All police agencies, regardless of their size, perform the same tasks. The only difference is frequency and availability of resources. Any officer deciding to make an arrest, engage in a pursuit, or respond to aggression by an offender is held to the same legal and constitutional standards of performance and expected to act accordingly. For years, attention was focused on mitigating lawsuits resulting from officers’ inappropriate behavior.
Recently, agencies and their leaders are experiencing challenges in other ways including increased public criticism through social media, 1st Amendment audits, administrative oversight from state agencies for complaints (i.e. speed enforcement requirements), and public protests. Some agencies may begin to experience increased challenges in criminal prosecutions for poor or inconsistent operations. In many cases, agencies may be unaware of how many cases are not being prosecuted because officers failed to properly follow establish procedures or document their actions.
In November 2020, the U. S. Department of Justice established minimum policy requirements for agencies to apply for discretionary grants. Once initiated, these processes tend to expand exponentially. In the next year, police leaders are also likely to see renewed use of federal consent orders by the U. S. Department of Justice for identified patterns and practices of unlawful behaviors.
Agencies that do not take a proactive approach to managing their operations in accordance with established standards may soon find increased restrictions being forced upon them. What may be worse are severe limitations on professionally operated organizations because other agencies are not performing to standards. These externally imposed requirements will likely not consider the individual community’s interests, conditions or needs. They most definitely will not consider the interests of its officers, appointed and elected leaders, or the citizens they serve.
The processes to ensure performance is done in a consistent manner have been established for years. These include up-to-date operational procedures, training, on-going supervisory review (appropriately supporting or correcting as needed), and documentation. The Georgia Law Enforcement Certification Program has codified these expectations.
In his best-selling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear describes the best approach for individuals seeking to improve their daily habits. Clear illustrates the three layers of behavioral change. The first layer is outcomes (what you get), followed by processes (what you do), and identity (what you believe). While some utilize an outcome-based approach that begins with a
focus on outcomes and culminates with a change in their identity, the alternative is to begin with an identity-based approach. While it may seem insignificant, focusing on the identity of the person, and in this case an organization, has a huge impact on the increased likelihood of successfully implementing new habits. Clear uses the analogy of a person seeking to lose weight. The person with the outcome-based approach will set a goal and implement processes. However, they never change their self-perception, so they often fail to meet their goal. Whereas, a person who views themselves as being slim and fit will more likely change their exercise and eating habits to comply with their self-image to achieve and maintain the desired self-image.
The same is true for agencies seeking to achieve certification. When departments seeking certification simply want to display a plaque on the wall to demonstrate they have arrived as a professional organization they will have much more difficulty obtaining, and definitely maintaining, certification. On the other hand, agency heads who see themselves and their agencies as being professional will more likely complete the processes required to obtain certification, which is a true representation of what they are – a professional organization. Therefore, in the first step to effectively achieve this milestone, police leaders and their staff must focus on who they are as individuals and as a collective group – professional.
Heads of agencies argue they cannot achieve the standard of excellence identified the Georgia Law Enforcement Certification Program because of size, costs, and/or time. While lack of participation in the program is not limited to small agencies, this group is the least represented in the total number of certified agencies. Too often it is assumed simply because an agency is larger or located close to a metropolitan area, they are naturally better, have more resources, and time. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Bigger is not better, better is better.
So why would an agency head from a smaller community want to certify their department? The Adel Police Department has 23 officers and has been certified since 2011. Chief Chad Castleberry responded, “Two reasons. When I was hired in 2006, I came from a state certified and CALEA accredited agency. I had seen the benefits of the program. Second, the city manager was familiar with the program and was very supportive of us implementing the process”. Similarly, with 15 officers, Montezuma Police Chief Eric Finch obtained certification in 2004. He said as a new chief “I wanted to know the rules. The certification standards directed me as a chief the right ways to do stuff. When I am asked by a council member why do something, I can explain why.” With 11 officers, Pine Mountain is currently the smallest state certified agency in the State. Chief Daniel Ferrone explained he became involved in the certification program because “It sets us up to a higher standard and we wanted to be more professional. As a new chief, I had issues with the department’s policy manual. So, as we did a whole new policy, I knew that certification would guide that process.”
