BUCKHANNON – The Buckhannon Police Department this week achieved full accreditation, making it only the second department in the Mountain State to have ever received such a distinction.
Prior to Thursday, the Parkersburg City Police Department was the only West Virginia law enforcement agency to have attained official accreditation through the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA.
However, during the commission’s annual national conference July 15, CALEA commissioners voted unanimously to award the Buckhannon Police Department full accreditation without conditions – an accomplishment that city police chief Matt Gregory and BPD officers have been working toward for over three years since April 2018.
Gregory and his officers knew the agency would likely receive full accreditation going into the Thursday’s virtual meeting; however, hearing that the department had achieved its longtime goal was at once a monumental relief and thrilling, he said Thursday evening.
“I have joked – partially joked, but in a lot of ways I’m serious – I have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and I’ve raised two kids, and most of that pales in comparison to what this accreditation process was like – it’s that difficult,” Gregory said. “The feeling that I had when I learned we were fully accredited … I have not had that release of tension and just pure elation since I graduated college.”
Dubbed “the gold standard in public safety,” CALEA was founded in the late 1970s to serve as a national credentialing authority for public safety agencies.
Becoming accredited is a five-step, multi-year process that requires law enforcement agencies to demonstrate compliance with 180-plus professional standards. CALEA’s accreditation process emphasizes utilizing best practices, embracing community-oriented policing, displaying professionalism, increasing transparency and bolstering accountability within police departments.
Gregory, a self-described academic, said when he attended his first CALEA conference in late 2017, he was “dazzled” by the new approach and signed up to take an accreditation manager course. Then, in an effort to get down to the nitty-gritty of what would be required of the BPD, Gregory read the entire CALEA Standards Manual and decided that, given the department’s current operations, with a lot of hard work, accreditation was feasible.
Next, Gregory, Lt. Doug Loudin and the rest of the BPD officers committed to achieving accreditation.
“Everybody believed in professionalism, believed in using best practices and we wanted to offer the best possible service – that was the buy-in component,” Gregory said. “That started even before during the exploration phase in 2017, but in April 2018, we brought a signed statement to city council with all the officers’ signatures saying they were fully on board, they embraced the concept and were ready to move forward.”
That’s when self-assessment – what Gregory sees as the most important phase – came into play. In essence, the police department had to demonstrate not only that their policy manual reflected 180-plus professional law enforcement standards, but that those standards were regularly practiced by officers in real-life scenarios.
“I’ve made this statement several times, and I first heard it [in 2017], and that’s this: Do not discount the value of self-assessment, because that’s the most valuable portion of accreditation,” Gregory said. “That’s where you find out where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are, where you can improve, and how you can mold your operations. Really, from administration to operations and everything in-between, you [look at] how you can adhere to the best practices in each of these categories.”
Gregory asked then-mayor David McCauley to appoint an accreditation committee, which met monthly throughout 2018, 2019 and pre-pandemic in 2020. By the end of 2019, Gregory had completed a full CALEA-compliant policy manual for the city police department.
“You have to show your policies are in compliance with over 180 standards, and you also have to prove that you’re in compliance with those standards,” the police chief said. “It’s about policies and proofs, and I wanted two full years of proofs.”
By mid-2020, the department was ready to undergo a mock assessment, which is intended to provide crucial feedback ahead of the actual CALEA assessment. Gregory was put in touch with assessors at Virginia Tech, and 14 pages of feedback and two months later, the department notified CALEA it was ready to undergo the real deal: a web assessment and an on-site assessment of policies and procedures.
“Under normal conditions, the on-site assessment is just that – [the CALEA commissioners] come to you and they go through your operations, they ride-along with you, they interview folks,” Gregory said. “Well, because of ongoing COVID issues, our on-site was scheduled on April 5-6 and it still had to be remote.”
Instead of in-person interviews, there were Zoom interviews, GoToMeetings, a public hearing and review of 10 videos nearly an hour long that described the BPD’s operations.
“[In April], they had a public hearing, we had a public call-in session, people could write letters – all of this feedback they took for the final report that’s made up of both the on-site and the web assessment,” Gregory said.
The final report, drafted based on assessment findings, indicated the department was poised for accreditation, but it wasn’t official until Thursday, when a final hearing in front of the CALEA Commission took place.
“That’s the focus of what today was, the final hearing in front of the commission, and I gave my verbal response to the report,” Gregory said. “They asked me questions from the report, and I had to clarify and expand.”
“At that point they voted to accredit, and we got full accreditation,” Gregory said. “I’ve seen this throughout the process where lot of agencies get accredited, but they get accredited with conditions, meaning there’s been some kind of issue that they’ve had with one standard or another and they have to have a plan to fix what they had an issue with and be re-evaluated on that a year later.”
The commission found no issues.
“Honestly, I attribute a lot of that to being very careful, going step-by-step, taking our time with it, embracing the mindset of, ‘Don’t underestimate self-assessment because it’s the most valuable part of the process,’” the police chief said. “If you take that methodical approach and look at it globally each and every day, I think this is the result.”
One of the most critical lessons Gregory learned is that accreditation is “about the journey, not the destination,” he said.
For example, each year going forward, CALEA assessors will evaluate whether the BPD is in compliance with 25 percent of those 180-plus professional standards. Then, in 2025, it will be time for another on-site assessment.
“We’re accredited today, but we begin the re-accreditation process tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not over – it’s never over. Just like you never stop learning and you never stop improving, accreditation’s about the journey. I’ve coined this idea of the ‘accredited mindset,’ and that is somebody that embraces professionalism and best practices and incorporates that into every aspect of their service, and I’ve seen that across the board with the department. Everything we do down there from administration to operations has been streamlined by this process by leaps and bounds.”
At Thursday’s city council meeting, council members and mayor Robbie Skinner showered Gregory and BPD officers with congratulations and praise for a job well done.
“I said something a long time ago – if you can buy into all this and accept it, I think you’ll be a star in law enforcement in the state and I think you’ve achieved that for yourself and for the department and I appreciate it and I think the community in general appreciates it,” councilman CJ Rylands told Gregory. “I admire the intention set forth to differentiate yourself from all but one other police department in the state.”
“It’s also a reflection on your leadership, so I want to congratulate you,” Rylands added.