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The real cost of public safety policy management

If your agency chooses to do its public safety policy management in-house, then what unexpected costs could impact your department’s budget?

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Policies are not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

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Every public safety agency needs policies. Whether you’re involved in law enforcement, corrections, the fire service or emergency medical services, having clear and consistent policies is an absolute necessity to help guide department operations and ensure your agency and employees are in compliance with legal requirements and other best practices. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police:

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.

Again, while this quote comes from an authority in law enforcement, it applies in all areas of public safety.

For the past 20 years, Lexipol has provided its public safety customers with current, clearly written, cost-effective policies and procedures. But not every organization sees public safety policy management as a service as the right decision for them. For those considering keeping their policy management in-house, it’s important to understand the associated costs and risks.

When Lexipol onboards new customers, the most common thing we hear from agencies is that they’ve had at least one employee devoting between half-time and full-time to keeping policies up to date. In rare cases, policy managers are hired specifically because of their expertise in managing this critical part of agency management. More frequently, the task of creating and maintaining policy gets assigned based on availability. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hand over policy management and maintenance to someone because they’ve been given desk duty due to injury or for some reason completely unrelated to ability and experience.

The head of one New Jersey-based fire department explained how — even as a deputy chief — he struggled with policy management. “My predecessor tried to revamp the entire policy manual, but it was just too arduous of a task for him to do on his own,” he said. “When I was a deputy, he tried to give some of it to us, and we each wrote a handful, but it was still just too much. It was overwhelming.” That’s a sentiment we frequently hear when we start working with agencies.

There are four important questions department leaders need to ask to help determine whether their internal policy efforts are effective:

  • Do the policies account for new situations, changing attitudes and emerging technologies?
  • Have they been updated and maintained to comport with new legislation and court cases?
  • Are they written clearly enough to be both compliant and practical?
  • Is there a process in place to ensure that additions and revisions get out to the employees who need to know about them?

In many cases, the answers we hear range from “We hope so” to “We have no idea.” Those answers aren’t particularly reassuring — especially if you’re a public safety leader trying to figure out how much your policies are really costing you.

Creating new policy

Say you’re building a new department manual from scratch. Or perhaps you’re updating an existing policy handbook and found a gap — a topic that needs clear policy guidelines but isn’t addressed in your current manual. Where do you go when you need to draft a new policy?

In decades past, it wasn’t uncommon for one agency to simply photocopy another department’s policy notebook. In today’s online age, it’s becoming standard practice for agencies to make their policies available to their employees (and the public) via their department website. This makes policy duplication even easier. But that creates risk. As one agency policy manager noted: “We had taken the approach of getting a policy from another agency, removing their name and adding ours. The policies were not built for our agency.”

Policies are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. If you’ve copied and pasted from an agency in another state, for example, the policy language may follow an entirely different set of laws and regulations than the ones that apply to your department. Also, what works in a small, rural department might be completely inappropriate for a big city agency — and even two similar-sized agencies can have very different staffing structures, values and equipment. It’s dangerous to think that simply having a policy (whether it’s a page in a notebook or on a website) is enough to protect your agency. Policies must be applicable, practical and effective, and staff must be trained to understand and comply.

Possibly the worst way to find out whether a policy works for your agency is to have it put to the test when something goes wrong. The cost of a lawsuit or complying with a consent decree can be devastating.

Responding to legislation

One of the biggest challenges faced with in-house public safety policy management is the task of monitoring and responding to new laws and regulations passed within your jurisdiction. Each will fall into one of three categories:

  • Direct impact on public safety: When your state legislature enacts new legislation meant to change certain things about how your agency operates, it’s possible your state organizations (chiefs of police, sheriffs, fire chiefs, EMS officials) have been involved in drafting the legislative language. When this isn’t the case, special care must be devoted to deciphering the implications.
  • Indirect impact on public safety: Many laws and regulations enacted in your state aren’t specifically targeted toward your agency’s operations, but still apply more generally. These include areas like employment, discrimination, payroll, record-keeping, and so on.
  • No impact on public safety: This describes most legislation passed by state and federal lawmakers. It’s worth noting, though, that some laws contain riders and amendments unrelated to the main focus of a bill, but which are included as part of the “horse trading” that happens during the legislative process. If such a provision is added to an unrelated piece of legislation, it’s still up to each agency to respond with appropriate policy modifications.

So how does an in-house policymaker know whether the statutory language in any given piece of legislation could require a change to your agency’s policy manual? By reading and interpreting the laws. If you’re managing policy in house, that means you must be confident the people maintaining your policies (a) find out about laws as they’re enacted, (b) read the laws being passed, (c) are qualified and informed enough to know when policy changes are needed, and (d) make the changes and inform/train affected employees.

