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Ehlmann sees ‘Cadillac’ of police accreditation as confidence for residents

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When thinking about his police department, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann says he often looks out his office window. His office is in the old St. Charles County Courthouse and sits high above the Missouri River with a view of North St. Louis County.

“I always use the window here as my prop and look across the river into St. Louis County. Our job, I’ve always said, is to duplicate all the successes we’ve seen over the years in St. Louis County but avoid the failures,” Ehlmann said.

In the last few years, Ehlmann noted there have been failures – the 200 murders a year in the city of St. Louis, the Ferguson unrest, the controversy between Metro Link and St. Louis County police.

“We’re trying to do things so the same sort of thing doesn’t happen out here,” he said. Every time you have a failure it lessens the confidence people have, he added. “I want people to be totally confident we’re doing everything we can to be sure everything is up to date in St. Charles County.”

He views the advanced accreditation received by the St. Charles County Police Department from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies [CALEA] as extremely significant.

“I think most people in St. Charles County think the police do a great job, we don’t ever want to ever give them a reason to think they don’t. We want to make sure that all the latest developments in modern policing are being used. We want to make sure our people are aware of those [and] that we’re doing everything we can do.”

CALEA is a credentialing authority established through the joint efforts of law enforcement major executive associations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, National Sheriffs’ Association and the Police Organization of Black Law Enforcement.

Tier II or advanced accreditation by CALEA means that the county’s police department has met its highest standards and will have to undergo continual reassessment. “This is the Cadillac,” Ehlmann said.

CALEA establishes standards for policies and procedures that police departments agree to voluntarily emulate. Those policies and procedures can affect an enormous number of issues such as pursuit, uniform standards, recruitment, the use of deadly force and mandatory training – to name a few.

The accreditation offers the public an assurance that its police department meets highly professional standards. The department is now the eighth law enforcement agency in the St. Louis area and 13th in the state who hold the advanced accreditation. There are 657 law enforcement agencies in Missouri.

“This is not [a case of] you get the award put it on the wall and stop,” said Thomas R. Percich, the county’s CALEA accreditation manager. Percich said every year CALEA reviews 30 percent of the county’s standards to see if they are in compliance and every four years two CALEA assessors come to St. Charles County and check on that compliance in person.

The CALEA assessors are not neighboring or nearby law enforcement professionals.

“I’m a CALEA assessor and one of the questions they ask me if they are going to send me out is do you know anybody in the agency, have you interacted with anybody, have you ever lived there,” Percich said.

CALEA accreditation isn’t easy or cheap. The county began the process three years ago.  The initial accreditation fee was $11, 450, the county also paid $5,500 for an initial onsite fee and annually pays $4,645 in accreditation fees.

Over the last three years, meeting the accreditation standard meant not only redrafting policy and procedures administratively but reviewing possible changes with officers in the field. This push toward heightened professionalism has been moving through police departments nationally for the last decade or more.

When elected sheriffs controlled police departments, county government had little control over anything but budgets, Ehlmann said. A quarter century ago, patronage was widespread. That eased when counties such as St. Charles, adopted charter forms of government where personnel decisions became more merit based.

Ehlmann said having quality standards policies that reflect best practices translates into fewer problems and mistakes. Having solid policies in place may make it easier for officers to do their jobs, Percich said.

One of the issues facing St. Louis County that Ehlmann said he wants to avoid is the proliferation of police departments among St. Louis County’s 88 municipalities. “Some are big enough to have professional police departments, some shouldn’t be thinking about it,” Ehlmann said.

In St. Charles County there are six major cities – Cottleville, Lake Saint Louis, O’Fallon, St. Charles, St. Peters and Wentzville – that are big enough to require and afford the type of training  to have professional police departments and a few others cities who may be able to do that in the future if they get big enough, Ehlmann said.

“Those smaller police departments over there [in St. Louis County], I can’t believe they have any of the training that our people have, yet they have twice the challenges,” Ehlmann said.

A decade ago, Ehlmann said one of the things the county could do, despite the recession, was to encourage officers to further their college education by offering them a pay raised if they received a college degree.   That has worked well, with 77 percent of county officers now having degrees compared to 68 percent of St. Louis County Police officers and 45 percent of St. Louis City Police officers.

“The more training and education your people have, the less likely we’re going end up in court defending the things that they do or the policies that we make,” Ehlmann said.

Percich added that some lawsuits against police have been dropped once the lawyers find out a department is CALEA accredited and become aware of their requirement for local police to extensively document what they do.

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