Writing effective policies and procedures in law enforcement

What you need to know to develop a legally defensible policy and procedure manual and set your department up for excellence.

December 29, 2020

Article highlights

Policies and procedures are the foundation of any law enforcement agency.

These are the rules and guidelines that direct you and your officers in the way that you respond to the challenging situations that arise in the line of duty. Think of them as a compass, one that points toward safety and professionalism.

It is essential, then, that you create the most effective guide possible. This will improve safety and create a strong culture for your team, while paving the way for successful outcomes and even increasing trust with the citizens you serve.

Before beginning to craft your own law enforcement policies and procedures, it’s important that you understand the difference between the two terms. In our article What’s The Difference Between Policies and Procedures, we explain the basics.

In short, policies are larger guidelines and rules, while procedures are instructions laying out how to carry out particular tasks (within the framework of the policies). Policies tell you what to do while procedures tell you how to do it.

Now that you know these terms, there’s one more important aspect to consider before getting started. Your law enforcement policy manual will only be effective if you can put it into action and make sure that your staff adheres to it.

So, with that in mind, 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.”

This article will guide you through the work of creating that framework and putting your department on a safe, sustainable, and effective course.

Best practices for policy manuals

Creating a law enforcement policy and procedure manual may seem like an overwhelming task. Rather than jumping right into the details of it, it’s helpful at the start to look at the structure of what you’re trying to create and build out a process and workflow, breaking the task apart into achievable segments.

We’ll dig into specific tactics below, but we also summarize five key pieces of advice in our article Writing Policies and Procedures: Best Practices for Law Enforcement. The key takeaways are:

  • Get organized.
  • Find reliable source material.
  • Create a structure.
  • Distribute policies for feedback.
  • Distribute policies to staff.

Now that you’re ready to get going, here is how you can start this process.

Form a policy development team

Creating policies is a big job, and you need your whole agency to buy into it. Before you get into the work, first determine who needs to be involved.

Think about those in your department who have the perspective and experience that will matter most while writing legally defensible policies and procedures. You also need to identify the decision makers who will need to contribute and sign off. Once you’ve identified these individuals, schedule a kickoff meeting with them to begin the collaboration.

Our guidebook, Beginner’s Guide to Policy Management, encourages departments to form a diverse team.

“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.”

While you want a variety of perspectives, this team should come together in agreement on the direction and purpose of the manual. It will help you to have a variety of input as you review existing policies and begin developing new ones.

Identify and prioritize policies

Once you’ve formed your team, a good next step is to meet and discuss your department’s core values and standards. If you already have these written down on paper, that’s great. If not, you can write them down now to build them into your manual.

Next, you’ll want to discuss the goals for the manual, the responsibilities it will cover, and the obligations it will establish for your department. As you answer these questions, use that information to create an outline.

During this stage, 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. Though you will want to consider if any are outdated.

This is also the perfect time to begin capturing all of this information and storing it in one place, in one format. Our Beginner’s Guide to Policy Management contains some practical tips for tackling this work.

“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.”

One final consideration is to create a balance between being as strict as possible with leaving some wiggle room for unusual circumstances that inevitably will arise. Our article Developing Constitutional and Effective Policies goes into this in more depth.

Create legally defensible policies and procedures

Cities have spent more than $3 billion to settle misconduct lawsuits over the past decade, mostly on cases related to law enforcement. While you can never completely shield your department from lawsuits, you can create a law enforcement policy and procedure manual that will protect you and your officers from the liability of 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 says a “lack of focused policy by police agencies” is a primary cause for litigation and negative public perception.

As it says in our beginner's guidebook, a first step in creating legally defensible policies and procedures is to make a list of all relevant national and state rules, regulations, and laws. Write your policies to those standards to make sure you’re in compliance.

Second, make an outline that focuses in on expectations and acceptable behavior. This is a good time to examine any specific incidents that happened in the past that weren’t covered by the rules you already had in place. 

It’s important to address all of these questions and issues on your first attempt, so that you don’t have multiple policies and changes in the works. This should be encompassing, including everything from workplace cell-phone usage to sexual harassment.

As Marty Drapkin writes in his article Training Staff On Policies and Procedures, “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.”

Format policies consistently

When asked what makes policies ineffective, the PowerDMS Policy Summit panel of experts agreed that one key reason is a “lack of clarity and structure when it comes to key guiding principles.”

Policies only work if they’re usable on a day-to-day basis and if your officers can comprehend them. This means structuring your policies in a clear, consistent, and organized way, and writing them using consistent and relatable language.

This can mean different things for different departments, so there is no “one size fits all” solution. Instead, focus on the culture of your department and create a plan for consistency in tone, organization, and basic structure. A simple approach that pays dividends is to create one template for each policy, so that each one matches.

Your ultimate goal is compliance, so the structure should be obvious and easy to navigate. Once you have all of your policies, establish an index to create an easy-to-search hierarchy. Other things to consider include a glossary of keywords, a purpose statement to guide the document, permitted and prohibited behavior, and training and reporting requirements.

