RINGGOLD, Ga. - Two months before Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers retires, the final steps are complete for the agency to meet national accreditation standards for how officers investigate crimes - and their own when a complaint is made.
A sheriff has a lot of leeway in how crimes are investigated and how citizen complaints are handled, and becoming accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies sets a rigorous standard, Summers said.
"It lets citizens know every complaint or issues or investigations are being handled appropriately, because we handle it the way the big agencies handle it all over the nation," he said.
If the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office is certified in March, it will become the first agency in the North Georgia region to be nationally accredited. The Dalton Police Department is the only other agency in the process of gaining the accreditation.
Summers, who has been in office for 22 years, said he already sees the benefits from rewriting the office's standards, and he can tell it has raised the level of transparency and professionalism.
Before, deputies didn't document every step when they arrested someone and the agency's protocol for investigating missing persons wasn't up to par, Summers said. Now when an officer uses deadly force or is involved in a high-speed chase, his supervisor is required to investigate the action and document the entire process.
"Before, they would have to take the sheriff's word that we looked into it," Maj. Gary Sisk said.
In Georgia, there are only nine sheriff's offices that are nationally accredited, and most are larger agencies such as the Fulton County Sheriff's Office in Atlanta and the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office in Cumming. With these standards, Catoosa residents should expect to be treated the same way as they would in Atlanta or Los Angeles or by any other nationally accredited agency, Summers said.
Another improvement that began with state accreditation and continued with the national process was installing computer software that identifies problem employees -- for example, when an officer uses too much force on a regular basis. The software allows officials to see if an officer needs more training or needs to be reprimanded.
"It helped us tremendously in identifying weak areas in our agency," Summers said. "I know more today of what goes on in this agency then I did five years ago."
In January, when Sisk takes over as sheriff, he will continue the accreditation process, he said.