Beyond Police Early Warning Systems: Making the Most of Early Intervention

Often there are misunderstandings about what early intervention actually is and what it can do for your law enforcement organization.

The disconnect is evident in police departments that buy an early warning system with the intent of letting it tell them when it is time to reprimand or fire an officer, rather than approaching it in conjunction with leadership.

This kind of misuse of the tool leads to many problems—from poor officer morale to opening up the department to lawsuits—and is far from the intended purpose of early intervention systems for police.

Early warning systems vs. early intervention: What’s the difference?

In discussion, early warning systems (EWS) are sometimes used interchangeably with early intervention systems (EIS).

And to be sure, the systems have the same functionality on paper. But what makes early intervention management software different is the intent and where the focus is placed.

Warning systems” inherently focus attention on negative behavior and punitive actions.

Emphasis on intervention, however, reflects a desire to see officers to succeed, much like how schools have supplemental courses and extra support for struggling students.

Additionally, early warning systems are often discussed as a standalone, set-it-and-forget-it solution, whereas early intervention places the emphasis on an ongoing, transparent, and collaborative process—driven by supervisors and facilitated by performance management software.

More than just analytics, early intervention software is designed to alert supervisors to patterns of behavior and facilitate their follow-up conversations with personnel—long before disciplinary action is needed.

Leaders wanting to make the most of their early intervention systems and see real, positive results should ask themselves these questions.

Are you leaving flagging thresholds up to your system’s defaults?

Every organization has its own specific needs unique to its culture, community, and goals. So, why would standardized flags created by a third-party software system be the best fit for your department?

When implementing an early warning or early intervention system, leaders should be extra diligent with the development of the flags and thresholds. This also requires a good understanding of how your system categorizes, calculates, and weighs data.

Your system’s flagging thresholds should be strategic: aligned to your goals with different metrics weighted by their importance or seriousness.  

Ideally, your thresholds should also be informed by your expected (or documented) averages and what those in your area are likely to encounter.

But it doesn’t stop after you’ve implemented it. Your organizational needs will evolve over time and your flagging thresholds should do the same. Leaders should plan for ongoing review of early intervention flags and make adjustments as needed.

Even better are systems that allow you to customize alert thresholds for subgroups within your department. The standards can be tailored for different roles and responsibilities.

Are you doing anything once flags are raised?

This might seem like a no-brainer, but early intervention flags are useless if nothing is done with them. Leaders and supervisors should have a plan for when an alert is triggered by the early intervention system—and consistently follow up.

These alerts and flags are superiors’ opportunity to engage in a dialogue with personnel. Such conversations may lead to may lead to coaching, counseling, training, praise, or nominations.

Supervisors and personnel should be well aware of the menu of supports available and have an understanding of when each option is appropriate.  

However, it is important to note that there should not be uniform, rigid policies in place to address flags. Each individual’s situation will be unique, and supervisors and employees should be allowed to collaboratively design a plan uniquely suited to address the issue.

Lastly, it is not enough to have a one-off action for every flag that is raised.

The best early intervention processes are those that create and track ongoing professional development plans, with regular progress discussions scheduled along the way.

For more in-depth advice on how to follow-up on flags, COPS has created a guide to early intervention systems for law enforcement agencies.

Are you being proactive or reactive?

By being proactive, your supervisors can resolve issues that could otherwise lead to costly liability. Proactive interventions can also shape and encourage good performance and ensure officer and civilian safety and wellness.

This requires a shift to reviewing, identifying, and addressing behavior and performance even before a flag might be raised.

Leaders should be mindful of this distinction when establishing processes and policies surrounding early intervention systems and train supervisors to be proactive in their management, rather than waiting on a flag or major incident.

Are you only looking for negative incidents?

Many departments adopt an early warning or early intervention system with the intent of addressing negative behavior.

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But this mentality forgets the half of the equation in creating a healthy culture: nurturing positive behaviors.

At their core, early intervention systems are supposed to promote officer safety, wellness, and success—as echoed by CALEA and the National Police Foundation.

Rather than fixating on flags thrown for a negative incident, supervisors and employees can develop performance improvement plans focused on increasing positive behaviors with milestones, tasks, and reminders to help get officers back on track.

To see even greater impact, supervisors should use early intervention tools to highlight the good at least as much as—and ideally more than—they use them to uncover the bad.  

For example, some departments are using such systems to capture positive feedback such as awards and commendations. Others are taking it a step further to identify candidates for promotion or leadership roles by finding consistent patterns of exemplary performance.

Was an early warning system set up to placate stakeholders rather than to support your staff?

If appeasing angry stakeholders was the primary motivation for implementing an early warning system, it is unlikely that it is currently capable of supporting your staff. This driver typically results in one of two mistakes: setting it up hastily and then ignoring it (as addressed earlier) or using it to punish personnel.

Early intervention systems should not be used for disciplinary purposes. This will only instill fear, resistance, and even apathy among your ranks.  

Those who are intent on misbehavior will work hard to find loopholes and hide actions from being recorded in the system, while the performance of “good” employees will suffer as they worry and second-guess their actions for fear of harming their careers.

Are your processes transparent? Even to those being evaluated?

It’s imperative that leaders and supervisors clearly understand the purpose of early intervention systems, what criteria lead to flags, and the exact processes to be taken and when. And then—to mitigate personnel speculation, fear, or even anger—they need to communicate it to those being evaluated.

This goes even further to communication with external stakeholders. When you are asked questions, “It’s just the way the algorithm did it” is not going to cut it. Leadership’s understanding of the system needs to be correctly communicated to the public when called upon.


Early intervention software is not a standalone solution to misconduct and poor performance. Early intervention systems should be strategically employed as part of a broader performance management plan.

It is possible to see incredible results, but only if your organization properly understands and utilizes early intervention as a supportive tool in nurturing positive behavior and providing additional support to those who need more guidance.

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Posted on Apr 29, 2021