SANATOGA PA – Of the more than 1,100 police departments in the state of Pennsylvania, Chief Michael Foltz hopes that Lower Pottsgrove’s can soon be counted among the top 8 percent.
Foltz, several of his officers, other township staffers, and supportive members of the Board of Commissioners have worked toward that goal for months. The payoff to their efforts could occur next week, although no one is expected to know that for sure until the 100th anniversary convention of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association is held during July in King of Prussia.
The department is seeking to join the rarefied ranks of only 92 police agencies in the Commonwealth that have been certified by the association as “accredited.” The chiefs’ organization, which began offering accreditation in July 2001, calls it “a progressive and time-proven way of helping institutions evaluate and improve their overall performance.”
Formally known as The Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Program, it was designed and developed by professionals as “a reasonable and cost-effective plan” to create and meet high standards for law enforcement agencies, according to the association. It demands departments follow recognized best practices on everything from police courtesy to dealing with prisoners to gathering evidence.
Foltz thinks of it simply as a smarter, more efficient way to fight crime.
Earning accreditation “means something important,” he said, to the public, which wants to know law enforcers are ensuring fairness as well as safety; to taxpayers, who demand value in every dollar spent; to players in the justice system, who can be assured the department is being run by the book; and to criminals themselves, as their chances of being caught increase.
“People are worried about public safety. They’re worried about if (police) make a difference in their community,” Foltz acknowledged. Accreditation is the way the department can say ‘yes,’ not by itself, but by “relying on someone from the outside” to do the judging, he added.
Departments must formally apply for accreditation (more than 300 already have), then engage in months of self-assessment and documentation of policies and procedures. That’s followed by an external on-site assessment conducted by peers from elsewhere in the state.
Lower Pottsgrove’s external review is scheduled to begin Sunday (March 16) and continue through next Tuesday (March 18). Representatives of law enforcement from Lower Paxton and Dallas townships, and Carnegie-Mellon University comprise the three-member panel that intend to give local police operations a thorough vetting.
Well before their arrival, Foltz and a team have been busy updating and upgrading. During recent months, township commissioners approved and were advised of progress on several changes regarding inter-department discipline, other personnel matters, exterior signage, interior revisions and vehicle use.
Ofc. Scott Weidenhammer, designated by Foltz to serve as the department’s accreditation manager, massaged volumes of accumulated data into reports that can be readily accessed and analyzed for trends to make Lower Pottsgrove’s force run more smoothly, the chief said. They’ve become a necessity in meeting association paperwork requirements, too.
Others have chipped in to help. Sgt. Timothy Walters installed ammunition lockers in the garage. Ofc. David Slothower built a new, more secure weapons cabinet, which includes a marble counter top donated and installed by Commissioner Shawn Watson. Slothower also constructed new prisoner seating. Board President Bruce Foltz fixed electrical problems in the garage. Materials and work were donated by Albitz Garage in Sanatoga, Home Depot in Pottstown, and state roadway contractor J.D. Eckman.
Not everyone on staff has bought in to the accreditation agenda, Foltz candidly admits. A few officers still question why older ways and methods weren’t good enough, he said, and they balk at some of the requirements. He understands: “There’s a lot of change. A lot of policy revisions. More paperwork. But the world has changed too, and we’ve got to change with it.”
Besides, Foltz said, the benefits of change outweigh any resistance. “If all of this helps us avoid or gets us out of one costly piece of litigation, it’s worth it,” he noted. “If it avoids headaches or keeps us safer, it’s worth it.”
The association, based on next week’s visit, ultimately will determine if Lower Pottsgrove lives up to the 8-percent ideal. If it does, presentation of the department’s accreditation certificates could be one of the upcoming convention’s signature moments.