Investigations

Only 11% of eligible Wisconsin law enforcement agencies accredited by state group

The certification – which includes personalized feedback for officers – improves policing, experts say

BY NATHAN DENZIN, The Badger Project

Eight percent of law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin have received full accreditation by a statewide law enforcement organization aimed at improving policing.

Some of the largest departments accredited include Milwaukee, Janesville and Wausau.

Accreditation is a process that makes policing more consistent, professional and accountable, said Glendale Police Chief Mark Ferguson, who also serves as the president of The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group, which issues the certification. Many universities undertake a similar process each year to review if programs meet defined standards of quality.

The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group, or WILEAG, was created by the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association in 1995 as a cheaper alternative to the national organization The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. CALEA charges nearly $20,000 to join, with another $5,700 in annual membership fees. 

WILEAG offers full accreditation for a $300 initiation fee and a $650 annual fee. It offers partial accreditation for a $100 initiation fee and a $350 annual fee. WILEAG does not offer accreditation for communication centers like CALEA.

Glendale Police Chief Mark Ferguson, who also serves as president of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group

About 5% of all law enforcement agencies in the country – nearly 1,000 – have been accredited by CALEA with about 200 awaiting the certification, according to the organization. Three Wisconsin agencies have CALEA accreditation — the Oshkosh Police Department, the UW-Madison Police Department and the Rock County Communications Center — with the UW-Whitewater department in the process.

About 8% of the 560 eligible law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin are fully accredited by WILEAG. Another 19 agencies are partially accredited.

A number of factors can lead to a department choosing not to be accredited by the state group, despite the discounted price, Ferguson said. The process can be extremely lengthy and time-consuming, often requiring departments to rewrite entire sections of policy.

Still, Ferguson said, ”I really wish every department would be on board. Think about it this way: Who would you rather do business with? A business that skates by on the bare minimum, or one that is willing to go above and beyond what’s required?”

WILEAG and its governing board — made up of law enforcement professionals, district attorneys, insurance attorneys, victim rights activists and professors — have identified more than 240 standards deemed “best practice” for officers to follow in a variety of situations.

Included are policies like maintaining records of disciplinary action against officers, prohibiting chokeholds except in life-threatening situations or in self-defense, and a policy that requires an officer to intervene and stop another officer from using force if it doesn’t meet standards.

Last summer, bills signed by the governor limited chokeholds by police, created statewide standards for when an officer may use deadly force, mandated officers to intervene when other officers use illegal force and created whistleblower protections for officers who report misconduct.

Patrick Solar, a UW-Platteville criminal justice professor, who served in Illinois as the Genoa police chief in the 2000s, is a “firm believer” in accreditation. He also serves on the reviewing council for the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program.

“There’s too much variation in what you see in policy from department to department about something as basic as use of force,” Solar said. “All 18,000 police departments nationwide should be required to develop [best practice] policies.”

UW-Platteville criminal justice professor and former police chief Patrick Solar

New chiefs are often hired to bring about change, which is the perfect time to jump into an accreditation program, he said.

“Building a foundation under an agency with these policy developments means you’re not constantly running around putting out fires,” Solar continued. “You eliminate a lot of problems by being able to ask the question, ‘did we follow correct procedures.’”

The Green Bay Police Department is not an accredited agency, in part because of the time it takes, and the extra wages that would have to be paid, said Captain Ben Allen.

“Some agencies staff a full-time position to work on these types of projects, and we have not had personnel dedicated to a position like this for various reasons,” Allen said. “In my 20-plus years with GBPD, I have not had a chief that wanted to [become accredited].” 

Instead of accreditation, the Green Bay Police Department is part of the Lexipol Policy program, a system that provides “updates to policy based on best practices, updates to federal, state and local laws and ordinances, and allows for customization of policy in order to meet the needs of a community,” Allen said.

The police departments in Madison and Appleton, two of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state who are not accredited, did not respond to requests for comment.

One requirement for WILEAG accreditation is yearly evaluations of officers, an issue close to Solar’s heart. During his policing career, Solar required evaluations for years, but said the practice fell out of favor with many departments.

“I can point to a risk management specialist who will tell police supervisors and managers to stop doing performance appraisal records,” Solar said. “If you have records stored someplace off-site, they’ll want them burned to the ground.”

Evaluations can take into account things like the officer’s appearance, ability to follow instructions, compliance with agency policies and number or quality of arrests.

Janesville Police Chief David Moore

“When you have an agency that’s been accredited, you’re going to find that they have a much more in-depth evaluation manual,” Ferguson said. “They’ll tend to do a lot more things that other agencies might not.”

The Janesville Police Department has been accredited through WILEAG since 2000, with a recent re-accreditation in 2020. Chief David Moore says his department has long required yearly evaluations of officers — but that they work better in high-trust organizations, which can take years to create.

“[Trust] is not something you can turn on or off,” Moore said. “It’s something that you earn over the decades. We’ve talked so much about earning our communities trust, but earning our communities trust starts with earning our employees’ trust. Because if we’re not treating our employees fairly, then why would we expect them to go into our communities and treat them fairly?”

Evaluations are valuable if they are accurate, fair and set reachable goals, Moore said. Police unions often oppose evaluations because it could end up harming an employee down the road, he added.

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the largest police union in Wisconsin, did not respond to requests for comment.

“I believe to a great degree these evaluations can be objective with proper training, good supervisors and honest dialogue with our employees,” Moore said. “Put yourself in the position of the employee — wouldn’t you want to know [your performance] in your organization’s eyes?”

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

Categories: Investigations

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