Many tend to focus on the difficulties and obstacles obtaining certification. State certification does not dictate how an agency accomplishes a standard’s requirements, just what. Chief Eric Finch said, “At the time we could not buy some of the required stuff, such as evidence lockers. So, we had to make them. We got some school lockers to serve as our temporary evidence lockers.” Chief Chad Castleberry said one of the big issues for his agency was for officers to develop the right mindset to properly document their actions. Social Circle Chief Willie Brinkley, who leads an agency with 19 officers, agreed “Getting officers to forward information to the certification manager was difficult.” Braselton Police Chief Terry Esco (19 officers) also said “It takes a little while to get everyone on board. The hardest thing was getting them to do the reports. But now you can get software to ensure it is done right.” Chief Daniel Ferrone said his department was certified in 2019. It took the department 1 ½ years to develop and implement the policy and another 1 ½ years to build the files demonstrating compliance.
Once certified, agencies must demonstrate they continue to follow the establish standards every three years. So how hard is it for an agency to follow the certification requirements? Several chiefs noted participating in state certification can be time consuming. Chief Castleberry advised for chiefs to not procrastinate, “You have to stay on top of it.” Chief Brinkley said, “I think it is easy. You have to pay attention to deadlines.” Chief Ferrone said Pine Mountain is a smaller community so “We don’t have a lot of the big city problems with administrative and patrol duties. Everything is low key with our workload, so it does not make it unmanageable.” He added “You have to want to do it right and stay on top of it.” Chief Finch reported it is not difficult, but recommended chiefs from small agencies go through the certification manager’s course, so they know what has to be recorded in the files. When he sees information that needs to be included in the files, he sends it to the manager.
While some tend to focus on obstacles, what are the benefits of participating in the program besides being able to claim the agency is state certified? Chief Castleberry said, “First it is accountability. Just a sense of accomplishment. I brought the staff on board with the program very early and got their buy-in. So, as we moved through it, everyone was excited about the program and working together. Second was the savings on the insurance premiums.” Similarly, Chief Ferrone reported, “It’s the way the public sees them, accountability of the officers, and the discounts with insurance premiums.” Chief Brinkley added, “It is how the agency is viewed. The positive overall development the agency because we are complying with high standards. We are transparent in how we do it.”
When asked if participating in the program interferes with their decision-making or ability to run the department, each of the chiefs agreed it did not. In fact, it helps them. Chief Castleberry from Adel said “No. It only makes it easier. We live and die by policy and procedure.” Similarly, Chief Esco responded, “No it does not. We have a hiring process we follow. It is good because we go through the requirements of state certification, and it helps to weed out bad people. Chief Ferrone said “It actually streamlines everything. Everyone knows what they are supposed to do. If they don’t know, they have a rock-hard policy to help them.” Chief Finch said “It guides me when making decisions. I know the standards help me to make good decisions”. Chief Brinkley probably summed it up best when he said, “If you are willing to be open, no.”
When asked what they would tell fellow police chiefs interested in becoming involved with the certification program, each was very positive.
Chief Castleberry responded, “I strongly encourage every agency to do this. State certification is based on best practices. Why would you not want to do this? It is another level of protection for the department and its officers. It helps me sleep a little better.”
Chief Esco said, “It takes time to implement. You have to get the right person as the state certification manager. They have to go to the Georgia Police Accreditation Committee (GPAC) meetings.
Once you get going it is not bad, but you have to stay on top of it and not get behind.”
Pine Mountain’s Chief Ferrone said, “I don’t see why they would not consider it. We need to put everyone on consistent playing field. The public expects us to act consistently. We have one person who is the certification manager and responsible for ensuring everything is in place. You have to want to do it right, you have to stay on top of it, and you have to have one person assigned to manage it. A lot of the problems that agencies run into will be minimized. Chiefs get complacent and don’t want to do the work or don’t know how to do it. It is better for us and our community. But it takes a commitment.”
Chief Brinkley warned, “The environment we are working in will never be the same. Officers are going to be questioned. Agencies need the processes in place to ensure they act appropriately. It is not just the police department that benefit from the program but the city, mayor, and council all benefit”
Montezuma’s Chief, Eric Finch suggested, “Get Involved. It is very important for a chief to know the rules, especially when dealing with high liability issues.”