Effective organizations – be it a championship caliber sports team or a successful corporation – know that a foundation of discipline, which fosters morale and a sense of camaraderie, can be the difference between success and failure.
The same lessons can be applied to police forces. The effectiveness of police departments in fulfilling their public service and protection responsibilities is tied directly to their training, morale and the cohesiveness of the police force as a whole. These elements are directly affected by the level of discipline within the police department. Importantly, discipline here should not be construed in a negative, punitive sense. Rather, when speaking about effective discipline in police forces, the focus should be on the broader understanding: a system of rules governing orderly conduct and prescribed patterns of behavior.
Of course, corrective discipline is often necessary to maintain order in a police department. Where an officer who has violated a policy, directive, rule or law avoids what is otherwise warranted disciplinary action, the effective management and functionality of the department is undermined. In a police force, knowledge of the rules of conduct and procedures, the predictability of consequences for their violation and the efficacy of punitive action will promote professional and ethical conduct, decrease legal and policy violations, lower the rate of intra-department disputes, and, in turn, promote department cohesion and effective policing.
An essential element of maintaining a predictable, fair and effective disciplinary system is for municipal entities to maintain accurate and comprehensive records of violations and related discipline.
If an officer has a history of disciplinary actions and a municipality decides to further discipline or terminate that officer, the disciplinary records will be necessary evidence should the officer challenge the action in a grievance arbitration or civil service hearing.
Municipalities may also face unfair labor practice charges if discipline is not supported by adequate record keeping. For example, a municipality may face liability where it lacks records to demonstrate that it has not unilaterally changed a challenged disciplinary policy.
Moreover, inadequate records may open a municipality to state or federal lawsuits as police officers have certain rights under state and federal law. Records that other officers, regardless of sex, race, age, or disability status, for example, have received the same discipline for the same infractions will go a long way in defending a civil rights lawsuit.
In order to avoid, or at least mitigate, legal challenges and to maintain discipline, municipalities are cautioned to work with qualified legal counsel to draft, maintain, and regularly update a Code of Conduct and Police Department Standard Operating Procedures. These documents will form the backbone of departmental discipline. It is suggested that the Chief of Police keep thorough records of disciplinary infractions and associated discipline, which should always be consistent with a specific Code of Conduct or Standard Operating Procedure provision. Finally, municipalities should work with legal counsel to ensure compliance with all laws and governing documents that may impact officer discipline when deciding to terminate or suspend an officer or when an officer disputes a disciplinary action.
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