published Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Greater Chattanooga area police agencies boost standards with accreditation

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

The public and members of the Chattanooga Police Department may offer comments to the CALEA accreditation team at 6 p.m. Monday in the Chattanooga City Council chambers at 1000 Lindsay St.

Comments also may be offered by phone from 3 to 5 p.m. today by calling 423-643-5017.

Comments are limited to 10 minutes and must be on the topic of the agency's ability to comply with standards. A copy of the standards is available at the police department at 3300 Amnicola Highway.

Comments also are accepted via mail by writing to Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., 13575 Heathcote Blvd., Suite 320 Gainesville, VA 20155.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is approaching a deadline in 2013 to complete national accreditation requirements for law enforcement, while the Chattanooga Police Department goes for the gold standard this week.

The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. may not be familiar to the general public, but the Gainesville, Va.-based organization accredits law enforcement agencies across the country to help reduce liability in departments and create accountability within agencies by setting standards through guidelines and organization.

"Would you go to a hospital that's not accredited? Would you go to a college that is not accredited? No, you wouldn't," said Dennis M. Hyater, CALEA regional program manager for the Southeast. "We say, 'Why would you put a 9 mm or a .40-caliber weapon that can take a human life in an officer's hand and not properly train him?'"

CALEA has more than 400 standards for law enforcement agencies to comply with. Out of 22,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, as many as 44 percent do not have written directives, Hyater said.

Agencies also often hold up better in lawsuits and other scrutiny if they can show the agency has specific standards, Hyater said.

In Tennessee, there are seven law enforcement agencies seeking accreditation, while 33 out of more than 400 law enforcement agencies statewide have CALEA certification.

Next year will mark three years since the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office began seeking national accreditation, but it won't be until later in the year when a final review determines whether it meets CALEA standards.

"It was always kind of a dream of mine to see us move toward accreditation," said Sheriff Jim Hammond, who campaigned on getting the sheriff's office accredited during his successful 2008 race.

The sheriff's office did not begin the accreditation process until September 2010, according to an email from spokeswoman Janice Atkinson. The sheriff's office website states the process began in January 2010.

On average, the process takes 24 months. However, agencies have up to three years. If they go over that, they are penalized with fees, Hyater said.

"The sheriff does not anticipate the need for an extension and has set a goal for full accreditation within the allotted time," Atkinson said.

During a mock assessment in August conducted by assessors at nearby agencies, the sheriff's office was criticized for how its guidelines were written and how some records are kept, but Hammond remains enthusiastic about accreditation.

"I feel based on the first one [mock assessment], the areas they showed us we need to improve in, we'll be ready for the second one," Hammond said.

The sheriff's office has two full-time staff members to coordinate its accreditation process. The office will undergo another mock assessment in the spring before its final assessment next year.

The most challenging part of the process has been "making sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in all divisions of an agency that you're all following the same general principles of professionalism," Hammond said.

Since the process began, the sheriff's office has started issuing annual reports about the department. This year, it issued a detailed 277-page report including a five-year plan, which contained the CALEA shield -- indicating accreditation.

"They cannot use the shield unless they are accredited," Hyater said, noting that it will have to be removed.

On Friday, the sheriff's office received a call from CALEA officials notifying it to remove the shield, Atkinson said. She said the sheriff's office complied.

Going for gold

The Chattanooga Police Department has been accredited since 2001, but every three years the agency opens its doors to assessors to reassess the department. This year, the department is striving for the gold standard.

CALEA introduced the standard in 2011. To seek gold standard accreditation, the agency must have positive prior reviews without compliance issues.

"It's very difficult. It's not something we allow everyone to participate in," Hyater said.

Assessors interview more staff and examine how data is used within the department to support operations in deciding if a department passes.

Hyater said the assessors will be people who have no involvement with the Chattanooga Police Department and they'll tell Chief Bobby Dodd if "policies are good or bad and how it relates to national standards."

By increasing scrutiny of the department, Dodd is "also telling us they are transparent," Hyater said.

"We continually strive to be the best police agency that we can be," Dodd said. "We were invited to participate in the process, and from my understanding, there are only a handful of agencies nationwide that have achieved that standard."

The assessors will fly in today and spend a few days going through the department. A public comment session -- which can include department employees -- is set for Monday to discuss standards.

"They listen to what the citizens have to say if it's related to accreditation," Hyater said.

If a violation is brought to light, then it will be addressed, he said.

It's unclear how many departments have received the gold standard since the program began.

State standards

Two years ago, a state accreditation program began through the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.

"If you're a small police department, you can't afford to become accredited through CALEA," said Alice Grunau, program director of the state accreditation program, called Tennessee Law Enforcement Accreditation.

Agencies pay a $300 fee to apply, she said, while CALEA charges an initial fee of $7,125 for a small department. For departments the size of Chattanooga, the cost grows to $14,755. The annual fee is also several thousand dollars. TLEA also requires about 150 standards that departments must meet, compared to CALEA's 400-plus standards.

"The important thing is we're offering departments an opportunity to get their general orders up to professional levels. There's a lot of training that's involved in that," she said.

The Chattanooga Police Department recently received the accreditation from the state. Sixteen agencies across Tennessee are accredited while 57 agencies are in the process of accreditation, including departments in East Ridge, Red Bank, Signal Mountain, Collegedale and Cleveland.

Hammond said his department's focus remains on CALEA.

"CALEA is still recognized nationwide as the best one," he said. "The state one will probably be equal to that. At this point, I'm not convinced you need both."

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