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West Valley City Journal

WVCPD seeks gold standard in law enforcement assessment

Oct 31, 2016 04:23PM ● By Travis Barton

Jeanetta Williams, NAACP Salt Lake City branch president, speaks to Darrin Abbink (left) and Rob Sofie, CALEA assessors, during a public forum on Oct. 3. The assessors from CALEA spent three days examining all aspects of the West Valley City Police Department as part of a process to determine whether they receive the highly prized accreditation. (West Valley City Police Department)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

West Valley, Utah - Four years ago the West Valley City Police Department (WVCPD) was facing criticism and ridicule. Now it’s aiming to achieve something only a few police departments in the country have. 

A team of assessors from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) arrived in West Valley City on Oct. 3 to spend three days examining all aspects of WVCPD from policies and procedures to operations and support services. Earning the accreditation, considered the gold standard in public safety, is a voluntary process and something less than five percent of police departments in the country attain. 

“We’re doing something that 90 percent of police departments will never achieve,” said Lee Russo, WVC chief of police. 

CALEA assessors looked at 159 applicable standards, of which WVCPD must demonstrate their policies reflect the best practices in law enforcement professional excellence. The standards cover all facets of operations including pursuit policies, use of force and deadly force as well as transparency and accountability. 

“It’s not enough to say they do it, they have to prove it to us they’re doing it,” said Rob Sofie. Sofie, along with Darrin Abbink, are CALEA assessors. 

It was a three-year process for the department to reach this point. WVCPD first did a self-assessment before holding a mock assessment with independent evaluators. Russo started this process when he was hired three years ago. He said departments have to demonstrate consistently that they have operationalized those upgraded policies and standards. 

“It’s a tough process…the ones that do this want to continue to drive forward, continue to get better all the time. It’s easy to sit back and not be self-critical,” said Abbink, a law enforcement officer from Colorado Springs. 

The assessors will then write a report for the commission to review. Russo will then have to appear before the commission for an oral defense where the commission dives deep into procedures like the citizen complaint process or matching the department’s demographics with the community. After which the commission determines whether accreditation is awarded. Sofie likened it to a hospital.

“If you’re going to have surgery, you go to an accredited hospital where someone is checking on them to confirm their techniques, that their equipment is sterile. It’s the same kind of thing, makes the police department more responsive to the community,” Sofie said. 

At present there are no other Utah law enforcement agencies that are accredited. Weber and Cache County were accredited for a time but are no longer. 

“They’d be the only ones in the state of Utah, which is quite the distinction really,” Sofie said. 

Key to this potential policing achievement is Russo. 

Russo spent 22 years working for the Baltimore County Police Department, an originator in developing CALEA and community policing, where these thorough inspections were commonplace. 

“At the middle point of my career, I’m going ‘why are we putting ourselves through these inspections, this is common sense,’” Russo said. It wasn’t until he became chief in an organization that wasn’t accredited he realized the necessity of constant reevaluation.  

Reaccreditation occurs every four years and Russo said he wants to reach a point where the operational norm for the organization is maintaining this gold standard of excellence. 

“The hope and goal is we get two or three cycles down the road and people will be like I was, ‘this is common sense,’ and that’s when everybody realizes we’ve changed the culture,” Russo said. 

Sofie said only police chiefs, who are secure in who they are, volunteer for CALEA inspections. 

“We’re all one Ferguson (Missouri) away from having the public scrutiny on you, so I respect [Russo] for wanting to do this because it’s a lot of work,” Sofie said. 

And it’s not just Russo’s background, he also brought in Mark Abbott, who did the mock assessment, as an accrediting manager to assist with the process. 

Part of the inspection includes a public forum where members of the community are invited to offer public comments. Besides Russo, the forum only saw three members speak but those that spoke carried weight for the assessors just by showing up. 

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake City branch, spoke during the forum and said she has an excellent working relationship with the WVCPD. She said they’ve invited Russo and his department to attend different forums and meetings “to make sure people see their presence in the community.”

“I am in strong support of West Valley City, the accreditation process and whatever we can do as NAACP,” said Williams, a West Valley resident since 1988. 

Russo said Williams coming to speak made an “unbelievable statement” to the assessors. 

“In today’s law enforcement environment and the criticisms we see truly speaks of the partnership we’re trying to forge,” Russo said. 

Williams also served on the city’s professional review board for 20 years, which consists of seven citizen volunteers who review all citizen complaints, use of force and vehicle pursuits. Just by having the board impressed the assessors. 

“That’s unheard of, there’s a way smaller percentage [of citizen review boards] than any CALEA accredited agencies that do that,” Sofie said. 

It’s all part of an effort to turn around an agency that was riddled with challenges four years ago. 

“To go from an agency that’s been ridiculed and questioned to an agency that’s really taken a lead,” Russo said. “[Accreditation] is something that’s going to benefit us far into the future.” 

While police procedures and actions have taken the national focus in recent months, WVCPD has taken steps to ensure those situations don’t arise in West Valley. 

“Despite those challenges that we were enduring, despite the national tenor going on right now about law enforcement, these men and women put all of that aside when the 911 call comes in,” Russo said. “They show up and give everything to serve that victim or that citizen to make a change in the individual’s life or the community, and I couldn’t be more proud of what they’re doing.”