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Back to Archives | Back to February 2004 Contents 

Making the Most of General Orders

By Ryken Grattet, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Davis, California

Viewed from a distance, it was not a terribly serious incident. The victim, an African American graduate student, awoke to find "N-r" scrawled in spray paint across the pavement in front of his house. The police arrived, took a report, and discovered that a rowdy party involving underage drinking had occurred at a neighboring home the night before. Once the detectives arrived and interviewed the victim and the host of the party, they quickly dismissed the incident as a juvenile prank. Perhaps the officers miscalculated the victim's degree of trauma, his doggedness in pursuing his case, or the subsequent tempest that the event, and the police department's handling of it, would cause in the community. But one thing is clear: the officers did not follow their own general order for dealing with hate crime incidents. Their failure to do so became a sticking point in the ensuing debacle, as did the quality of the general order itself, once it was made public.

Getting General Orders to Work
General orders represent a central mechanism available to law enforcement leadership who confront recurring and potentially problematic enforcement issues, and nearly every American department relies on them to some degree. The implicit hope is that by formalizing a department policy on a particular issue, officer conduct will be consistent and appropriate. But that doesn't always happen.

All organizations, even law enforcement agencies, face discrepancies between their formal policies and informal practices. Sociologists even have a technical word for the phenomenon: "decoupling." Decoupling occurs when an organization adopts a splashy new policy but then never really implements it to change how the work gets done. Some degree of decoupling actually helps organizations function more effectively; but in law enforcement decoupling can come with a price. If officers do not follow an order they may fail to deliver quality service to the crime victim and they may embarrass themselves and the department. They may also expose themselves and their department to legal liability.
So the question is, how do you get your general orders to work?

Negative Reinforcement Model
One strategy is to focus on developing a punishment system for officers who don't abide by the policies. Many agencies have such a system in place and it probably works to some degree. But such a system has some undesirable aspects. By definition it is reactive, which means that it does little to actually prevent deviations from policy in the first place. It also involves administrators in determinations about whether the deviation was accidental or intentional, in order to determine the appropriate type and level of punishment. It is also a paternalistic approach that may be perceived by officers and leadership alike as inconsistent with a department culture that emphasizes professionalism among the rank-and-file officers. In other words, if what you want are officers who can operate responsibly and with autonomy, then punishing them for not following the rules may be a bad way to go. Part of preparing officers in the contemporary world of policing means educating them to actively implement the new policies and policing strategies that the department is trying to institute.

Contemporary Model
Although a punitive system may be necessary for egregious violations, it does little to facilitate the desired learning process that lies behind most general orders. An alternative approach is to concentrate on the content of the general orders themselves and the system in place to develop and disseminate them. Northwestern University sociologist Arthur L. Stinchcombe has recently identified some basic principles that underlie successful implementation of formal policies in organizations. His model, which applies well to law enforcement agencies, contains three components: cognitive adequacy, communicability, and a trajectory of improvement.1

Cognitive Adequacy

  • Accuracy
  • Simplicity

  • Clarity

  • Inclusiveness
General orders are cognitively adequate to the extent that they are based upon a simple and accurate depiction of the situations to which they are to be applied. As all rules do, a general order presumes a set of circumstances within which its procedures will be invoked. If such presumptions are invalid (if, for example, there are lots of other circumstances that should have been incorporated into the order, or if it presumes circumstances that should not have been included) it will likely function poorly in governing action in the field. The officers will perceive incongruence between the order and the incidents they confront. In other words, the order won't fit the circumstances. Moreover, if a general order is unnecessarily complicated, if it gives officers too much detail, or if it is difficult for ordinary users to apply, it will likely also fail to govern officer behavior.

Let's take a concrete example. General orders regarding hate crime have two realities with which they must be aligned: relevant criminal law and hate crime incidents. If the depiction of hate crime law or hate crime incidents contained within the order is wrong or (as is more often the case) unclear, it will likely fail in shaping action. If an officer's training or prior experience has led him or her to interpret the law or the incidents confronted on the job in a way that is inconsistent with the general order, the officer may see little utility in deferring to its directions, relying instead on his or her own tacit knowledge of the subject. Thus, in order to be cognitively adequate, a hate crime general order has to coordinate an alignment between what officers think the law is (that is, what their training and experience has led them to think the law is) and what the law actually says. An order that simply restates the law and does not bridge the gap between the officer's understanding and the legal rules that define hate crime will be seen by the officer as confusing and may require the officer to reconcile the difference, a time-consuming activity in the context of handling a crime incident. They may refuse to bother with it.

Cognitive adequacy requires accuracy, simplicity, and clarity in the crafting of general orders and can be improved by taking a number of steps. The process of creating orders must be an inclusive communal activity involving both those who do the work and management who oversees the work. In order to reduce ambiguity and enhance clarity, commentary from employees from several levels and ranks should help guide revision of the orders. Because orders need to align with both the law and the officers' prior knowledge, the language of the order needs to be familiar and resonate with the training and experience they already possess. Relying on the phrasing used in academy and state-level training curriculum is encouraged for this reason. Use of model general orders, such as those provided by the IACP, can increase cognitive adequacy to the extent that they represent a common vocabulary for discussing an issue.2 Review by an attorney or someone familiar with the statutory and case law on a particular subject can be useful for making sure the law is characterized accurately; however, relying too much on lawyers or other experts to draft the order entails the risk that what is cognitively adequate for the expert may not be for a police officer. Following from this, it is a bad idea to outsource the activity of writing orders by having an expert write the order for the department, for instance, or purchasing a boilerplate.

