Sheriff's Office revamps policies for national certification

As thick as two phone books, a pair of white three-ring binders contain nearly a year of work by two former Beaufort police chiefs.

Inside the binders are more than 100 retooled Beaufort County Sheriff's Office internal policies and procedures that Bill Neill and Jeff Dowling have toiled over since they were hired by Sheriff P.J. Tanner in December.

Spelling out everything from how deputies are sworn into office to where and how certain files are kept, the policies are a critical part of the office's bid to become the third county police agency to earn national accreditation.

Dowling and Neill were paid $60,000 each to manage the effort to become accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, an independent board created by police groups to elevate national law enforcement standards. The city of Beaufort's department was accredited in 2007, while Dowling was its chief. The Bluffton Police Department was accredited in March.

The Sheriff's Office hopes to be accredited by March or April, Neill said.

Neill and Dowling have tinkered with the office's internal policies to ensure they comply with more than 450 guidelines, dealing with everything from vehicle chases to the relationship with the media.

"But a lot of those 450 standards have multiple bullets, so you're really looking at more like 1,000 standards that we have to meet," Neill said. "What we found ... was the Sheriff's Office was already complying with a lot of the standards but didn't have policies spelling out those standards."

To prepare for an on-site inspection early next year, the Sheriff's Office brought in mock inspectors last month. Neill said the inspection went well but highlighted some areas that needed work, such as providing photos to document the implementation of certain policies.

"It's not enough to say you're doing it, you actually have to prove it," Neill said. "Gathering those proofs is the hardest part."

Dowling said the process is intentionally rigorous.

"It's not a program where you pay the fee and they rubber-stamp it," he said.

Tanner said the pair have the office on track to receive accreditation more than three months ahead of schedule.

"I think part of the reason we're ahead of schedule is that we were doing the right thing and had the right policies in place -- policies that are beneficial not only to the Sheriff's Office but to the citizens of Beaufort County," Tanner said.

Tanner said accreditation will make the Sheriff's Office more accountable to taxpayers, less likely to face lawsuits and increase its chances of receiving grants and other funding.