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guide / July 27, 2023

Early intervention systems for law enforcement: a complete guide

By leveraging data analysis and human relationships, agencies can identify and support officers in need.

The notion of an early intervention system (EIS) was initially intended to leverage existing police department data on officers and identify those individuals exhibiting behavior that might require supervisory intervention. After reviewing the implementation and performance of EIS systems in several police departments, it became clear to the profession that the practical outcomes did not align with the initial goals of EIS systems.

As data science has improved, so too has the approach to EIS implementation. At Axon Accelerate 2023, four leading experts in early intervention system design and use shared insight on how to find a system that works for your agency and leverage it in a way that supports your staff.

Expert Panel: Early Intervention Systems

What is an early intervention system?

Typical early intervention systems begin by compiling a database of key police officer performance indicators such as uses of force, citizen complaints, arrests, use of sick leave, and other indicators. Exactly which figures are incorporated depends on the data available through the department and the department’s approach to EIS implementation. Taken holistically, early intervention systems intend to provide an overview of an officer's performance.

Why implement an early intervention system?

Rather than focus solely on adverse outcomes, a properly constructed and implemented EIS can provide an opportunity to highlight the good work of a police officer. Captain David Biggers, who heads the Technical Services Division at the Rock Hill, South Carolina Police Department, says much of law enforcement’s everyday heroism goes unnoticed. He’s seen officers use their personal credit cards to pay for somebody’s hotel stay or pull over to help someone on the side of the road. But these actions receive no spotlight in punitive early intervention systems, partly because they’re hard to spot. Biggers says he and his team want to “catch a cop doing something right.” By shifting the focus of the EIS to more positive interactions, leadership can more effectively highlight them, leading to improved morale among officers.

Biggers also noted that Rock Hill’s EIS led to improved performance across the board. The system helped identify communication skills and patience as two critical traits of exceptional officers; by pairing officers who scored highly in those categories with those who received lower scores, the department saw an ambient improvement among the lower-scoring officers.

Challenges early intervention systems face

There are three main challenges ahead of EI systems as they currently stand. The first is finding the right data. Traditional EI systems focus on complaints, use of force violations, missed court dates, use of sick time and other indicators of underperformance to find officers failing to meet standards. Those criteria often appeared in traditional EI systems that were widely seen as punitive in nature. But as agencies find greater success using positive reinforcement rather than negative punishment, they’ve discovered those data sets lacking. There are far fewer popular measures of positive police activity. Furthermore, context can impact the negative data in ways for which older systems fail to account. The circumstances around an incident can affect whether or not that incident calls for scrutiny, let alone discipline.

Discipline ties into the second major challenge: earning officer trust. Consent decrees between law enforcement agencies and the Department of Justice have focused on punishing officers who fail to meet standards set by DOJ. That’s created an antagonistic relationship between many officers and any attempt to measure their effectiveness. As Kristen Cosgrove, Special Projects Director for the Cincinnati Police Department, says, “They’re coming off of a punitive system. It’s always been this way. The officers are just always going to be suspicious of the intent of administration in measuring them in this manner.” Add to that potential lack of understanding around how the EIS works, and agencies face significant distrust among officers.

Finally, there is the question of how to address EIS-flagged issues. Officers and their supervisors often have relationships spanning years. Cosgrove says that creates a reluctance to bring up performance issues: “They don’t want to be the person that has to have that hard conversation sometimes.” But the reality is that without such conversations, it’s difficult to treat the roots of the problem. “The data-driven system is a tool just like a health screening questionnaire might be a tool for a doctor,” says Goodrich. “But it’s not until you have that conversation that you can learn, really, what’s going on and what that officer might need.”

How to select an early intervention system

Choosing the right early intervention system for your agency begins with understanding the system’s focus, the data it uses, and how it leverages that data. The most progressive and effective EI systems aren’t designed using a punitive approach. Instead, these systems hope to elevate exemplary officers and their actions to provide a template for other officers to follow. That avoids the morale decay and wagon-circling observed in more punitive systems. At the same time, the right EI system will still flag struggling officers so that supervisors can identify the problem and implement necessary corrections, training or potential treatment services.

If an EI system is going to be effective, everyone involved in the process must understand how it works. Agencies should work with their EIS vendor to ensure it can explain its methodology in a way leadership understands. That way, they can articulate the methods such that officers aren’t dealing with a mysterious algorithm hanging over their heads. Officers that understand how they’re going to be evaluated are more capable of succeeding in those evaluations.

Finally, and perhaps most transformatively, agencies should seek out vendors who use research to set the thresholds in their EIS. In an improperly constructed EI system, most thresholds are set by some combination of gut instinct and negotiation among leadership and employee representatives. They have minimal bearing on the realities faced by officers on the street and are too rigid to account for the contextual variables of reality. As Captain Biggers says, “The first thing we learned is you can’t pick a number. You can’t say, ‘OK, when they reach three, that’s a red dot and you’ve got to do something.’ If you work in certain communities and you reach one, you might want to look at it!”

To combat that disconnect, Goodrich encourages agencies to ask vendors how they set their thresholds. If the vendor doesn’t offer that information, she suggests finding a research partner that can bring a data-driven approach to bear. Universities and other academic partners have more insight into the relevant research. That makes thresholds more appropriate for your specific deployment and promotes transparency around the EIS.

How to implement an early intervention system police want to use

Building trust

EI systems work best when the entire agency buys in. Given officers’ historical resistance to evaluation, leadership has to approach EIS implementation collaboratively. That begins with transparency. Officers have the right to know what data is being collected, where it’s going, what it’s being used for and the goals of the program. As Axon Senior Product Manager Marin Skokandic says, “Providing more visibility into the EI system that currently exists, whether that’s through the technology that allows officers to interrogate where they stand at any given time, or whether it is through more structured communication, is another way to build trust.”

Transparency goes hand in hand with communication. Leadership needs to be capable and available to explain the system to the rank and file. That means internal memos, discussions at roll call and, whenever possible, on-the-ground communication. “When we roll out something like that, we don’t go to the podium and roll call. We go to the vehicle,” says Captain Biggers. “We go sit in the right seat and we talk to them.”

Address mental health stigmas

Goodrich says the Chicago Police Department refers to its EIS as an officer support system because of its power to help those officers most in need. Mental health challenges are prevalent among police officers, to the point that some experts refer to officer suicide rates as an epidemic. Chicago created its system in the wake of several such suicides and piloted it at the station where some of them had taken place. In order for the system to achieve maximum effectiveness – that is, to save the most lives – agencies need to take an all-hands approach to address the stigma around mental health.

Mental wellness must be a cornerstone of training and conduct. That way, officers feel more comfortable raising issues on their own, and supervisors are more adept at identifying and addressing those issues. Monthly one-on-one meetings between officers and their sergeants to review their EIS results for the month create an opportunity for both parties to take stock.

The early intervention system exists to support officers, empowering them to do the best work they can safe in the knowledge it will be noticed and applauded. It also helps to protect them from the stresses of the job. In doing so, it can boost performance agency-wide, creating tangible improvements for your officers and the community they serve.

How Axon can help

Axon’s own EIS offering, a part of Axon Standards, is in constant development with the end goal of best serving agencies in need. The company’s work on early intervention systems comes out of conversations with customers such as Captain Biggers who was looking for an EIS that delivers on the promise of better-supported officers. In addition to our EIS offering, Axon Standards also provides features such as customizable forms, internal affairs case management, native connection with Axon Evidence and more. Get in touch today to learn how Axon Standards can serve your agency.