Realities of small police agencies

Pat Haley - Contributing columnist

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost recently put out a call to Ohioans to contact him with ideas about strengthening law enforcement throughout the State of Ohio. I shared my thoughts with the Attorney General and detailed a process called State Law Enforcement Accreditation.

The majority of law enforcement officers in the United States are dedicated, competent officers. Clinton County is fortunate to have a professional Sheriff’s Office and proficient police departments.

Unfortunately, and usually because of a tragedy, we find dysfunctional law enforcement officers who have slipped through the cracks of the hiring process. Like the rogue police officer in Minneapolis, they become employed, and continue to patrol the streets over a sustained period of time. These individuals need to be identified and removed from their positions at the first sign of problems.

While serving as sheriff 30-some years ago, I required recruits to undergo psychological testing as part of the hiring process. It was not a fool proof plan since it is difficult to get inside a person’s mind, but the testing helped tremendously.

Law enforcement in Ohio, and nationwide for that matter, is at a crossroads in many ways. Society demands protection from criminals yet seems at a loss to define what a law enforcement officer should be.

As a former sheriff, I believe strongly that a significant part of the answer is training and education. Initial and ongoing training will help to screen-out those ill-suited for a law enforcement career.

According to statistics, Ohio has more than 831 law enforcement agencies employing 25,992 sworn officers. Most of these agencies are small to mid-sized departments.

Due to budget constraints, many departments cannot afford comprehensive training, and therefore, officers are not receiving the continuing education they need. These officers and departments see the same crimes and challenges as larger departments, but on a lesser scale.

Accreditation is a proven method to verify compliance with accepted standards and quality within the fields of health care and education, and it is my opinion accreditation would provide the same benefits to law enforcement. Accreditation is a symbol of quality, shows that the organization meets certain performance standards, and supplies an opportunity for that organization to evaluate their operation against national standards.

According to The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA), a national law enforcement accreditation agency, Ohio has only four sheriff offices accredited by their agency out of eighty-eight counties. There are 42 municipal agencies throughout Ohio accredited by their agency. Most of these are large agencies.

The reality is that most small and mid-sized police departments — like those found throughout most of Ohio and in Clinton County — cannot afford national accreditation.

As criminals become more sophisticated, and social media becomes more vocal, police agencies need to strengthen their professionalism more than ever before.

State accreditation program covers many law enforcement functions through professional standards established by a State Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission.

The professional standards address processes like the use of force, vehicle pursuits, hiring procedures, training, community policing and 300 other critical policies.

Further, meeting a standard promotes research, broad thinking, and attention to detail. Consequently, accreditation affords the law enforcement agency the opportunity to share innovative ideas, as well as, traditional methods with other departments. It supplies law enforcement agencies a method to coordinate and monitor progress of their organization, and helps reach the goal of crime reduction, improved operations, and enhanced service to citizens.

Also, departments have been favorably affected through lower insurance premiums and overall risk management programs.

Citizens win because their law enforcement agency has taken the initiative to comply with a set of objective, peer-developed standards. Standards compliance creates an agency that is more open and responsive to citizen input.

Citizens appreciate representatives from the “outside” looking at their respective agency and they view transparency and accountability as positives. Citizens have a greater sense of confidence knowing the agency has met stringent standards by establishing a quality set of rules, regulations, policies, and procedures which address operational readiness issues.

Additionally, the department undergoes yearly reviews by the accreditation staff to ensure ongoing compliance.

Law enforcement officers win because of the study and inclusion of any circumstance in which an officer may find himself or herself, with a set of established guidelines and proven solutions. Most officers want to do the right thing in their jobs.

Providing them with the necessary guidance from management clearly supports these efforts.

An accreditation process could be established with little or no cost to the individual law enforcement agency.

In Virginia, for example, the cost of the accreditation process was free to the local agency due to the fact the Department of Criminal Justice Services managed the program with a two-person assessment team.

I believe this is an idea worth pursuing in Ohio.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county sheriff and commissioner.

Pat Haley

Contributing columnist