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Don’t overlook the good to root out the bad

Guardian Tracking software highlights positive reinforcement to encourage good officers to stay


Sponsored by Guardian Tracking

By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

Today’s law enforcement officers are subject to unprecedented scrutiny and demands for accountability. While the vast majority of LEOs serve the public with honor and professionalism, recent events have shown that the misdeeds of even one bad cop can instantly cast aspersions on the entire profession and unravel trust with the public that could take years to rebuild.

It's important to acknowledge positive behaviors of good police officers in order to keep them in the profession. (image/Getty)
It's important to acknowledge positive behaviors of good police officers in order to keep them in the profession. (image/Getty)

Mounting pressure, videos showing officers misusing their authority and repeated exposure to the worst of humanity can take a toll on even the most honorable and resilient of officers.

No police officer – and, in fact, no employee of any sort – appreciates being branded with the same scarlet letter as those who are performing to less-than-ideal standards.

Yet, all too often the bad cops get the lion’s share of attention and resources and the good serve without recognition of their value or heroism. Not feeling valued by their organization is the top reason employees ­in any profession change jobs. In law enforcement, where recruiting and retaining quality talent is already a challenge, agencies can’t afford to take the human need to feel valued for granted.

Police1 and Calibre Press recently conducted a survey of 10,000 officers. Nearly 36% of respondents said if they had it to do over, they would not enter law enforcement. Only 7.2% said they would recommend police work to a son or daughter. Clearly this is not a sustainable trajectory if police departments are going to retain valued officers.

The power of positive reinforcement

A key factor in restoring trust between police and the people they serve is to make sure agencies retain those officers who are modeling good behavior. Acknowledging good work is a key first step.

“No one dislikes a bad cop more than good cops”, says Mike Reed, a 31-year law enforcement veteran who spent over 20 of those years supervising and managing employee performance. Reed and fellow officer Leon Wasilewski led the effort within their agency to gain accreditation through The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA) that confirms an agency’s commitment to continuous development and the professional delivery of public safety services.

“Unfortunately, most agencies document by crisis”, says Wasilewski. All too often organizations focus on mitigating liability, thus documenting negative behavior while overlooking the positive. 

“When I first became a sergeant and I began reviewing officers’ files to familiarize myself with any background issues.  I was shocked that most of the documentation was negative,” said Reed.  “For example, a 20-year veteran might have four negative incidents documented and basically nothing else –painting a negative picture of the employee’s entire career. That’s four negative things over 20 years. Where are all the positives, where all the contributions to the organization and to the community? Those positive events had to have occurred but were never documented. A few negative incidents shouldn’t define a career.”

Traveling around the country as assessors for CALEA, Reed and Wasilewski learned that other departments experienced the same issues.  They realized there was a need for a better way of tracking officer performance.  They understood that recognizing, celebrating and documenting performance was the most effective way to get desirable behaviors to continue.

“What we realized when it came to things like evaluations, supporting evaluation scores, and early intervention systems, everybody had a policy that looked great on paper,” said Wasilewski. “But in reality, they were difficult to manage. For an example, an early warning system often consisted of someone making check marks on an Excel spreadsheet to see if an intervention was needed.” 

That’s how the idea for Guardian Tracking came about. The software records and maintains employee performance documentation while flagging possible behavior patterns for evaluation and intervention.

“What we've learned over our 60 years of collective law enforcement experience, and the many wonderful relationships we have built over our twelve years with Guardian Tracking, is that proper documentation, contemporary to an event, that is shared with the employee is powerful,” Reed adds. “It's true leadership.”

Redirect behavior with early intervention

Understandably, much of the focus around officer performance today is to identify problem or struggling officers before their minor transgressions escalate. This trend is driving many law enforcement agencies to implement early intervention or warning systems to identify concerns about an individual or group at the earliest possible stage so that proactive intervention and support can be provided. The goals are to prevent the need for disciplinary action and to redirect behavior and performance toward agency goals.

