What is law enforcement accreditation?

In this article, we’ll explain what accreditation means for law enforcement agencies, why it matters, and how you can get started.

May 21, 2021

Law enforcement scrutiny is increasing on multiple fronts. 

At the federal level, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating law enforcement agencies in Minneapolis and Louisville. And the DOJ has brought back consent decrees to address instances of police misconduct.

Since June of 2020, 140 police oversight bills have been passed by states in an attempt to increase accountability and revise use of force policies. But change seems to have just begun.

In the midst of DOJ investigations, budget reallocation, and police reform, law enforcement agencies like yours have a ton to deal with. It may feel counterintuitive to add one more thing to your plate, but accreditation can help with many of the challenges listed above.

In this article, we’ll explain what accreditation means for law enforcement agencies, why it matters, and how you can get started.

In April of 2021, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine spoke to MSNBC on the importance of accreditation for law enforcement, as a tool to build transparency and trust with their communities.

Why is accreditation important?

Accreditation helps police departments operate more professionally, justify their operations, and promote trust in their community. Most accrediting programs require agencies to assess high-liability areas of their operations, provide officers more training, and hold officers accountable to policy and training compliance. Accreditation also promotes transparency and self-reflection within an agency, which fosters a culture of accountability.  When an agency enrolls in an accreditation process they are committing to excellence in leadership, resource management, and delivery of services.

What is accreditation?

Generally speaking, accreditation is a third-party attestation that an organization is qualified to perform a particular activity. 

Hospitals and healthcare facilities across the United States are required to maintain accreditation in order to receive government funding (Medicare/Medicaid) for their services.

Colleges and universities obtain accreditation in order to participate in federal programs such as the Federal Student Financial Aid Program and to prove the quality of education they are providing.

Accreditation is a systematic, internal review of policies, procedures, training, and operations – all of which are measured against an accrediting body’s standards manual to prove compliance. Agencies conduct self-assessments before their accrediting body’s assessors arrive for a formal, onsite assessment to validate compliance. 

While accreditation is an ongoing, daily practice, the (re)accreditation process happens at regular intervals to verify an agency is maintaining compliance. Frequency varies between accrediting bodies and by industry.

Accreditation in law enforcement

Law enforcement accreditation is a self-initiated, voluntary process where agencies operate within a specific set of state- and nationally-recognized standards or best practices within the industry. Accrediting bodies compile these best practices and regulations into standards manuals. 

To maintain and prove compliance with these standards, agencies have to develop policies, training, and accountability for three things:

  1. High-liability areas (vehicle pursuits, vehicle operation, critical incident response, investigative techniques, use of force, etc.)
  2. Personnel management
  3. Evidence handling

Prior to 2020, there weren’t any laws or regulations mandating accreditation in law enforcement, and it’s estimated that only 3% of agencies have achieved accredited status. 

Due to a number of high profile events and public calls for police reform, Connecticut, Oregon, and Florida recently passed legislation requiring agencies to obtain accreditation.

Currently, there are two international law enforcement accrediting bodies, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement (CALEA) and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). To date, 31 states have created their own state-level accrediting bodies. 

While accreditation varies by program, many of them share the same key features:

  • A compilation of standards based on federal and state law and industry best practices
  • A self-assessment period where the agency compares their practices against the standards
  • A comprehensive independent review of their policies and practices by the accrediting body (can be remote or part of the onsite visit)
  • An onsite visit which includes interviews and tours of the agency

After achieving accredited status, agencies have to repeat this process on a recurring basis to maintain their accreditation. This process is referred to as reaccreditation.

What accreditation is not

Accreditation is not an end-all, be-all solution to end negative public perceptions of policing. Good policies alone don’t equate to effective policing or community trust. Additionally, accreditation isn’t effective if policies aren’t accessible, officers aren’t properly trained, or corrective action isn’t taken when a policy or procedure is violated.

Building and maintaining trust with your community involves recruitment, hiring, training, community engagement, and transparency. Accreditation will promote each of these efforts and help agency’s demonstrate, to themselves and the public, their desire to learn and continuously improve.

How does the accreditation process work?

Accreditation standards are designed to guide agencies on what they should be doing, not how they should be doing it. This leaves room for the uniqueness and creativity of each agency. 

State-level and national accreditation processes vary slightly, but they all involve some combination of the following 5 steps:

Step 1: Enrollment

For each accrediting body, there is an enrollment process where you (the applicant) choose an accreditation program, review requirements, pay a fee, and/or submit an application.

Step 2: Training

Accrediting bodies sometimes offer training to newly assigned accreditation managers to help them understand the specific accreditation process and everything that will be required. In this phase, an accreditation manager or point person needs to be assigned – someone who can complete the required training and own the process for your organization.

Step 3: Self Assessment

Each accrediting body has a self-assessment phase, where you conduct a thorough internal review of policies and practices against accreditation standards. As your agency feels they demonstrate compliance with a particular standard, you would gather compliance files. Compliance files include a copy of your agency policy along with proofs of compliance. Depending on the accrediting body, this can be done via paper or electronically using software. Some programs require electronic files, while others allow for paper or electronic.

Step 4: Onsite/Final Assessment

Once the self-assessment is completed, it’s time for the onsite assessment by trained representatives from the accrediting body. This can involve a combination of remote or in-person file review, inspections, interviews and tours. Some accrediting bodies are 100% in-person, while many use a hybrid model. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, a few accrediting bodies have moved to 100% remote.

Step 5: Reaccreditation

Maintenance is required for all accreditations. With industry best practices and regulations frequently evolving, it’s easy to understand why. Most accrediting bodies will assess your agency again every three to four years. This requires a new self-assessment for each cycle that can be validated against and reviewed.

The best way to get reaccredited is to maintain it year-round: assessing organizational performance, staying abreast of new or updated standards, tracking document updates, and clearly mapping your policies to those standards.

Getting started

Achieving accreditation is challenging, but not impossible, for small agencies. Many agencies are already doing things related to accreditation, but they aren’t formally documenting or having them validated by a third party.

What you may already be doing

Are you developing and implementing policies and procedures?

Do you frequently review and update those policies and procedures?

If yes, then you are already one step towards being accredited.

What may be new for your agency

Completing a self-assessment requires you to gather all of your policies and proofs of compliance and associate them to specific standards. Associating documentation to the standards and highlighting them will likely be new for your agency. Depending on the accrediting body, this can be completed via paper/binders or electronically using an accreditation management software.

What also may be new for your agency is the creation of new directives and training. There may be topics covered in the accreditation process that your agency hasn’t previously addressed in a policy or procedure. 

You will also need documented proof that you’re frequently updating policies, training employees, and collecting their acknowledgement via signatures. The good news is, there are software tools out there to assist with managing, maintaining, and automating the creation of this documentation.

Accreditation may also challenge your agency to document or formalize processes that are informally defined or managed.

Next steps

In these trying times when law enforcement is under a microscope, accreditation is more necessary than ever before. It may feel like another task to add to your workload. And accreditation management software may seem like a luxury. But accreditation, and the tools that help you implement it more effectively, provide numerous benefits.

Read the next article in this series to learn how accreditation benefits your officers, agency, community, and city.

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