Consequences of poor policy management in law enforcement

The challenges of law enforcement today, and what can happen if your agency fails to modernize its policy management practices.

December 29, 2020

Article highlights

  • Agency liability
  • Changing legal requirements
  • Protection against civil lawsuits
  • Prioritizing policy management

As communities around the country consider changes to law enforcement agencies, one key focus area is the training that officers receive and the public safety policies that govern the work officers do.

In any environment, policies and procedures lay the groundwork for a functioning organization. But law enforcement agencies especially benefit by establishing rules and frameworks so that officers can do their jobs effectively, and so that citizens can have faith in their local agencies.

According to, to respond to the challenges of law enforcement today, legal and criminal justice experts say that agencies need to change the way they hire and train new officers. Law enforcement agencies around the country agree.

In the recent State of Policy in Law Enforcement by PowerDMS and the Police Foundation, 93% of law enforcement agencies surveyed said policies were “very important” for ensuring officers understand their duties and perform properly in the field.

But addressing these challenges within law enforcement is easier said than done. First, agencies must establish good policies. But agencies also must train officers in those policies and procedures, and then manage policy updates effectively. 

It is a difficult task, but one that is essential in modern policing.

Challenges of law enforcement today, and their consequences

According to the Best Practices Guide for Developing a Police Department Policy-Procedure Manual from the International Association for Chiefs of Police (IACP):

“The policy and procedures manual is the foundation for all of the department’s operations. 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.”

The State of Policy in Law Enforcement study backs this up. While there are many negative consequences of bad policy management, 99% of respondents cited the following four as the biggest threats to safety: increased agency liability, civil lawsuits, inconsistency in actions, and negative public perception.

Increased agency liability

Looking first at agency liability, we see that poor enforcement of policies means that officers could go out into the field and face dangerous, complex situations without proper training, which leaves agencies vulnerable to liability issues.

Law enforcement risk management expert G. Patrick Gallagher has linked 95% of law enforcement liability to 12 high-risk areas, including:

  • Use of force.
  • Pursuit.
  • Search and seizure.
  • Off-duty conduct.
  • Sexual harassment.

Law enforcement agencies must be proactive in creating policies surrounding these issues, and those policies must lay out clear guidelines to prevent and discipline misconduct. 

To accomplish this while meeting legal requirements and best practices, the IACP recommends looking to a variety of sources when developing your policy manual. Referencing local, state, and federal laws and guidelines is an ideal place to start.

Chip Huth, a senior consultant for The Arbinger Institute and a police major with 30 years of law enforcement experience, recommends also to look at the way other entities operate, including successful businesses and other public agencies. He cited fire departments, which have as the functional framework for all policy, operations, and tactics that the first principle is prevention (to help things go right) rather than reacting to what has gone wrong.

However, the work doesn’t end after an initial round of policy development. The next step is in managing those policies.

Laws and regulations change, court decisions set new precedents, and procedures shift with new technology. Even now, Congress is considering establishing new policy requirements for law enforcement agencies.

In this environment, law enforcement agencies must constantly review and update policies, and then push those policies out to officers and collect quantifiable proof that officers have read those policies and received training.

As your content evolves, document management tools like PowerDMS can be helpful in protecting you from safety issues and litigation.

Our audit trail feature makes certain that your officers have easy access to the latest policy updates. You can also require team members to quickly sign off on these revisions, so you have a permanent record that they viewed critical content updates.

Civil lawsuits

Without hard and fast proof that policy updates occurred and officers received training, agencies are at increased risk of civil lawsuits.

Misconduct from an individual officer often ends with an agency being taken to court. Along with damaging perceptions of law enforcement, civil lawsuits can be costly for taxpayers.

A 2019 ABC News survey of police misconduct cases found that agencies spent at least $300 million dollars in settlements from civil lawsuits that year, taxpayer money that could have been spent in other ways.

Avoiding these sorts of lawsuits starts with preventing misconduct through policy management. That starts with creating and maintaining robust policies, and then communicating them effectively. Officers must be able to read and retain the information you share, otherwise you risk falling out of compliance.

PowerDMS allows you to conveniently train your officers online. This enables them to view your documents and to understand how to apply them in the field. You can also test their knowledge with PowerDMS’ online testing platform for added assurance. As a bonus, with online training, you will save money on classroom rental, paper, and printing costs and instructor fees.

You can’t guarantee that your agency will never face a civil lawsuit, but you can follow best practices so you’ll feel confident that if you face a lawsuit, you’ll be able to prove that your officers are properly trained.

Inconsistent actions

A key aspect of officer training is to create consistency across your organization. If officers respond inconsistently in the field, it can compromise safety and make dangerous situations even worse. Inconsistent policies create inconsistent actions.

Imagine, for example, that because of poor policy management, your agency keeps conflicting copies of a policy on file. That could mean that different officers read different policies, and then respond inconsistently in the field.

That makes it hard for officers to understand and meet expectations, and it can erode community trust if citizens don’t feel that they know how officers will act. That could then further cause damage by weakening relationships between your agency and the community.

Negative public perception

Unfortunately, negative public perception is not an uncommon problem for law enforcement, according to PoliceOne

“Two of the biggest and most important issues facing police agencies and their officers today are litigation and negative public perception,” writes Sgt. Lou Savelli. “Although these two issues are seemingly different they are, in fact, quite connected. With the rise of litigation against those who protect and serve and the increase in negative community perception of these officers and their agencies, the cause is quite alarming.

“Inexcusably, as exposed in numerous court cases and post-incident investigations, a lack of focused policy by police agencies is just that cause.”

When citizens understand the way that officers are trained and the policies that govern their behavior—and when officers are consistent in following this training – it promotes a positive image of your agency and can increase safety in the community. According to the IACP, when people have a positive image of your officers, they are more likely to obey the law.

One key step to creating this consistency is to establish a central, secure location for all policies. This makes it easier to have policies follow the agency’s driving values and not contradict one another.

Trading in your paper documents for a cloud-based solution like PowerDMS centralizes your location. It will also allow you to verify that your officers have seen and signed off on the most updated materials.

Prioritizing policy management

Policy management and safety are inherently linked, according to the IACP.

“Developing, maintaining, and revising a police department’s operations manual is a monumental undertaking. However, if completed properly, the community, its governing authority, chief executive, and department’s staff can be assured their operations are in compliance with current standards. It will ensure staff act in a consistent, professional and legal manner.”

It’s clear that, to deal with the challenges they face, law enforcement agencies must update and evolve. Building up requires having a firm foundation for safety and success, and that foundation is your policies and procedures.

These tools, when applied consistently, prepare your officers to respond to difficult situations in the appropriate way, keep your officers safe, foster trust in the community and protect your agency from unfavorable liability and litigation issues.

Whether you use a paper filing system or a cloud-based software to manage your sensitive documents, focus on creating and maintaining solid policies. Your organization and your community will be better for it.

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

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