Balance between moral and legal obligations

When you create policies, you are informing the decisions your officers will make in the line of duty. Sometimes these decisions are straightforward, but there are times where a choice could be the legal one but not the moral one.

Our experts write in Developing Constitutional and Effective Policies that a healthy law enforcement 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. 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 address community standards and meet basic legal requirements.

Support policies with training

As you finish creating your policies and procedures, keep in mind that your manual itself isn’t enough. Training and supervision are two essential aspects of 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.”

Without proper training, your officers won’t be prepared to follow your policies when it matters most, such as in a situation where lives are at stake.

This means that training and supervision standards are a critical component of making sure that your department meets compliance. You can write the training plans into your policies and procedures, so that it is all part of one plan from the very beginning.

This takes the form of a documentation system. To create one, you need to lay out a plan by which management and training staff will educate and train officers on new and updated policies, and how you will document that this training has occurred.

Review and final editing

Once your policies are complete, it’s time for a final review. At this stage, you’ll want to proofread for errors (or bring in a freelance copy editor) and check to make sure the policies are clearly worded. 

One final check off is to again compare them to federal and state guidelines to make sure they are in compliance. This is one more layer of work, but it’s an essential stage that could make the difference in protecting your agency from lawsuits or other employment or administrative issues.

This process is a great time to bring in subject matter experts, including lawyers, supervising staff, and collective bargaining units. They will be able to spot aspects of your policies that relate directly to their expertise and can ward off potential problems.

Pay close attention to aspects of the manual that relate to accreditation requirements, as well as legal standards and best practices. This might require some rewriting, but it’s worth the effort to protect yourself on the front end rather than face legal problems later.

Distributing policies to staff

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 that users can find what they need quickly. The last thing you want in an emergency situation is your officers forced to flip through stacks of paper.

Electronic, cloud-based storage is one option that keeps your policies available to officers any time, anywhere, on any device. If you choose this type of policy management software, be sure to train all those who need to use it.

Three pillars of excellent law enforcement

Even after your law enforcement policies and procedures are finished, keep in mind that they’re most effective as a living document, one that is ingrained into the life of your department, and also one that grows and changes as is needed.

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.”

For more best practices in maintaining your policy manual, check out this article that lays out some essential advice. 

It’s also important to remember that policies and procedures are just the starting point for organizational excellence. The excellence of a law enforcement organization is upheld by three pillars. If any fail, the chances of that department failing increases.

Policy

Policies and procedures guide day-to-day operations, set clear expectations for officers, and guard against liability issues.

Training

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.

Supervision/accountability

Of course, organizations have to follow through on policies and training in order to hold employees accountable. This means creating firm discipline structures while giving officers the space they need to do their jobs effectively.

Writing specific law enforcement policies

Within contemporary law enforcement agencies, there are needs to handle specific issues that likely were not covered in policies in the past. This is a good reminder that as technological and social changes occur, you must update your law enforcement policy manual to keep up with the times.

Here are a few of the areas that you might want to look at for specific policy focus:

Body Cameras

Body cameras have become nearly ubiquitous in law enforcement. If your department uses body cameras or plans to use them, you’ll want to cover this in your policies.

When doing so, remember to focus on the purpose of using cameras, the policies that affect them, and the procedures that guide officers on how to use them. For more information, read our article Writing Your Department’s Body Worn Camera Policy.

Social Media

We live in the age of social media. Chances are that most of your officers use it in one form or another. This can be a good tool, or a social outlet. But it can also lead to officers getting negative attention for something they shared online.

A policy on social media should cover both your department’s own social media accounts, dictating what is OK to share and what should not be shared. It also can serve as a guide for officers about what is and isn’t appropriate for them to share on social accounts.

For more information, check out our article Writing Your Department’s Social Media Policy.

Drones

Another key piece of new technology used in law enforcement are unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones. In our article Writing Your Department’s Drone Policy, we offer some advice on what you need to consider as you craft guidelines.

This includes being clear about how you will and won’t use drones and taking citizens’ privacy into account.

LGBTQ Policies

Your officers will encounter LGBTQ-identifying people in the course of their work, and you can take proactive steps to prepare them to address those individuals in a responsible and respectful way.

In our article Writing Effective Police Policies for Transgender People, we guide you through some of the considerations you’ll want to make. One critical step is to involve members of the community, so that they can educate and aid you in the process. This also helps to build trust with the citizens you serve.

Getting started

By now, you should have a solid grasp on the law enforcement policy development work that lies ahead. It’s a big task, but one that is necessary in modern policing.

As we laid out, remember that you can make this process easier by creating a strong plan at the beginning, and by tackling it stage by stage, with a strong team there to support you along the way.

If you need help in any specific areas, please visit the other articles on this topic to learn more about this important work you’re undertaking.

Or take a step back and learn more about policy management in law enforcement, as well as other important topics.

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Law Enforcement Guide to Policy Development

Law Enforcement Guide to Policy Development

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