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How to Write a Policy Manual

Sticking to a detailed plan goes a long way toward creating an effective agency guide to Standard Operating Procedures.

September 01, 2005  |  by Michael McLaurin

Even if you've never been asked to produce a policies and procedures manual, you can well imagine what a huge undertaking it is. If you are planning to develop or even update your agency's manual, the suggestions contained in this article should help you save time, produce a quality manual, and avoid some frustrations that can occur.

Create a Blueprint

Developing a manual without a plan is like a homeowner building a house without a blueprint. Without any guidance, the homeowner keeps adding room after room without logic or flow until he or she runs out of money. The result is a house without rhyme, reason, or usefulness...and full of frustration.

The point is that once a police department or a sheriff's office decides to develop a new (or update its existing) manual, a plan must be developed detailing how to undertake the effort. A well thought out and documented plan will help guide the project and increase the likelihood of success.

Your plan of action should include information on what is to be included in the manual, who will be involved in its creation, a process for creating the manual, a schedule, and, finally, the resources (cash and in-kind) that will be needed.

Borrow Ideas

Reading other agencies' manuals is a good way to start developing your plan. These manuals can give you ideas on policies, writing style, format, and other elements of the process.

Perusing manuals from other agencies can also help you decide which policies and procedures should be included. If this is your agency's first manual, or if your department has not operated with a manual for a number of years, then you should consider creating a master list containing a reasonable number of policies and procedures. Don't worry; additional policies can always be added at a later scheduled date.

Your list should include only policies and procedures appropriate for your agency, given its size and scope of duties. Far too many agencies try to create policies and procedures manuals that cover every possible situation that could ever arise. This is an impossible task. If you try to accomplish it you'll never finish.

Stick to a Schedule

Next, establish a schedule listing key project deadlines. Some of the key deadlines should include: project kickoff, completion of all draft policies, completion of the final review by the police chief or sheriff, review with employees, printing of the final document, and training employees on the new policies.

Use a schedule that is appropriate for your agency. By this I mean one you can actually follow without bringing operations to a halt. Think about how many people can devote time to the task, and how much time they can spare each day. Don't expect to finish the manual in a month, especially if yours is a small department. It is common for a policies and procedures project to take one year to complete.

Delegate Responsibility

Your plan of action should also describe how policies and procedures will be developed. Several options exist.

One person can be designated to write all of the procedures, but this can be an overwhelming task. And without much input from other members of the department, the final result might not meet everyone's expectations or requirements.

Another option involves using one or more committees to develop procedures who then forward the written procedures to a project editor who compiles them into one cohesive document. This approach especially makes sense for a larger department because it allows the manual to be broken down into manageable chunks that committees comprised of experts in key areas can tackle.

Another use of committees doesn't require as much groundwork from members. In this process, committee members develop an outline of policies and procedures, leaving a designated editor to complete the details.

Whenever organizing a committee, make sure membership includes representatives from all factions and seniority levels of the agency. In some locations labor agreements may require that committees be involved in the development process instead of limiting the duty to one person.

Each member of a committee should have a clear understanding of the project, its schedule, and his or her role in the process. If the agency is considering accreditation then additional consideration is needed to ensure that someone with knowledge of the accreditation process is involved.

Regardless of which approach you choose, there must be one editor who will make the final decision on a writing style and what information will be included. This is done to maintain consistency throughout the manual. Not only does this make the document easier to read, it also eliminates contradictions in wording so that the fine points of the policies cannot be disputed because of minor differences in semantics.

Find a Format

It may seem trivial, but a critical part of the plan is deciding on the appearance of the end result. What type of format will be used and what will the completed manual look like?
For many years, the sole option was a printed document. Now many electronic-based options are available. Many agencies create their manuals solely on CD or even on the Internet. Any hard copies come from printing out pages on a computer printer.

Electronic media can save a great deal in printing costs and does offer additional options, such as linking to Websites, that the traditional manual does not provide. The downside of this approach is that, depending on the electronic media selected, expert help is likely needed.

Also, be careful to maintain a copy of your manual that will be accessible by other than electronic means for later years when the medium might have changed with advances in technology. If, for example, you had put your manual on floppy disk 15 years ago and wanted to read it now, you might have a hard time finding a computer with a floppy drive so you could access the text. Alternatively, because the World Wide Web is ever changing, if you put your manual only on the Internet and continually update it, you'll be hard-pressed to find a copy of the original text.

Get Down to Work

Once you've completed your plan it's time to get to work. You should begin by obtaining a copy of your agency's existing policies and procedures along with memos and other documents that detail specific operations of the agency. Also collect copies of state legislation and training bulletins as part of your research.

Hold interviews or focus groups with agency personnel to identify and document any unwritten procedures and practices. The interviews should provide information about agency problems or prior situations that could have been resolved had an updated policies and procedures manual been in place.

