manual is a complex task. It requires you to build out a strong, well researched manual, to update it regularly, to push those updates to officers, and to know that officers understand those updates.

It’s also a unique manual to your department, one that will evolve over time, requiring vigilant updates and revisions.

But this daunting task is achievable by following best practices and utilizing available tools.

An effective policy is a reflection of your agency’s mission. When you have that end goal in mind, you’ll have created a strong foundation for your officers in their work to protect and serve your community.

View more on the subject in our comprehensive guide to policy management in law enforcement.

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