By many estimates, 90% of any supervisor or manager’s time is spent with the 10% of employees who underperform. While there is justifiable emphasis on identifying problem officers early and setting them on a corrective course, it shouldn’t be done at the expense of the majority of officers who are doing the right thing.

Guardian Tracking is much more than an early intervention system. It’s a leadership tool used to promote officer safety, satisfaction and wellness.

That’s what makes Guardian Tracking different from other performance tracking software.

“We wanted to give people an easy way to say we’re not going to ignore low performance. We’re still going to provide direction to our low performers to help them improve. However, we’re also going to make sure that high performers are recognized and understand their efforts make a difference,’” said Wasilewski.

While Wasilewski and Reed believe that the best form of early intervention is an informed and engaged servant leader, the goal of Guardian Tracking is to provide a tool to help promote a positive and professional atmosphere within the organization.

“Guardian Tracking is not just about developing non-supervisory personnel. It is about developing people at every level in the organization,” said Wasilewski. “In other words, encouraging your supervisors to be leaders. This requires recognizing and correcting poor performance, as well as recognizing and celebrating high performance.”

One size does not fit all

Reed and Wasilewski wanted to make sure the Guardian Tracking software was affordable and available to agencies of any size.  “One of the things that has always been very important to us was to come up with a pricing platform that would allow any size agency to use Guardian Tracking,” said Reed.

Just as the software fits all budgets, Guardian Tracking software is also customizable to the unique needs of each organization. Because performance tracking can never be an exact science. Every agency needs to identify thresholds that will trigger an early intervention flag. These flags can range from the obvious – such as complaints, uses of force, insubordination or accidents – to less obvious things like exposure to a traumatic event that can wear down an officer’s performance over time.

“No algorithm or mathematical metric can ever replace the human element of an educated, engaged, compassionate servant leader,” say Reed and Wasilewski. “This is what we refer to as early, early intervention. Guardian Tracking works in the background to alert supervisors that an employee might be struggling. A flag should not be considered a negative but rather an opportunity to engage with the employee. We always said that internal affairs is the worst place to manage intervention, because by the time it gets to internal affairs, it’s usually too late.”

“With a transparent system like Guardian Tracking, you have the conversation and the documentation takes place. If the behavior is below standards, it gives the employee a chance to improve.” said Wasilewski. “It becomes a living, breathing, overall picture of the employee.”

Also, because officers tend to move around within a department, supervisors may not know every officer well. The documentation in Guardian Tracking follows an employee throughout their career. This provides high-performing officers with a record of achievement that is representative of their career, and problem officers can’t hide performance issues simply by changing positions.

Putting focus on the positives

One thing Wasilewski and Reed noticed as they were looking at different evaluation systems in different agencies was that performance review scores tend to gravitate to the middle. “Justifying a low or high score often requires supporting documentation. If the agency hasn’t been documenting – good incidents or bad – chances are the high performers and the low performers are receiving the same the same evaluation,” said Wasilewski. Eventually the high performer says, “Why bother?” and their performance starts to slip.

“Negative reinforcement generates enough behavior to escape or avoid punishment. The improvement is usually described as `just enough to get by." Positive reinforcement generates more behavior than is minimally required. We call this discretionary effort, and its presence in the workplace is the only way an organization can maximize performance.” – Aubrey Daniels, “Bringing Out the Best in People”

Police officers today are under tremendous pressure from all fronts, and no agency can afford to lose their best officers. Using Guardian Tracking to document employee performance, to guide troubled employees to succeed and to give recognition to those who deserve it, can help agencies rebuild public trust and ensure that future generations are inspired to protect and serve.

“If we don’t continue to mold and develop people and let our high performers know that they’re valued, they will eventually give up and leave the profession,” said Wasilewski. “That’s what our focus has always been, but I think it’s even more important now.”

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Read next: Early intervention crucial for officers in crisis

 

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