Watch your language: 3 keys to developing the perfect police policy manual

Agencies should be very deliberate in choosing the words and phrases used in their policy manual

Having a policy manual that is carefully thought out is a must for law enforcement agencies. Agencies have an option of writing their own policy manual or adopting one from a vendor that provides that service. Both strategies have their pros and cons, but the choice should be made after careful deliberation over which option best suits the needs and capabilities of the agency. Whether you’re writing or approving policies, there are several things to watch out for.

1. Deviating from the Norm
It is understood that policies can be more restrictive than federal or state requirements in order to cover a specific need to the agency. When deviating from the norm, the agency should be careful not to accidently paint themselves into a litigious corner. For example, in the domain of use of force policies, the agency should make sure that the policies do not conflict with current legal standards, training standards, and basic human performance limitations. Agencies should also be very deliberate in choosing the words and phrases used in the policy manual.

2. Words Have Meaning
When writing a policy, it’s important to remember that certain words are commanding while others are permissive. The following are examples of both:

Commanding/mandatory words: will, must, shall
Permissive/authorizing words: may, should

If the agency policy is using mandatory directions, the agency is expecting the officer to act in that manner exactly (and every time). For example, if a policy states that an officer “shall immediately” do something, then that action is expected to take place immediately without consideration of the totality of the circumstances. Having a policy that does not consider the totality of the circumstances and the real-world conditions that officers operate under will expose the agency to more risk.

3. Make Sure Your Policy Fits Your Department
If your agency is accepting a policy written by an outside vendor, read it before you agree to implement it. This review should not be a casual endeavor; it should be a critical read that includes feedback from various officials within the agency. Just because the suggested policy is written by a person with great credentials does not mean it will exactly fit every agency. Each police agency has slightly different needs and capabilities, your policy should reflect those.

If there is something in the policy that the agency will not be able to reasonably do, rewrite the policy and have the vendor look at the new language. There have already been examples of agencies not critically reviewing these policies prior to implementation and having that policy revisit them — not in a good way — in litigation.

During the discussion of the policy, the decision makers should be asking themselves certain questions:

  • Is this policy in line with our current training standards?
  • Is the policy in line with current industry standards?
  • Does this policy conflict with current legal standards (authorizations and limitations)?
  • Will our personnel be able to conform to this policy under the real world conditions they are operating in?

If the answer to any of the questions above is “no,” an adjustment of the policy language must be made prior to implementation. 

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