Playing by the rules

The quality of a Police Department’s written policies, procedures, rules, and regulations can define the success of a cop’s career — both for the good and the bad


Officer’s lives are on the line every day. Officer’s careers are on the line every day too. In the city where I live there are currently at least two legal cases going on involving police. At least one of these will eventually lead to an interpretation of the rules and regulations of that department come into play. It’s because of these incidents that I decided to write this article about rules and regulations.

First, let me say that I believe most departments out there to have rules and regulations that are first rate, so it should not be implied that I think that there is a crisis within police departments when it comes to rules and regulations. However, it doesn’t hurt to get a friendly reminder about some of the finer do’s and don’ts of writing rules and regulations that can keep your cops’ careers (nd of course, their lives, but for the purposes of this article I’m focusing in on the legal aspect of things) safe from the adverse effects that almost always stem from poorly written policies and procedures.

The first consideration for any rule or regulation is that it must be current. It does no good to have the best regulation on the face of the Earth if it does not address policing in its current state. To that effect, it would be best to have a review of all rules and regulations at least once a year to make sure that they are all current. This tends to be particularly important with those regulations that carry the highest ability to get the officer and the department sued. The most common in this area are use of force policy, arrest policy, and use of firearm policy.

If you look at one attachment, you’ll see part of the regulations for Jamestown PD. It states at the bottom that the Chief of Police shall review all policies annually. This is good but I’m not particularly wild about the Chief doing this. I’m a believer in the notion that 3 heads are better than one. So I prefer a committee composed of a senior ranking officer, a first line supervisor and a patrol officer. The biggest reason I like this is simply there are three different mindsets looking at a regulation and interpreting it from their viewpoint. I think you’d get a better, more comprehensive regulation this way.

The second point about any regulation is that it has to be as inclusive as possible. By that I mean that the regulation has to have all the component parts in it. I’ve also attached a copy of the use-of-force policy for Denver PD. You’ll see that it includes all forms of weapons used by the department. It also lists medical treatment that should be given, qualifications officers need before they can use the weapon, and most importantly, when officers cannot use the weapon. The when you can’t use the weapon is sometimes seen as the most important by courts because it implies that you have given due consideration to the consequences of the officer’s actions. This is always a good point for the police in any civil proceeding.

Finally, any regulation has to be reasonable. A regulation that either requires an officer to perform some extraordinary action, or a regulation that blatantly ignores a dangerous consequence that may arise from its implementation will always be viewed by courts as a sign that the department either doesn’t care about it’s officers and citizens or, worse, was just plain lazy in writing up its regulations. Either view could spell trouble for a department in a civil proceeding.

In connection with the actual writing of the rules and regulations is the administrative actions that should be taken to make sure your manual will withstand scrutiny. First and foremost, officers should be required to show that they understand the policy manual. This can be done simply by giving a ten question test after having the officer take a period of time, say two weeks, to learn the manual. The questions don’t have to be difficult. They should merely be representative of the manual as a whole. This sounds rather strange, but one of the primary tactics of any good civil lawyer is to try to show that an officer did not have an understanding of his or her policy manual and this led to his client’s injury, whatever it might be. An officer could be shown to have a good understanding of the manual by producing the test they took and showing a respectable grade, let’s say in the 90th percentile. This usually defeats such an attack tactic attempted by the civil lawyer.

The other important administrative detail is that the policy manual should be approved by the elected officials that run the government that the department is attached to. This sounds sort of ridiculous, especially if you’ve known some of the elected officials I’ve known, but unfortunately you do need the approval of the governmental entity that you serve to truly make the entire policy manual as legitimate as possible.

Departments should be conscientious enough to send at least one officer to a policy writing class, if you can find one.

Lastly, designate at least one officer to keep track of all legal changes from the United States Supreme Court and your state Supreme Court. Keep any changes in a folder. This will make it easier to amend that which has to be changed when the time comes.

So there you have it. Not exactly a thesis on the subject but I tried to hit the most important highlights. Rules and regulations can be a blessing if you get them right. Get them wrong and you pay. The trick is finding the right balance.

Stay safe.

About the author

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Jim Guffey began his Law Enforcement career in 1977 with the Pennsylvania Capitol Police. In 1980 was hired by the Ross Township Police Department. He remained there until January 1, 2002. During that time he worked as a plain-clothes detective, on the traffic division, and was promoted on 1996 to Lieutenant. He remained the Administrative Lieutenant until his retirement. Not satisfied with retirement, he became the Chief of Police in Blairsville Borough in August 2003 and remained there until July 2004.

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