This story was originally published in the Nov. 17 issue of Fourth Estate.
Mason Police took an on-site re-accreditation assessment in early November to ensure that its policies and procedures meet national standards.
Conducted by the Commission for Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, the two-day-long process is voluntary and takes place once every three years. It focuses on six different categories: the agency’s role, responsibilities and relationships with other agencies, organization, management and administration, personnel administration, law enforcement operations, operational support and traffic law enforcement, detainee and court-related services and auxiliary and technical services.
CALEA has a total of 483 standards that each member agency must fulfill, though not all of them are applicable to Mason’s University Police Department. These standards cover everything from patrol procedures and administrative set-up to hiring practices and handling of citizen complaints.
“The CALEA re-accreditation benefits students and employees with a greater accountability within the agency,” said Cheryl Goss, the department’s accreditation manager.
Mason Police has been part of CALEA since 1991 and has never failed to get re-accreditation after an assessment. It is one of only four university agencies in the state to receive accreditation, along with the police departments of University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and University of Richmond. Virginia has 27 accredited law enforcement agencies overall, not including training academies.
Much of the actual policy review is now done off-site. According to the CALEA website, this process involves a self-assessment and requires agencies to mail in a document that provides information about themselves and the surrounding community. Departments must also develop proof files demonstrating compliance to applicable standards.
The on-site assessment primarily involves observation, equipment inspection and interviews with officers and the command staff about the department’s operating procedures. Assessors also take a tour of the station and host a call-in session and open forum for the public to voice questions, comments or complaints. The process concludes with a debrief with Mason Police Chief Eric Heath and Assistant Chief Thomas Longo.
“It used to take longer, but CALEA has changed a lot of their processes,” Heath said. “When they come on, they have a very detailed schedule, they stick to it and then they’re gone.”
The call-in session took place Thursday from noon to 2 p.m., and the public forum was that same day at 4 p.m. in SUB II, rooms 4 and 5. Comments were limited to 10 minutes each.
Following the on-site assessment, members of the police department will attend a conference held from Wednesday, Nov. 19 to Saturday, Nov. 22, according to the CALEA website. At the conference, each member agency undergoes a review in front of a committee to enforce compliance to CALEA standards. This conference is also when agencies officially receive accreditation for the next three year cycle.
Filure to meet a particular standard could mean the loss of a department’s accreditation, though CALEA gives the agency in question time after the assessment to make policy or procedure changes.
CALEA has four programs: law enforcement, communications, training and campus security. Mason has been accredited through the law enforcement program since it first joined the commission, but this year’s assessment will mark the first time it also participates in the campus security program, which was developed in 2010.
Among other standards, the campus security section governs campus security escort services and emergency notification systems. Goss said Mason covers these stipulations through, respectively, its cadet escort program, which is available to students at all times of the day, and the Mason Alert system. A complete list of CALEA assessment standards can be found on the commission’s website.
Though this is his first time going through this process with the Mason university police, Heath says the department has generally gotten positive feedback from assessors, and he is unaware of any major policy changes that have resulted from an assessment.
“The UPD [university police department] is constantly reviewing and revising policies and procedures to reflect the best practices and to keep the department moving forward,” Goss said. She is responsible for making sure that the department keeps up to date with CALEA standards and is prepared for each assessment. The Mason police department updates its policies annually.
The department also receives feedback through the call-in session and public forum. Heath says that the most frequent comments relate to transparency or complaints specific to an individual community member’s situation.
“Even negative feedback is a positive thing, because you can take it, and you can learn from it,” Heath said.
Since participation in CALEA is voluntary, a lack of accreditation does not necessarily mean an agency’s policies do not meet the prescribed standards. According to Heath, the assessment process takes effort, time and money, making it challenging for smaller departments or ones with less funding than Mason’s.
Still, the CALEA assessments help hold member agencies accountable to the university and the surrounding community, and accreditation, especially if an agency maintains it for as long as Mason has, can be reassuring for students.
Mason student Keosha Quigley says he always feels safe on campus.
“I think it’s good to have a university police department, instead of having to call 911 and the Fairfax City police having to come out here,” Quigley said. “I usually feel safe when I see them, even though there are no call boxes around campus like other schools have.”
Heath says it is relatively rare for a department to maintain accreditation for as long as Mason Police has.
“You want police departments to have the right policies and procedures…to adhere to those policies and procedures and efforts to provide services to the community,” Heath said. “It’s something that this police department should definitely be proud of.”
Featured photo credit: Claire Cecil