Determining whether to get your agency accredited is probably one of the most important decisions you can make as a law enforcement leader. Yet, when police accreditation is mentioned, it can spark thoughts like – Does your agency have the time or personnel bandwidth to go through the process? Can you afford accreditation? What is the difference between national and state accreditation?

What is accreditation?

Law enforcement accreditation is a self-initiated, voluntary process and is based on standards which are reflective of best practices in law enforcement. Accreditation standards cover roles and responsibilities; relationships with other agencies; organization, management and administration; law enforcement operations, operational support and traffic law enforcement; detainee and court-related services; and auxiliary and technical services.

What is Accreditation?Much like accreditation for hospitals, colleges and schools, police accreditation involves an outside autonomous agency or group that establishes the professional best-practice standards for departments, as well as ensures the agency is following those standards by conducting a comprehensive onsite assessment.

What is national accreditation?

The national accreditation program for law enforcement agencies is the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA). CALEA was created in 1979 with the purpose of improving the delivery of public safety services by maintaining a body of professional standards that support the administration of accreditation programs. The primary benefits of CALEA accreditation are: Controlled liability insurance cost; administrative improvements; greater accountability from supervisors; increased governmental and community support; means for developing or improving upon an agency’s relationship with the community; and facilitation of an agency’s pursuit of professional excellence.

CALEA accreditation is open to all types and sizes of law enforcement agencies, and its program seals are the “Marks of Professional Excellence” for today’s public safety agencies. The program seal reflects the gold standard benchmark associated with CALEA.

Agencies undergoing CALEA accreditation experience a five-phase process:

  1. Enrollment: Agencies enroll in one or more of the CALEA Accreditation programs.
  2. Self-Assessment: Initial self-assessment timeframes can take 24 – 26 months, and according to CALEA, “self-assessment refers to the internal, systematic analysis of an agency’s operations, management and practices to determine if it complies with applicable standards.”
  3. Assessment: The assessment phase ensures standard compliance.
  4. Commission Review Decision: The final credentialing decision is made by the Board of CALEA Commissioners. The Board facilitates a review hearing to discuss the assessment.
  5. Maintaining Accreditation: CALEA accreditation is an on-going quality performance review of an agency. Therefore, reaccreditation is contingent upon the agency’s ability to meet CALEA standards and demonstrate continued compliance.

What is state accreditation?

State accreditation programs are designed to help law enforcement agencies establish and maintain standards that represent current professional law enforcement practices; to increase the effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of law enforcement services; and to establish standards that address and reduce liability for the agency and its members.

According to the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Law Enforcement Accreditation Program (MLEAC), Michigan agencies seek accreditation for multiple reasons:

  • Accredited status represents a significant professional achievement.
  • Accreditation acknowledges the implementation of soundly written directives that are conceptually and operational effective.
  • Accreditation requires the agency to ensure the standards and written directives are being followed by provided proofs.

In state accreditation programs such as the one offered by MLEAC, the general process for becoming accredited includes a thorough self-analysis to determine how existing operations can be adopted to meet state standards. When procedures and policies are in place, a team of trained state assessors verify that applicable standards have been successfully implemented.

National vs. State — Key Differences

A key difference between state and national accreditation programs is workload, or what is actually involved in achieving accreditation. State programs often have less standards to meet than national accreditation programs.

Key differences in state and national accreditation

For example, MLEAC has 107 standards and the Texas Police Chiefs Association Foundation Law Enforcement Agency Best Practices Recognition Program (TPCAF Recognition Program) has 166. In comparison, CALEA has approximately 480 standards.

In many cases, state accreditation programs for police believe their standards cover the same important points as CALEA — and are written to be specific to agencies within that state. According to the TPCAF Recognition Program site, the program is similar in nature to the national accreditation program, but easier to administer and is designed specifically for Texas Law Enforcement. Similarly, Neal A. Rossow, Accreditation Program Director at MACP stated, “We designed an accreditation process that any department could afford and could achieve. Our first accredited agency was the Rockford Department of Public Safety with 10 officers.”

Because of these two key differences, many agencies use state accreditation as a stepping stone to CALEA accreditation; simply, it provides the ability to experience the process without getting overwhelmed by cost or the number of standards.

CALEA is an outstanding national accreditation program, as are many state accreditation programs. So whichever accreditation program an agency selects and receives, they are demonstrating to themselves and the community they serve, their commitment to excellence in law enforcement.

To learn more about police accreditation, take a look at our blog post: 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.