Earning national accreditation will make the Beaufort County Sheriff's
Office more accountable to taxpayers, less likely to face a lawsuit for misconduct and increase its chances of receiving grants and other funding, according to state law enforcement authorities.
The Sheriff's Office is seeking national accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, an independent commission created by police groups to elevate national law enforcement standards.
Earning CALEA's certification doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't come cheaply.
The Sheriff's Office said it will take more than a year and a half and cost the county more than $25,000 in application fees, a figure that does not include the combined $120,000 annually that former Beaufort Police Chiefs Jeff Dowling and Bill Neillwill earn to manage the agency's accreditation process.
The pair also will be retained at unspecified salaries after the agency earns accreditation, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Fewer than 30 law enforcement agencies in the state have earned CALEA's accreditation. The Beaufort Police Department is the only accredited agency in Beaufort County, having earned the commission's approval in July 2007 while Dowling was chief.
The Bluffton Police Department is halfway through the accreditation process, according to CALEA's Web site.
While the money seems like a lot to spend in the short term, Beaufort County taxpayers will benefit by having a better trained Sheriff's Office in the long run, said Beaufort County Council member Herbert Glaze.
"It's a Catch-22 with the economy where it is right now," Glaze said. "It would have been nice to have a grant or some other funding source to cover the application fee, but that wasn't available. On the other hand, it's important to have a Sheriff's Office that is well-equipped to deal with some of the challenges we've had recently."
At the press conference announcing the hiring of Dowling and Neill, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the county had budgeted for the application fees.
Despite the cost involved, law enforcement agencies across the state that bear CALEA's stamp say the Sheriff's Office will enjoy an enhanced national reputation and better community policing.
Maj. Scott Prill of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said CALEA standards will force Sheriff's Office decision-makers to make more cost-efficient decisions -- important in a time of shrinking municipal budgets. SLED was first accredited in March 1994.
"With the current state of the economy and at a time of diminishing resources, it is important for us to refocus on our core public-safety mission," Prill said. "CALEA standards provide for periodic required reports and analyses for chiefs and sheriffs to make informed management decisions, particularly with respect to where to deploy limited tax dollars."
To earn CALEA's approval, the Sheriff's Office must adhere to more than 450 guidelines, covering everything from vehicle chases to evidence collection to the agency's relationship with media.
"The community can be confident that an accredited law enforcement agency has demonstrated compliance with an internationally recognized set of standards and that an independent team of trained CALEA assessors has verified compliance with those standards," Prill said.
Being an accredited agency also could pay dividends in the courtroom, said Charles Francis, Charleston Police
The Charleston Police Department was accredited in July 1999.
Francis said many accredited agencies report a decline in legal actions against them, and also are better able to defend themselves against civil suits.