How Law Enforcement Accreditation Can Support Accountability and Legitimacy

Currently, American policing is under unprecedented scrutiny from the public, the media, and much of the political establishment. In the coming days and months, government and law enforcement leaders will be urgently searching for ways to enhance the actual and perceived professionalism of their agencies. While there are a number of unconventional solutions being touted to bring about drastic and immediate reform, implementation of these types of changes could face opposition, which may delay or even derail their enactment. But there are also less drastic ways to improve policing throughout the country; unfortunately, these types of reform also take time, which may be a commodity in short supply in our era of immediacy.

Nonetheless, the first step is to establish and maintain solid policies—policies that serve the public’s best interests while enhancing agency professionalism. These policies must be reinforced and supported by proper training, management, procedures, and hiring. To accomplish this goal, some agencies turn to accreditation to implement all the above. Law enforcement accreditation not only provides a set of independently established standards by which to manage an agency, but also allows for recurring, independent reviews of agency operations. These reviews add a layer of accountability that may otherwise be absent.

Accreditation standards require more than just policies; they also necessitate actions on the part of the agency in furtherance of those policies to achieve compliance.

In fact, under most consent decrees or agreements with the Department of Justice, agencies are mandated to become accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA). Many states also offer state-specific accreditation programs, as do other law enforcement organizations such as the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) and the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections (CAC).

National Law Enforcement Accreditation

On a national level, CALEA was formed in 1979 and funded by a grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). LEAA and the American Bar Association believed law enforcement standards for operation were necessary to demonstrate police professionalism and proficiency. Four executive police associations (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) appointed a 21-member commission consisting of 11 law enforcement professionals and 10 representatives from the public and private sector.

According to Craig Hartley, Executive Director of CALEA, “CALEA is the only international credentialing association providing accreditation services in four spectrums of public safety, to include law enforcement, communications, training academy, and campus security. And, the organization has an established record of professionalism and integrity, spanning over four decades” (D.B, personal communication, April 9, 2020).

How Does Accreditation Help?

One of the critiques most often sounded about law enforcement is that there is little oversight of police agencies. Historically, law enforcement operated based upon customs and practice, rather than written directives defining policy and procedure. Policing today requires sound written directives to establish consistency, enhance professionalism, and protect the general welfare.

Accreditation has created a voluntary means to assist police agencies in the development of well-established written directives. Accreditation programs promulgate independent standards that are developed with input from not only law enforcement professionals, but also lawyers, judges, municipal leaders, politicians, and educational institutions. Rather than creating policy within the echo chamber of an agency, policies can be created based upon industry best practices and the expectations of a commission with varied backgrounds.

As stated, accreditation standards serve as a management tool—in the form of a plan or framework—for an agency. But the standards require more than just policies; they also necessitate actions on the part of the agency in furtherance of those policies to achieve compliance. For example, standards may require regular, internal reviews related to certain functions, such as the use of force, elimination of bias-based policing, vehicular pursuits, and evidence preservation. Standards will often dictate the frequency with which such reviews, analyses, and inspections are carried out. In the area of property and evidence management, for instance, standards will prescribe how often an audit or inspection is to take place, the number of items to be inspected, and the documentation that is to be reviewed by a chief or sheriff.

One of the additional benefits of national accreditation is feedback from the community.

Training, which plays a key role in ensuring officers and deputies know how to properly perform their jobs, is another area of focus of law enforcement accreditation standards. Whereas many states have legislated initial and/or in-service training requirements, accreditation helps agencies keep on schedule to meet those minimum legal mandates, and often imposes additional training requirements. The regular training schedules serve to keep staff current on policy requirements and legal updates. Additionally, specific standards are in place to ensure training instructors are properly qualified, lesson plans are approved, and training records are created and kept on file.

Whether policies are created by the agency itself, by consultants, or by some other body, they all must meet the standards put forth by the accrediting body. In the case of CALEA, compliance is determined through reviews and assessments conducted by trained CALEA assessors and compliance service members who must undergo an initial training program and re-certification every four years. To avoid a conflict of interest, assessors cannot assess agencies in their own state and tend to be assigned in different parts of the country. At the completion of an assessment period, a written report is presented to the agency outlining the findings and recommendations. Political leaders, the community, and staff can be assured that these independent standards and reviews provide ongoing feedback on the agency, keeping it current and on-track with the most contemporary and accepted trends in the field.

Public Feedback

One of the additional benefits of national accreditation is feedback from the community. CALEA encourages agencies to conduct a comprehensive citizen survey at least every two years. The survey solicits information on the community’s views on issues such as the perception of employee behavior and competency, safety concerns, and performance of the agency. Just as importantly, it solicits suggestions. The results of the survey are reviewed by the chief or sheriff and can provide insight into the views of the community and recommendations for improvement.

Furthermore, during each on-site assessment, assessors will also hold a public hearing and a call-in session for residents, community groups, and any other interested parties. The purpose here is to provide direct input to the assessment team relative to the candidate agency’s compliance with standards. Written comments and letters are also accepted, and all information is considered in the determination of an agency’s accreditation status.

One Last Step

The last step in the CALEA accreditation process is a hearing before the commission. At this time, the commissioners will review the agency’s assessment reports, discuss any noted issues within the agency, review public feedback, and finally, vote on the agency’s status. An agency may be accredited, accredited with conditions, or not accredited. Those agencies receiving accreditation will be accredited for a four-year period. The entire process will, in essence, start over again with annual compliance reviews, a formal assessment, and another hearing in four years. The goal is to create an ethos of continual improvement within accredited agencies.

“Agencies are seeking best-in-industry standards to ensure they are comprehensively meeting the need and expectations of their service areas, as well as providing responsible support for their personnel through policy, practice, training, equipment and technological application,” Hartley says. “They recognize CALEA Accreditation provides the framework to confirm coverage of these important professional dimensions, while also placing them among an elite group of public safety entities that have achieved accredited status. In its most foundational and fundamental format, CALEA Accreditation supports agencies as they continuously review their policies, practices, outcomes and outputs with specific regard to meeting defined duties and responsibilities, as well as periodic public interest issues that arise. Public safety leaders know they can trust accreditation for this purpose, which allows them to provide attention to more acute and pressing issues that agencies must be prepared to address” (D.B, personal communication, April 9, 2020).

Accreditation programs provide a tool for agencies to stay current with the latest trends in professional policing and law enforcement, accept public feedback, and be independently reviewed within the context of national and/or state standards. Adherence to professional, independent standards can keep an agency on task and add an important layer of accountability to their policies, procedures, and operations. In these challenging times, debate will continue as to the direction and expectations of American policing, but agencies may be well-served to consider the positive impact accreditation programs may have on their operations—maybe even their existence—and on the communities they serve.


DAVID BELMONTE is a content developer for Lexipol. David retired as chief of police of the Lake Bluff (Illinois) Police Department, with 31 years of law enforcement experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College of Missouri, a master’s degree from Webster University and is a graduate of the 237th session of the FBI National Academy.

ROBERT VANNIEUWENHUYZE is a content developer for Lexipol. He served 26 years with the Smithfield Police Department in Rhode Island, retiring as deputy police chief. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Studies and a master’s degree in Administration of Justice and is a graduate of the 236th session of the FBI National Academy.

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