For decades, police departments have used early warning system (EWS) software – or early identifying systems (EIS) – as an intervention tactic by tracking specific officers’ behavior(s) that, left unaddressed, may lead to potential misconduct. Such proactive supervision efforts help prevent officers from acting unlawfully or irresponsibly and eroding a department’s integrity and trust within the community.

Unfortunately, this comes with its fair share of obstacles, including officer perception, resource availability and the robustness of the system itself. However, with the right approach, any police department can develop and embrace an EWS to serve and protect its community more effectively.

The Impact of an Early Warning Systems on Police Culture

An EWS is a tool for improving accountability, a critical component to any successful department. Police leaders use early warning systems to track and identify officers’ patterns of behavior to intervene before an officer harms a member of the public, other officers, the department’s reputation and morale, or the officer’s own career.

It is important to indicate that EWS are not punitive devices, though they certainly assist supervisors in managing their employees. EWS are intended to help a supervisor identify an at-risk officer so steps may be taken to initiate intervention with the officer before misconduct occurs. These systems also improve employee health, promote community-police relations and encourage positive behavior. Ultimately, it should help officers reach their own professional goals, noting that effective EWS systems also help to identify good officer behaviors worth acknowledging as well, such as in an annual performance appraisal.

Three Obstacles to Improving Police Culture with Early Warning Systems

  • Officer perception. At the onset, an EWS can sound decisively disciplinary – and officers don’t want to feel like their bosses are tracking their every move in an effort to “catch them doing something wrong.” In fact, several may be extremely resistant to using such a system, and supervisors themselves may feel uncomfortable approaching their subordinates with data from an EWS. However, a proper EWS is not intended to be punitive in nature, as described above, and there are ways to ensure officers don’t misconstrue its purpose. We’ll go into this more later, but robust training, transparent policies regarding the EWS, positive reinforcement for good behavior and actionable guidance following any concerning behavior can all mitigate these fears. Police leaders must also urgently prioritize clear messaging to officers that the purpose of the program is to prevent disciplinary issues from arising in the first place, prolong their careers and improve overall performance. When officers themselves are involved in EWS development, know how the system works and understand what factors are considered, they are more likely to accept it as a positive contribution to their culture rather than to dread and resist it.
  • Resource availability. During a 2015 summit between the White House and law enforcement stakeholders, public safety leaders repeatedly said they’d love an EWS – but lack the data science and technology expertise to build them. That makes sense. I don’t think anyone expects our police officers to also be computer science experts. Fortunately, third-party resources are available. The Minneapolis Police Department recently contracted with Benchmark Analytics, a Chicago-based firm that is one of many EWS software vendors, to provide an EWS that is automated and intakes a ton of data. Of course, that sounds like a big chunk of your budget – but consider the potential benefits of such an investment from a management, civil liability and community trust perspective, not to mention the kind of behavior that goes unnoticed if such a system doesn’t exist.
  • The data itself. When looking into EWS, researchers with the University of Chicago found that many existing systems are neither predictive nor do they identify incidents that can be prevented. That’s obviously a problem, because the whole point of an EWS is to identify concerning behaviors before they escalate. To improve the process, researchers focused on which officers are likely to have an adverse interaction in the next two years and which dispatches are likely to end up having an adverse interaction, improving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD)’s system by 15 to 20 percent and reducing “false positives” by 55 percent. This goes to show that with the right approach, an EWS can be refined into something tangibly beneficial.

How to Get Started

So, you’ve read this blog – but you’re far away from your next budget meeting about potentially contracting with someone to build a new or improve your existing EWS. What can you do? There’s actually a lot you can do without any outside computer whizzes to help. In 2020, the International Association of Chiefs of Police published a report specifically about EWS and how to get them off the ground. They provide these critical steps:

  • Consider what items or information should be tracked
  • Address who is responsible for compiling and/or collating the data, who is the supervisor interfacing with the data directly, which officers can see the information and who will manage the data to ensure privacy
  • The role of the supervisor in the process.
  • Consider how information collected and tracked will be used. The goal of this is to identify when intervention is necessary.
  • Determine how to generate reports for supervisors and other designated personnel who need to intervene, if necessary
  • Establish guidance steps for how a supervisor (and officer) should response to the information, and what kind of discipline – or reward, if a positive outcome surfaces – should be used.

While some of the critical steps listed above concern the data sets themselves, many of them address the formal policies and procedures that need to be established regarding how you want your EWS to function once it is up and running. And don’t forget – you’ll need training and regular maintenance to keep an EWS functioning smoothly.

As part of our law enforcement assessments, we regularly review EWS operations or note a department’s potential need for one. We find that third-party oversight not only helps to identify critical operational gaps, but also helps kickstart a new phase of planning for department leaders looking to improve their processes. Feel free to reach out to one of our experts to see how we can help you address your EWS questions.

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