Your agency may find it necessary to subscribe to a legislative alert service to notify you of new laws impacting the way you run your organization. Also, if your department’s leaders or policy manager have questions about how recent legislation may affect policy, you’ll likely need to consult with legal counsel. These services must be factored in when considering the cost of in-house policy maintenance.

Last year, the Lexipol policy team evaluated nearly 12,000 individual pieces of legislation and made hundreds of policy updates as a result. One Lexipol customer commented on the satisfaction that comes from having experts handling their policy changes: “Keeping up to date with changes in legislation and the law is now simple. As soon as there’s a change, we are notified and able to get that change in policy out to our staff right away.”

Responding to court cases

Another area in-house policymakers often find difficult is monitoring and responding to court decisions. As with legislation, most court cases — state and federal, criminal and civil — have zero implications for the policies and procedures at your department. But how does an agency stay on top of the cases that do matter?

As one Nevada-based police captain noted regarding his department’s pre-Lexipol struggles: “Our policies were very behind on legal updates and didn’t reflect the cultural changes happening within law enforcement.” Keeping up to date was like fighting a losing battle: “We tried our best, but for a small agency it’s almost impossible to keep up. It took about 20 to 40 hours of work to review a legislative change or court decision and make it fit in our policy manual.”

If you’re in law enforcement and subscribe to Lexipol’s free Xiphos newsletter, you’re already getting regular case law information that could prompt policy changes. To ensure you’re covering all applicable case law, however, you may need to pay for a service that informs you when a decision is handed down that could impact your department.

At that point, it’s up to you (or the employee you assign the task to) to wade through the alerts, correctly interpret the decisions and make appropriate modifications to your agency’s policies. As with legislative changes, you’ll likely need to get legal advice from your city attorney or other counsel to evaluate the cases and decide whether your proposed changes adequately address them.

Other new developments

While your current policy manual may account for issues that were current five or 10 years ago, what changes in society, standards and technology have occurred since then that need to be accounted for? Here are just a few areas that might not have occurred to you:

  • Community trust: Public perceptions about public safety agencies and first responders have changed considerably over the past several years. What changes related to transparency, community input, public information/relations, and related practices and standards have been made to your agency’s policies to help build (or rebuild) public trust in your department?
  • Mobile phones: As more and more of the services we rely on, both personally and professionally, migrate to app- or online-based processes, have your policies kept up? For example, if you have a “bring your own device” (BYOD) policy in your agency, what steps are being taken to ensure the integrity of work-related data on personal phones? If your agency issues devices, what rules are in place to prevent misuse?
  • Social media: If your agency has a presence on social media, what guidelines are in place to prevent missteps? Has your agency updated its policies regarding employee use of social media, and do the rules you’ve written pass constitutional muster?
  • Opioid epidemic: Has your department considered the implications of opioids and their impact on both your employees and community members? Do your employees carry naloxone, and have they been trained to use it correctly? Do your workers have clear rules to help shield them against accidental exposure to deadly intoxicants?
  • Surveillance technology: New technologies such as facial recognition and unmanned aerial vehicles pose difficult challenges in every facet of public safety. Have you considered the issues, checked the laws in your state and updated your policies to provide “bright line” guidance on how to use this evolving tech?
  • Cybersecurity and cybercrime: Every organization, including yours, is susceptible to being targeted by cybercriminals. Do you have policies and procedures in place to protect your agency’s data and systems from attack? Do your employees have policy guidance on the correct way to safeguard mobile data terminals, mobile devices and other technology? Do you have a training plan to provide periodic updates and reminders?

Staying current

Effective, up-to-date policies are the foundation of any well-run public safety agency. And they don’t come cheap. In the words of Rex Scism, longtime law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol:

Effective policies can make or break an agency. Policy is one of those things we will pay for, one way or the other. We can pay for it now by dedicating the necessary in-house resources to research and development or by procuring policy development and management services from a vendor such as Lexipol. Or we can pay for it later when something goes wrong, resulting in costly litigation and a potentially hefty settlement.

If you’re a public safety leader and you’re evaluating whether to continue maintaining policies within your agency, you’re not alone. Heads of public safety agencies across the nation continue to grapple with the true cost of effective policy management.

As the one Alabama fire chief told us, “Our policies comply with federal and state law and the most up-to-date standards, for both fire and law enforcement. It gives our citizens great peace of mind to know we are operating under national standards of care and coverage for incidents such as traffic accidents, vehicle pursuits, and fire and medical calls.” It’s difficult to put a price tag on peace of mind.

Lexipol’s Content Development staff consists of current and former public safety professionals including lawyers and others who have served as chief, deputy chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, officer, deputy, jail manager, PREA auditor, prosecutor, agency counsel, civil litigator, writer, subject matter expert instructor within public safety agencies, as well as college and university adjunct professor. Learn more about Lexipol’s public safety solutions.