Although some agencies already engage in some or all of these activities without really reflecting on their contribution to the cognitive adequacy of their orders, others do not. For example, in the case described at the outset, the order had been recently revised and was written largely from scratch. As a result, the order did not rely on the common vocabulary for hate crime and did not resemble orders used elsewhere in the state. It included some additional information on the subject but left other pieces of information out. Whether or not the responding officers were actually aware of its contents is another matter, and that brings the issue to the second requirement for general orders: communicability.


  • Credible

  • Durable

  • Cognizable
A second requirement for general orders is that they be communicable. Again, this has implications both for the content of the order and the system designed to produce and disseminate the order. General orders are more communicable when they are credible, resistant to degradation of their meaning over time (durable), and when a suitable system exists to transmit the order to all relevant officers through a cognizant learning process.

The credibility of an order is enhanced when it is perceived as coming from a legitimate source. For example, a hate crime order might refer to a set of FBI criteria for identifying hate crime incidents. This provides authority for the order and makes it more credible. Conversely, the credibility of hate crime orders is frequently undermined when officers view the new policies as red tape, as deriving from political pressures, or as irrelevant to the real crime problems they face. Officers are frequently suspicious of abstracted directions written by people not in tune with how things work on the street. Such circumstances render the order less credible and make officers less inclined to rely on them.

In addition, orders need to be resistant to degradation of their meaning over time. That is, if new meanings or interpretations get attached to the rule, or if the phenomena to be governed by the rule changes in some way, the rule will become less relevant and less influential over behavior. To continue with the hate crime example, hate crime orders designed in late 1980s appear to contemporary users as an old-fashioned way of conceiving of the issue. Older orders referred to the phenomena as RRE (race, religion, ethnicity) crimes rather than bias crimes or hate crimes, and they seldom accord with current standards of how officers are to respond.

The durability of an order can also be threatened by the fallible human beings who function as links in the chain of communication. Hate crimes are relatively rare events and, since these incidents are not handled in the normal course of work, the protocols for dealing with them may become dimmer and dimmer in the minds of officers over time. At this point the officer is left with vague impressions of what he or she is supposed to do. Overcoming the problem of degradation requires that orders be revised on a regular basis and that orders be periodically retransmitted via roll calls, e-mails, or the issuing of training bulletins.

To enhance communicability some thought must also be given to the design of a dissemination system. Simply instituting a new general order and distributing it throughout the ranks fails to set in motion the desired cognitive activity and learning process among officers. The new orders are likely to be filed away and forgotten, perhaps without being read at all. Orders must be communicated in multiple ways. In addition to roll calls, training bulletins, and e-mail messages, orders should be carried around with officers. Many departments require that officers carry a three-ring binder in their squad cars containing updated general orders. Even if officers can't remember its contents or don't bother reading it in the first place, they may use it as a reference tool. Furthermore, commanding officers can support the emphasis on following general orders by reminding officers to check the order when writing up a crime incident report and they can institute a system of periodic peer review of specific cases in which officers discuss how well a case was handled and how well the responding officer conformed to departmental guidelines. Orders could be revised on the basis of these kinds of discussions. Moreover, the orders themselves could include checklists of the required procedures that the officers have to submit along with their incident reports. All of these steps serve to embed the orders in the daily practices of officers and deepen the communication process.

Trajectory of Improvement

  • Systematically review orders

  • Revise orders to remain contemporary

  • Involve the officers
The final requirement for general orders is that they be improvable. It must be emphasized that a flexible system is necessary. General orders can work in many situations even when they possess some of the imperfections described above. Cognitive adequacy and communicability may be improved over time. However, a rigid system that does not permit timely revision and updating will come to be seen as dated and irrelevant to current conditions. A related problem occurs when general orders are too monopolized by a particular group of officials (e.g., high ranking administrators). People get invested in particular ways of conceiving of an issue and, quite naturally, they are reluctant to relinquish their view. General orders need to be freshened periodically by a new perspective.

Three Considerations
Three concluding points are necessary to make sure the general orders work. First, it should be clear that the variables cognitive adequacy and communicability work in conjunction. If an order is cognitively adequate but not communicable it probably will not work. Thus, cognitive adequacy, communicability, and improvability require attention simultaneously.

Second, it should also be clear that formal rules like general orders presuppose a set of informal processes to be effective. For example, a departmental culture that is suspicious of administrative policymaking is likely to experience difficulty in obtaining compliance with its general orders. In the terms introduced above, the orders will lack the requisite credibility. This suggests that general orders are much less likely to work when they are associated with a broader reform agenda that wants to reverse some aspects of officer behavior. Orders work best when they align closely with officers' sensibilities and normal work routines.

The third and final point is the importance of recognizing that there are limits on what can be formalized. Some subjects, arguably the hate crime topic that has been discussed throughout this essay is one example, may not lend themselves to formulation as a general order. A phenomenon may be impossible to define in a cognitively adequate way or it may be so complex as to defy simple expression. It may be that an issue is too new and not enough discussion has occurred to settle major debates about the proper approach and streamline the vocabulary for describing it.

As any administrator intuitively knows, there are a number of reasons to create general orders. Orders may provide some legal protection; they can serve to educate officers; and they can communicate the commitments of the agency to the wider community. But these benefits are undercut when officers get into trouble by not following them. While there is no panacea for getting officers to follow orders the intelligent design of a system for developing and communicating departmental orders can help.

1 Arthur L. Stinchcombe, When Formality Works: Authority and Abstraction in Law and Organizations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
2 More than 90 model policies and supporting documentation are available from the IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314; 800-THE-IACP;


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 2, February 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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