Agency Accreditation: What to consider before pursuing it for your department

Many professions and industries (e.g., schools, hospitals, manufacturers, software providers) use accreditation to define and distribute policy standards based on the experience and authority of the accrediting body. Beyond the pragmatic benefit of access to best practices, accreditation signals that a company or organization wants to align itself to proven, and quality assured, modes of operating. Some believe it can serve, “as a credible sign of departmental competence, and building a reputation for competence can benefit the department…and the city as a whole.”

The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) has championed changes in policing that improve agency performance and professionalism in the eyes of the community while promoting the well-being and safety of officers since its founding in 1979.  CALEA offers accreditation to law enforcement agencies dependent on their ability to align with its policies and operational standards.

However, CALEA is not the only accreditation game in town. State programs emerged to make accreditation accessible to agencies with leaner budgets. Programs like the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation, Inc., and  the one offered by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs emerged that now account for the accreditation of additional agencies. (CALEA’s fees are based on the number of full-time personnel employed by your agency – this number includes sworn and non-sworn.)

The Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program (ILEAP) offered by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police (ILACP) is one of the twenty-two state accreditation programs (as of 2017) with offerings similar to those provided by CALEA. Each will offer its own take on best practices, which could be important to your agency if you feel differences in region or headcount will impact your ability to benefit from the guidelines.

A Worthwhile Commitment

Any organization that’s gone through the process will tell you that accreditation is a commitment. It’s not a one-and-done deal; your agency will need to periodically obtain reaccreditation, which can be a heavier lift than your agency’s first go-around because you have to demonstrate proof of compliance for more years. Digitization has made this easier in recent years, allowing your accreditation managers to move away from shipping paper files via FedEx to web documents hosted and managed through the cloud.

row-togetherAccreditation is also an investment. Your agency is literally buying into the insight and time-tested authority of your accreditor, whether it’s CALEA or a state-specific program. Spending hard-won budget, assigning extra duties to over-worked personnel, and tackling the necessary process changes to become compliant. As one researcher put it, “Accreditation is a voluntary process that demands organizational resources without a guaranteed outcome.”

This uncertainty can lead to resistance or outright dismissal of accreditation. Which means pursuing it can require a lot of change management savvy. It’s hard to introduce something new if it makes your audience  feel like they’re doing things wrong, or that what they have to offer isn’t enough. But no one loses when they become accredited. It provides peace of mind for your leadership team and the community.

The Benefits of Accreditation

Instead of wondering why your officers operate the way they do, you can ease community concern by discussing the third-party standards you manage against.  Because of the number of stakeholders involved in this type of transition, it’s advantageous to know the benefits of accreditation before attempting to sell it internally.

According to CALEA, these are the benefits to gaining accreditation:

  • Increased community advocacy
  • Staunch support from government officials
  • Stronger defense against civil lawsuits
  • Reduced risk and liability exposure
  • Greater accountability within the agency

Increased Community Advocacy

Pursuing accreditation tells  your community that professionalism and high performance are important to your agency. You demonstrate that you’re willing to invest in your department (time, resources, and so on) to ensure the service delivered by your officers is par none. Beyond any implicit direction, some of CALEA’s policies explicitly direct agencies to develop community groups.

Staunch Support from Government Officials

Identifying and aligning an organization around effective policies is challenging (or else accreditation wouldn’t exist) due to the many unavoidable interpersonal dynamics at play. Having a third-party available to spot-check your department on best practices attracts the support of government officials because it streamlines an added layer of accountability. Instead of relying on intuition or inherited wisdom, you can manage your department and mitigate risk using validated policies.

Stronger Defense Against Civil Lawsuits

A lot of civil litigation can be summed up in a phrase on the tip of many a parent’s tongue: you should’ve known better. In trying to determine whether or not an agency can be found liable, it’s not uncommon for attorneys to look at existing policy. If your agency’s policies resulted from ad-hoc gut decisions over the years, it’s harder for you to demonstrate you or your officer did the right thing given the circumstances. However, your defense is stronger if you can show you complied with guidelines issues by an accreditor like CALEA. It shows your agency has made an investment in professionalism and performance to ensure against the likelihood of receiving claims of negligence.

Reduced Risk and Liability Exposure

Accreditation policies like CALEA’s are written to reduce the likelihood of a negative outcome. By structuring your agency’s policies around CALEA’s, you are leveraging its collective experience which ensures you minimize blind spots and maintain awareness of best practices.

Greater Accountability within the Agency

It’s easier to hold someone accountable when you have an objective standard to point to. Instead of relying on hierarchy to move personnel in your desired direction, accreditation provides a blueprint that gets you there without slowing down to defend every decision. You’ll likely still receive pushback from your officers, but a goal of accreditation is a lot easier to accept than a one-off policy change for a single department. Accreditation is like any system; it moves the decision-making impetus away from you. That’s why it’s critical to have a good system in place.

What are Your Next Steps?

benchmark-compliance-shield-calea-accreditationTimelines for accreditation vary by department. It depends on the accreditation you’re seeking, the number of assessors available at any given time, and the number of full-time employees you have on staff. The aforementioned ILEAP program takes between 16-18 months from application to awarding of accreditation. The right technology can expedite the process (the less paper files you have to wrangle, the better), but it still takes time to review your existing policies, identify any gaps, determine what proofs you’ll use to demonstrate compliance (e.g., video of officers using their lights when responding to a call), and conduct both a mock assessment and the real one.

After you’ve achieved accreditation, how do you ensure compliance? Having technology in place to track your people data, including mandatory training, procedures, and reporting, can make it easier to maintain your status. Subsequent reaccreditations tend to take longer because you have more to report – usually multiple years of proofs required to show your agency is actually using the provided policies.