Staff Photo: Erin Evans. Covington Police Department Chief Stacey Cotton, far right, and Accreditation Manager Sgt. Chuck Groover, left, and Lt. Wendell Wagstaff of the CPD Office of Professional Standards unpack the plaque that honors the department for being one of four in the nation that has continuously maintained international accreditation for 25 years. A public reception honoring the achievement will be held today at 5 p.m. at the Turner Lake Recreation Complex.
COVINGTON -- It's one thing to attain excellence, but quite another to maintain that exceptional level for a quarter century. But the Covington Police Department has bragging rights for having accomplished just that. For 25 years, that agency has consistently maintained international accreditation.
First receiving the coveted accreditation from the Commission On Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies in 1985, the department was the first agency in Georgia to achieve it and the 10th in the nation.
"Interestingly enough, today we are one of only four of the original agencies that have stayed in the process the entire time," Chief Stacey Cotton said.
He said the concept first captured the imagination of former CPD Police Chief Bobby Moody when he learned that four agencies had gotten together a program to professionalize law enforcement. The agencies -- the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Sheriff's Association, Police Executive Research Forum and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives -- came up with more than 900 standards they felt important for agencies to meet.
Cotton said today those standards have been consolidated to a mere 444 standards.
"It's a pretty tedious process to meet, but it's not just meeting it. The first one in 1985 was where the ink was wet. Our policies were new. Since then it's been about, 'Did we do it?" he said.
The assessment takes place every three years and is conducted by a team of law enforcement professionals from around the country.
"They're looking at policies and standards and are asking if the work has been done. They come in and review all of our documents that we put up as proofs of compliance," Cotton said, adding that the process takes into account every aspect of the department. "It touches everything. It's not just about how we put the handcuffs on somebody or how we write a report. It's about how we prepare our budget; how we monitor our budget; what are the needs the other commanders give to me so that budget considerations can be made; when we discipline somebody, do we give them due process; do we allow them to appeal it; are they put on notice; how do we field complaints from the community. It covers everything you can imagine, even down to the equipment we say is going to be in our cars. Is the equipment actually in the cars?"
Cotton said criticisms leveled at the process sometimes take the form of, "Well, it's just stuff that you should be doing. I don't need anybody to tell me to do that."
"Well, the problem is, that the world of law enforcement is so complex that there are a lot of things that you don't think about that you should be doing and the only time you find out you should be doing it is when you are faced with a lawsuit or a bad incident," he said.
Cotton pointed out that few want to send their child to an unaccredited school, attend an unaccredited college or go to an unaccredited hospital.
"Why wouldn't you expect your police department, if possible, to be accredited? I think in this world we want to be served by people in high-risk situations who are accredited, certified and meet some kind of standards," he said.
He cited three of the top benefits from being willing to undergo the rigorous process.
"I think the chief benefit is the high quality of police service to the community. You don't really know what we do until you need us. We get compliments all the time from people who are just amazed at our level and quality of service to them, whether it be from a complaint or a theft case," he said, adding that not all of their "customers" are happy because they or their loved ones wind up being arrested, or a case doesn't turn out the way they thought it should. "But most people are really impressed by our thoroughness, our follow-up and our openness.
"The secondary benefit is we enjoy a lower insurance rate with our liability insurance company because we meet standards. We try to cover all our bases and make sure we are prepared for just about anything that can occur.
"The third area is the reduction in litigation against us. Very rarely have we been sued in the last 25 years, which is very unusual for a police department," Cotton said. He said they are often notified they are going to be sued, but when all aspects are investigated and the policies and procedures are there and have been followed, there is no case.
Cotton said he hopes community members will drop by the public reception to be held today, beginning at 5 p.m. with refreshments, at the Turner Lake Recreation Complex honoring the CPD for having attained 25 years of accreditation. LaGrange Police Department Chief Louis M. Dekmar, who also serves with CALEA, will be the guest speaker for the program, which will begin at 6 p.m.
"I've talked a lot about policy, procedures and standards, but it ultimately comes down to the men and women who wear that badge or the men and women who are civilians at this department who do the job," Cotton said, referring to the 63 employees of the CPD. "They are the ones who breathe life into this program and make it work. You see through them the effort and the hard work of the accreditation process. I'm extremely proud of those folks. They make this department what it is. It's not a program; it's not a policy; it's not even the chief. It's the people out here on the street who do the job every day. That's what the reception is for ... a moment for them to get a pat on the back. I would encourage anybody who can to come."