5 Keys to Avoiding Discipline Failure in Public Safety

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here again, to finish the discussion we started in the last article regarding public safety personnel discipline.

First, a quick recap of the key issues I focused on last time:

  1. Discipline is an important part of a successful organization.
  2. Discipline is not a function of outcome, but rather a function of policy.
  3. If it is not written down, it did not happen.

Let’s advance the discussion by reviewing a representative discipline case. You have an employee (uniformed or nonuniformed; it does not matter) who does something wrong. You initiate an effort to discipline this employee, who we will name “Pat” (short for Patricia or Patrick—your pleasure).

Pat retains an experienced employment law attorney to defend Pat in this proceeding. The lawyer will listen to Pat’s side of the story and then review your allegations as to why Pat needs to be disciplined.

One of the first things the lawyer will do is to make sure that your actions are consistent with any memorandum of understanding (MOU) your agency has with the bargaining group and laws in your state that offer protections to public safety personnel (e.g., Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights). From personal experience, I can tell you that many discipline cases fall apart because the department investigator acted in a manner inconsistent with the MOU or was not in compliance with the Bill of Rights.

Having studied many tragedies in law enforcement operations, I frequently see the same thing: Everyone knew and no one did a darn thing about it.

But let’s assume your department has followed the applicable procedures in place and the discipline process is moving forward. If I were the defense lawyer, my first inquiry (read: attack on your case) will be, “Please provide me with a copy of the policy that Pat has violated.” If you do not have a policy in place, that may well be the end of your efforts to discipline Pat. If your response is, “Well, we don’t have anything written down, but everyone knows that you are supposed to ____________,” your case is finished.

So let’s further assume that you have a properly designed, up-to-date policy in place and you present it to me. My second attack will be, “Show me that Pat has been trained on this policy.” If your response is, “Here’s a piece of paper showing that at the point of hire, Pat signed a form to acknowledge receiving and reviewing our policy manual,” that is not good enough. You will have to document a training program—both initial and ongoing—to show that Pat was familiar with the policy.

Continuing on, let’s assume you have a well-written policy and you have proof that Pat was aware of this policy through initial and ongoing training. My third line of attack as the defense lawyer will be, “Are your efforts to discipline Pat consistent with your efforts in the past when other employees violated the same policy?”

If I can demonstrate that other employees (either in the past or involved in the incident in question) were treated differently (meaning lesser punishment or no punishment), that will not bode well for your discipline case.

If you’ve done all these things right—you have a well-written policy, you’ve provided Pat with initial and ongoing training, you can produce proof of the training, and your disciplinary efforts are consistent across incidents and employees—there is still one final step you must account for: documentation.

Hopefully you read the Wikipedia piece on CZAR 52 I recommended in my last writing—and hopefully you put the pieces together. The involved pilot in this tragedy had a long, long, long history of inappropriate behavior that did not have negative outcomes. The behavior was known to his superiors and some talked to him about it, but no one documented the behavior. When new bosses came to the airbase and they read the personnel jackets of the pilots, there was no documentation. You know the rest of the story.

Having studied many tragedies in law enforcement operations, I frequently see the same thing: Everyone knew and no one did a darn thing about it.

In closing out my thoughts on Family Four of the 10 Families of Risk, remember the five pillars of organizational success:
1. People
2. Policy
3. Training
4. Supervision
5. Discipline

I am hopeful you have good people in your organization. If you are a Lexipol client, I know you have good policies. Please take the training of your personnel seriously—make sure you’re issuing the Daily Training Bulletins and using the provided reporting tools to ensure your officers are completing them. Finally, your supervisors must take their job seriously. Although it’s not the most fun part of the job, when rules are not being followed, supervisors must address the issue through discipline.

Thanks for your continued support and all the emails you send. We are in a very complex, high-risk job and your efforts in getting things done right are so important.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—My next article will focus on Family Five—Operational Risks, or how to manage the risk involved in a specific task, incident or event. In preparation, please reread the CZAR 52 piece on Wikipedia (or the full story in Dr. Kern’s great work, Darker Shades of Blue) and focus on the actions of Lt. Colonel Holland on the day of the crash.

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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