Improving Law Enforcement Through Better Policy: Gordon Graham on the Quality Policing Podcast

“Good enough is not good enough. We have to get better at what we do.”

Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham joined Detective Nick Selby and Professor Peter Moskos on a recent episode of the Quality Policing podcast. Selby and Moskos created the show to “engage in meaningful and respectfully opinionated discussion” with cops, judges, attorneys, and activists.

Graham, Selby, and Moskos discussed how law enforcement policies are created, the importance of ongoing testing on policies, and mitigating risk in public safety. If you’ve seen Gordon Graham speak live, you know there’s no substitute for the real thing, so you should really listen to the episode, which clocks in at just over 30 minutes. But here are three takeaways to mull over in the meantime:

Standardized does not mean out-of-the-box.
Graham traces the founding of Lexipol back to an experience he had during a vehicle pursuit when he was a motor cop with the California Highway Patrol. “I tried to follow the CHP policy and then LAPD got involved, and their policy was different from the CHP’s, and the Sheriff’s Department got involved, and their policy was different from the CHP’s and the LAPD’s,” he says. “Early on in my career I said, why does everyone have a different way of doing business?”

That led Graham to study risk management, where he learned about the standardization of best practices. “One of the basic principles of managing risk, if you look at Southwest Airlines and UPS and Intel, all these great successful organizations, one of their rules is you standardize your best practices,” he says. “When everybody has a different way of doing business that’s a ticket for tragedy.”

But Graham is quick to point out that out-of-the-box policies in public safety are dangerous. “There’s different values in different states,” he says. “You cannot have one-size-fits-all in a policy manual … it needs to be customizable to the needs of the state and the needs of the agency.”

Selby, whose agency uses Lexipol, explains that the ability to customize the policies is something his agency found beneficial. “We had worried [when we started with Lexipol], that this is a policy in a can,” he says. “But I watched as our sergeant spent seven months to customize what was there. It was absolutely not, under any circumstances, cookie-cutter policy. [Lexipol was] bringing up things that we didn’t necessarily know to think about, based on new case law, based on things that have happened around the country, and giving us choices of things to do.”

Avoid “policy by crisis.”
Another potentially dangerous issue in public safety policy is something Selby calls “policy by crisis.” Too often, policies are written as a result of a specific incident, or an individual who did something wrong, or an event that commanded news headlines and brought scrutiny onto the department.

Graham warns starkly against changing or creating policies in such heated moments. “The issue of policies by crisis is troubling,” he says. “We need to have a systematic approach on how to build these things, not because of some event that’s in the news. When the news drives policy, that’s a problem lying in wait.”

He provides two examples:

  • During a vehicle pursuit, innocent bystanders are hurt when law enforcement officers shoot out of a helicopter. In response, the agency creates a policy that says, “Officers shall never shoot from an aircraft.” Then “5 years later, there’s a helicopter getting fueled up and the guys are doing their checklist and they’re sitting in the helicopter and a guy shoots at them,” Graham says. “They return fire. Are they in violation of policy?”
  • Trying to crack down on aggressive driving, a fire department develops a policy that says, “Under no circumstances shall any fire department vehicle be driven in excess of 55 mph.” A chief driving to a meeting, going 70 mph in a 75-mph zone, gets in a collision. Is he in violation of policy?

Policies must allow for discretion.
Law enforcement agencies also go awry when they adopt overly restrictive policies that limit officer discretion. “I’m scared to death when I see the word ‘shall’ in policies,” Graham says. “Overusing the word shall, taking away discretion from good people is very silly.”

Why do agencies adopt such restrictions? Graham (who is an attorney in addition to serving the CHP for 33 years) believes it’s due to lawyers having too much control in the policy-writing process. “Lawyers are risk-averse as a rule,” Graham says. He notes the easiest way to avoid problems is don’t do anything, so a risk-averse policy will restrict the officer’s ability to act. “But this is a job that requires we do things. Keep the lawyers out of it until the policy is finalized and then let them fine-tune it.”

Instead, he recommends, ask the people who do the job to provide their thoughts on what the policy should be. The benefits are twofold, Graham says: “One, they’re going to tell you things you never thought of, and two when you implement the policy, you’re going to get instant buy-in because there was some involvement from line personnel.”

As Graham notes, the development of law enforcement policy is central to Moskos and Selby’s quest to improve the quality of policing. “We are the thin line between what’s right and what’s wrong in this country,” Graham says. “And we need cops going out there who know the law, who knows the policy, who know how to do their jobs and get things done right to better protect themselves, their community and our profession.”

Listen to the podcast here.

Lexipol Team

Lexipol provides public safety and local government with solutions that combine the impact of information with the power of technology. We serve more than 2 million first responders and local government officials with policies, training, grant assistance and news and analysis.

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