Making It Understandable
Putting a manual online has far less value if the public cannot understand what’s written in it. Manuals should be comprehensible to people who have no prior knowledge of the departments policies.
We understand that manuals are technical documents. In order to instruct officers, they need to be precise. But precision does not necessarily require jargon. Technical terms should be avoided unless absolutely necessary – and when they are necessary, they should be defined so that readers can understand them.
In addition to doing the best to write a manual in plain English, the following features will improve a reader’s use of the manual.
Department manuals come in many different forms & go by different names: some jurisdictions call their policies ‘Directives’; others refer to them as ‘Orders.’ An ordinary citizen might not understand that the ‘Directives’ on the website actually represent the entire rule book for the police department.
An introduction explains to the public what it is about to read. A good introduction will address
- If certain policies were kept offline and why
Whether the manual applies to everyone in the department or just a certain division
When the manual was last updated and how often it is updated
The Anchorage Police Department created a short but effective introduction to its online manual.
A glossary and list of abbreviations
A particularly useful aid for readers is a glossary for technical terms and abbreviations used throughout the manual. That way readers—including officers themselves—can find the meaning to particular terms.
Even if the entire manual cannot be rewritten in plain English, one particularly helpful tool for readers is to post policy summaries of some of the policies most important to the lay public.
Departments don’t have to create summaries for every policy, just the ones the community has specific interest in (such as use of force, search protocols, or the rules regarding body-worn cameras).
These short summaries will not replace publishing the full policies themselves. Some people will still want access to the full policy. But summaries can go a long way toward educating and informing the broader public.
For example, the Baltimore Police Department has published summaries of its use of force and body-worn camera policies.
These policy summaries should be displayed prominently on the website. Like the manual itself, they won’t help anyone unless people know how to find them.
There are understandable reasons not many police departments have created and published policy summaries. It takes a good amount of time and effort to craft a succinct, comprehensive summary. But it is worth the trouble to connect departments to the wider community.