Local police say status offers uniformity, lawsuit protection
A new program by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association allows police agencies across the state to apply for accredited status. Before, the only option was a national accreditation program that many say is too expensive and time-consuming for smaller departments.
Several suburban police departments in Allegheny County have applied for the voluntary accreditation through the association's Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission. Training seminars for police agencies in southwestern Pennsylvania are scheduled for Sept. 24 and 25 in Monroeville.
Police chiefs from three eastern Allegheny County departments - Monroeville, Penn Hills and Pitcairn - along with Whitehall were on a steering committee with counterparts from across the state that developed the new state standards.
Doug Cole, Monroeville's assistant chief, said accreditation will make his department better.
'It will give you a standard to be able to measure yourself by,' he said. 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.'
Proponents of accreditation say benefits include increased professionalism, lower liability insurance costs for the department, better defense against lawsuits and, ultimately, better police service because officers follow written requirements.
'We feel it gives a community the best possible resource they have to bring fair and equitable law enforcement to their community,' said Dennis Hyater, a program manager for the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, based in Fairfax, Va.
But accreditation has its skeptics.
Gary Cordner, professor of police studies and dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., said a department that meets the standards does not necessarily provide better service.
Accreditation 'measures what is easy to measure, rather than what matters,' Cordner said. 'Police service isn't delivered in a file cabinet. It's delivered on the streets.'
To become accredited by either the national commission or the state program, a police agency must meet a set of standards on management and operation. Hyater said police accreditation is similar to that of colleges and hospitals in that it brings policing to a professional level.
'It gets away from that good ol' boy network and policing by the seat of the pants,' he said. 'Officers know what is expected of them because they have written directives.'
The national Accreditation Commission was established in 1979 by four organizations - the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the National Sheriff's Association and the Police Executive Research Forum. The state accreditation program, in development for the past year, was introduced at the state Chiefs of Police Association annual conference in July.
James Hazen, accreditation manager for the association, said it was based on the national program and state programs in Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. Agencies that pursue state accreditation will have to show they meet 108 standards.
The major benefits of police department accreditation, according to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies: |
Police agencies are given three years to conform with standards before being inspected. Accreditation lasts for three years. Hazen said 26 departments statewide have paid the state program's $100 fee, while another 45 to 50 have expressed interest.
The first departments are expected to be accredited by July 2002. State accreditation would last for three years. Ideally, Hazen said, accreditation will lead to the standardization of police services across the state.
'It establishes a framework - and we think a credible framework - to be able to evaluate a police department's practices and procedures,' Hazen said.
Howard Burton, Penn Hills police chief, one of the four Allegheny County chiefs who helped develop the state standards, said accreditation will lead to a more professional and responsible police department.
'Police departments are notorious for operating from memos,' he said. 'This gives the chiefs a tool they can work with that will make their job a lot easier.'
Nationwide, 521 police agencies are accredited by the commission. Only nine are from Pennsylvania, which has more than 1,200 police agencies. Forty percent of the officers in the nation work for accredited agencies, Hyater said.
'Accreditation is not for everyone. It takes a lot of hard work to get involved with the process and complete the process,' he said. 'Everyone can't meet our standards.'
In Allegheny County, only one municipal police department, Findlay Township, has national accreditation. The Pittsburgh Housing Authority Police Department and Pennsylvania State Police also have it.
Paul Wilks, Findlay Township police chief, said the accreditation process forces examination of every aspect of a department's operation.
'It's easy to take minor issues and put them on the back burner. Accreditation forces you to take those back burner issues and deal with them.'
In an age of fill-in-the-blank lawsuits, Wilks said accreditation can reduce such actions because of the procedures that document everything his officers do and why.
'We're doing everything that can be done in accordance with the best methods that are out there,' he said.
The Allegheny County Sheriff's Office is seeking national commission accreditation, while the Allegheny County Police Bureau is pursuing the commission's recognized status. Recognition is a step below accreditation and requires a department to meet 95 standards.
'We pretty much meet all the standards in the book now. We don't have the sheepskin,' said Officer Glen Zilch, accreditation manager for the county police. 'The public can feel secure in knowing the Allegheny County police is at least making the attempt to be the most professional law enforcement agency that it can be.'
Hazen said the state chiefs association based its accreditation program on Pennsylvania laws and court decisions. Burton said the state program deals with the primary issues police officers face.
'At this point in time we feel these 108 standards are the standards we need to have,' he said.
VALUE OF ACCREDITATION
Cordner conducted an analysis of the accreditation commission funded by the National Institute of Justice and found the standards apply to department systems, processes and policies.
'They mostly pertain to how a police department is run, as opposed to how police officers carry out their duties and deal with the public,' he said. 'They mostly fall short of specifying standards of care, quality of service or policing outcomes.'
Sam Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the value of accreditation is limited because it is voluntary.
A police department that is not accredited will not suffer the penalties an unaccredited college or hospital would.
'It's better than nothing, but you'd have a tough time proving it really makes a difference,' he said.
Cordner said many of the departments that have been accredited were in the least need of it.
'Many have been medium-sized cities and suburban agencies which were probably already well-run and simply got a stamp of approval by going through the process,' Cordner said. 'Some of the agencies that would probably benefit the most, including big cities and very small agencies, have been the ones least likely to pursue accreditation. Either they think they can't afford it or they figure it would be too much trouble or they think it's not relevant for them.'
Even a skeptic such as Cordner concedes accreditation carries benefits, including more orderly policies, lower police liability insurance rates and defense against lawsuits.
Some departments have used their accredited status to obtain money for items such as body armor, radio systems and jail facilities, he said.
Brian C. Rittmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (412) 306-4540.