Discipline Is a Function of Policy, Not Outcome

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

Gordon Graham here again, and thanks for taking the time to read the latest in this series of articles meant to help you understand the breadth and the depth of “real” risk management.

For those of you who have not read the first 18 pieces, there is one key concept you need to know to get your bearings: All the risks faced by police personnel and police agencies can be put into the following 10 families:

10 Families of Risk

In past articles, I have covered the first three families, and as you have probably surmised by the emphasis in the above graphic, we are now in Family Four—Organizational Risks.

When you get beyond the proximate cause of a tragedy in public safety operations and look for root cause, all too often it gets down to People, Policy, Training, Supervision and Discipline. Interestingly, because these five elements form the root causes of most tragedies, effectively managing these elements not only helps you avoid tragedies, but also helps you achieve your agency’s strategic objectives. That’s why I call them the “five pillars of success.” In the last few iterations of these writings I have covered the first four pillars; this article will focus on the fifth—discipline.

I will assume you have good people working for you. To be successful in public safety operations, good people need good policy— if you’re a Lexipol customer, you’ve got that one covered. But having good people and good policy are not enough—your personnel must also know and understand your policies. That brings up the training component; again, if you’re a Lexipol customer, you have policy training covered through the Daily Training Bulletins we provide.

Discipline is not a function how the event
concluded—rather, discipline is a function of whether policy/procedure was followed.

While People, Policy and Training are all important, if supervisors are not enforcing the rules, that is a problem lying in wait. I focused on the key role of the supervisor in the last several articles in this series. But if there are no consequences for not following rules, all your efforts are for naught. Discipline is an essential component for achieving our goal of getting things done right and avoiding tragic consequences.

Rules without enforcement are just nice words on a piece of paper up on a shelf. There must be consequences for personnel who suffer from arrogance, ignorance or complacency, as well as those who are convinced the rules do not apply to them.

My guess is you understand that discipline is essential. The problem I see often in public safety agencies is that somehow “discipline” has become a function of “outcome.” Here is the core of my thinking regarding discipline: Discipline is not a function of “outcome” (how the event concluded)—rather, discipline is a function of policy (whether policy/procedure was followed).

Let’s take an example. You can have a vehicle pursuit end up without any negative outcome, even if there are substantive violations of policy—too many units, motor cops involved after patrol cars are present, unsafe speeds involved in chasing a low-level violation of the law, and myriad others. Sadly, some supervisors and managers in police departments will say, “Well, it ended up OK—all is well that ends well.” You can find countless similar examples across public safety: the fire apparatus operator who fails to stop at a red light, the corrections officer who skips kitchen tool inventory because the inmate workers have never caused a problem in the past.

Please think this through. Just because an event ends up OK does not mean we did our job correctly. Maybe we just got lucky—and you cannot rely on luck. Now, I will take luck when I get it, but you cannot rely on luck—you must rely on “systems,” aka the policies and procedures of your organization.

So those are my opening comments regarding the importance of public safety personnel discipline and why it is so critical to a well-run public safety agency. Here is a closing thought for you, and a segue into the next article. If your efforts at disciplining an errant employee are unsuccessful, it can cause many future problems. So why do our efforts at discipline fail? And more importantly, what can be done to make sure that discipline is prompt, fair, consistent and impartial—and achieves the goal of getting your personnel to take policy seriously?

All that and more will be included in the next article. Until then, thanks for all you are doing to make things better in our world.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—In the interim between this article and the next, please take a look at Dr. Tony Kern’s great book, Darker Shades of Blue, which tells the story of CZAR 52. If you don’t want to read the whole book, at least look at the Wikipedia entry on this event. My purpose for having you do this is simple: If it is not documented, it did not happen. The involved pilot had a long history of reckless behavior that everyone knew about, but the behavior was never documented, and ultimately caused a major tragedy.

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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