Put it in Writing

The hard work begins with the actual writing of the policies and procedures. Writing has been likened to painting a house: 90 percent of it is just getting around to it. Successful writers will commit a certain time each day to work on the project and will establish a set time for the completion of each task or policy.

A reasonable approach is to commit about four hours each morning. The rationale for this recommendation is that you will be able to see an end point each day and you will approach the project fresh the next morning. Some writers find it's best to take a laptop and escape to the nearby library to complete their work.

It's important that this committed time not be “bumped” for something more important to someone else. If you're writing part or all of the manual, you should have the support of your police chief or sheriff in establishing and enforcing your set schedule. Some of your duties may need to be shifted to someone else during this process so you can complete the project. The key is to get the work done. Making excuses for why you couldn't “get around to it” won't help finish the job.

Likewise, committee members must be held accountable for their work. While committees can provide valuable input, they can sometimes fall behind in their work because of difficulties agreeing. Such a delay puts additional pressure on the writer or editor. Ground rules for how the committee should operate should be established early in the project and enforced throughout.

Laying Pen to Paper

As you begin to write the policies and procedures you should use the agreed upon format, whatever it may be. Some departments prefer to use the term general orders, operating guidelines, procedures, regulations, or policies.

I like the term “policies” used with the term “procedures,” “operating guidelines,” or “operating principles.” Policies detail an agency's view on a particular topic. For example, “This agency will pursue those individuals that pose a threat to themselves or the public.”
The procedures, guidelines, or principles describe steps which can be undertaken to support the policy. For example, “During vehicle pursuits, the pursuing officer will notify the supervisor.”

An organized numbering system should also be established. A system I use divides the manual into categories under numbers such as 100, 200, and 300. Essentially, the 100-series policies and procedures are introductory-type documents, 200-series policies and procedures deal with personnel-related matters, 300-series policies and procedures deal with operations, etc. Again, use a number system that works for you.

As you write there are some simple objectives to keep in mind. First, the writing style should be such that it is understandable by all personnel. If it's too bureaucratic and complex employees are less likely to follow it. Your writing should be concise.

Procedures should be written in such a manner that they are useful and workable at 1500 hours on Tuesday afternoon as well as 0300 hours on a Sunday morning. A good strategy is to benchmark the policies and procedures by having a small group of officers representing various ranks and assignments read and interpret them. This will determine whether everyone has the same understanding of its content.

Each policy and procedure should also be reviewed by legal counsel familiar with criminal justice and human resources issues to ensure compliance with state law and current practices. A good proofreader should be used to catch errors such as typos, grammar, and format inconsistencies.

As you develop the various policies and procedures, regular meetings should be scheduled with the police chief or sheriff to review the progress on the project and to allow him or her to review the drafts and offer any suggestions for revisions.

Once the draft manual is completed, create copies and distribute them throughout the agency with a request that employees review the entire manual. With one project I worked on, we established several dates and times in which the police chief and I could meet with any employee who wished to discuss the manual and offer suggested changes. In some cases, the chief agreed with the suggestions and did not with others. Regardless, each employee felt he had the opportunity to offer input and influence agency practices.

Once the document has been reviewed, proofed, and passed legal review with the top cop's sign-off, you are ready to begin creating the final document. As I mentioned earlier, you have a number of options for the final product.

Finishing Touches


If you choose to go with a Web-based or CD-based manual you will likely need the help of an Information Technology (IT) professional.

If you use the traditional paper and notebook method, I recommend that you purchase custom tabs but not purchase custom notebooks. You can realize substantial cost savings by purchasing notebooks at the local office supply store. I typically purchase notebooks that have a clear pocket on the front and spine which will allow a custom-designed cover page and spine to be inserted. Regardless of which method you use each employee should have easy access to the manual.

Once the manual has been completed, the agency should hold training sessions with its employees to review the manual and ensure that everyone understands its contents and expectations.

The manual should be reviewed and updated annually. A master file should be created and maintained throughout the year in which minor policy and procedure changes can be noted for inclusion in next year's manual.

In addition, specific issues that arise and could have been addressed through the manual should be placed in the file. If the change is something of utmost importance, then a new policy and procedure should be drafted and implemented before the annual update. This will prevent any further confusion with the issue in the interim.

An updated manual is a great tool for helping an agency provide consistent service to its citizens and equitable treatment to its employees. The manual provides employees with clear guidance of the appropriate roles and practices in an agency so that they can do their work in a confident manner.

It is important that everyone on the department feel they have helped create the new manual. If employees have a sense of ownership they will have more familiarity with, acceptance of, and compliance with its contents.

Michael McLaurin began his work with law enforcement as an employee of the Charlotte (N.C.) Police Department and presently works with the Centralina Council of Governments in the Charlotte area.

Tags: How-To Guides, policies & procedures

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Keith @ 4/5/2012 11:37 AM

This was a great article. I have a research paper I have to do on policies and standard of police agency this article really help me out alot it was very clear

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