Sunday, February 10, 2013
Police Officer Performance Evaluations: What’s the Point?
It might take a little more than a nickel every time I heard that question, but if it were a dollar I’d at least have enough for dinner and a movie. It’s a good question though and sometimes I wonder why police supervisors have such difficulty answering it. It could be that upper-management does not do a good job explaining “why” to first line supervisors. It also might be that evaluations are not used many times by departments the way they should be meant to be used. I suspect both are true, so let me try to explain why I think they are valuable to law enforcement organizations.I don’t know that I ever met a supervisor who enjoyed writing an evaluation and they sure don’t like presenting them to their officers. I still don’t relish the idea of having to do them, particularly when one or two of them might not be the glowing tribute of performance that someone had expected. It’s simply not easy to tell another person that their work product is subpar. Let’s face it, even cops really don’t like confrontation, but most will have to admit that we would rather deal with it out on the street than in the office with a subordinate. In the long run though, performance evaluations can actually make a supervisor’s life easier if given and used correctly. Even if a line sergeant never had any supervisory training or if so, it was extremely lacking (which unfortunately is the case most times) it usually doesn’t take long to figure out that it is not good tact to approach problems with performance by telling an officer “hey man, your work product sucks.” Instead, a well-designed and well-written evaluation can help both supervisor and subordinate get through the process, if used more as a teaching and learning tool. Yea I know, administrators like to insert the words “teaching” or “learning” somewhere into the process for experiences that are normally considered anything but educational by the line officer on the other side of the desk. Perhaps phrasing it that way might seem to make the task a little less unpleasant for both sides. However, from my experiences it seems that if the evaluation process is treated as such, there can be a measurable improvement for some officers in job performance. So along with the normal praise and criticism it would help to also formulate a few measurable performance goals (even better if your subordinates have some input into them) for the new evaluation period. This does two things: Instead of the normally subjective criteria officers are expected to perform well on, they can be given better defined goals that can actually be measured, which in effect should make the evaluation fairer. Secondly, the onus is placed on officers to live up to performance standards. When they have articulable goals given to them and then then don’t meet the standard, they can’t really fault their supervisor for their failure. Two suggestions though: don’t give goals that absolutely mean nothing or are so easy to reach that they are ridiculous. Doing so helps foster the feeling prevalent among many officers that evaluations are a joke. Conversely, although goals need to be somewhat challenging to provide a better measurement of the officer’s performance, they shouldn’t be exceedingly difficult to accomplish. Line officers most times are primarily responsible for responding to calls for service, so any goals given should not burden that key responsibility.
One common complaint of evaluations is that they are subjective in nature and therefore officer performance is dictated by one supervisor’s perception of a particular officer, whereas another supervisor might assess the same officer’s performance in a different way. Having taken part in evaluation processes for a number of years including participation on and chairing of committees formed to design performance standards and evaluations I can confidently say that’s probably true. Honestly, I don’t think there is a way to eliminate that phenomenon completely from the process, much like policy and procedures can’t possible address every scenario that an officer might be confronted with out on the street. But if the standards are thought out, spelled out, and a department does a good job explaining how evaluations should be applied, much of that subjectiveness can be managed. The experience I have had is that if an agency does not promote performance evaluations to their people in a positive manner then they become a useless tool. By promoting I mean first of all that officers from bottom to top should have input into the design of any evaluation, including what the standards that are going to be used really mean. Not everyone will be happy with the final format, but at least some consensus should come out of it. Secondly, management needs to stress what the evaluations will be used for. Are they going to be used for counseling, discipline, job assignments, or something else? Finally, use them for those purposes. It’s always interesting to hear an officer say, “They’re not going to fire me over it,” referring to poor performance reflected in their evaluation. Perhaps that is true in many cases, especially if civil service or work contracts make it more difficult to discipline for poor performance, but that’s not true with all agencies. At the minimum in many departments performance evaluations are used to eliminate officers from consideration for more prestigious assignments or to move officers in those assignments back to shift work, so it’s folly for officers to think that poor performance has to be accepted by their agency.
So, having done all of the above should we expect total buy in from all our officers. Most likely not. We need to face the fact that there is a historical mistrust from line officers toward how their job performance is measured. However, if we put some thought into what is important to evaluate and what we want to accomplish with the evaluation process, and we use the evaluations for the legitimate purposes that we promised, some of the suggestions in this article might help demonstrate to our officers that there is a point to performance evaluations.