SCHENECTADY — Smartphones have emerged as a central tool in the Schenectady Police Department’s effort to become accredited.
Each month, 160 uniformed officers use apps or computers to complete the required daily training modules for the department to achieve the statewide designation that verifies it has reached certain rigorous quality standards.
Accreditation doesn’t dictate what departments should do, but rather how they should address issues, said Chief Eric Clifford.
Agencies must meet a total of 110 standards. Eighty percent of the process is policy review, which officials are coupling with technology whenever possible, working with software management company Lexipol to tailor and streamline policy templates.
As part of the process, the department has written and issued 130 new policies governing everything from vehicle pursuits, roadblocks, and responding to drug overdoses to the use of the body cameras that are now being phased into use.
Officials believe the benefits of an extensive review are wide-ranging, from decreasing the number of complaints levied by the public to offering officers better guidance on how to handle emerging crimes such as telephone scams.
“We’re not trying to totally change how we’re doing things operationally,” said Mike Seber, assistant chief of police. “We’re trying to make a stronger structure, a foundation, for our policies.”
While the SPD has submitted its formal accreditation application to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, it has not yet asked for an inspection, citing the need to complete the policy review.
“We are very close to asking for that inspection to happen,” Clifford said. “Our goal is to do it by September of this year. We are hoping we will be accredited 12 weeks later.”
If approved, Schenectady would join 150 eligible law enforcement agencies statewide, including the Albany Police Department and the Troy Police Department.
Clifford said the department was on its way to becoming accredited before the 2017 death of a man in police custody, prompting the state Attorney General’s Office to encourage accreditation.
“We had already been in the middle of doing that,” he said.
But, he added: “The Andrew Kearse case certainly had us revisit certain policies.”
The process kicked into high gear with the creation of the Office of Accreditation and Technology led by Lt. James Sanders in 2017.
“We quickly decided that accreditation was something that was a high priority for us,” Clifford said.
Officers are required to take scenario-based modules as part of their training, and many opt to do so with their smartphones.
Management has been gradually scaling up their frequency, from five to 10 sessions per month to the current 20.
Soon the number will reach 30.
The software also allows management to send out daily bulletins alerting staff to updates or changes in state law, like the new legislation increasing the age of criminal responsibility and shuffling 16- and 17-year-olds into family court, for instance.
“Just from an operational standpoint, it helps us immensely to distribute policies and then make any changes we need to make in a very timely fashion,” Seber said.
The former manual had 79 policies stuffed into a binder the size of a cinder block, which could make consultation cumbersome, officials said.
The new software contains links to case law, which the department hopes will be a useful resource when officers respond to an incident, he said.
Younger personnel are having no problems embracing the new technology, which Seber envisions will eventually infuse all aspects of daily police operations.
“We’re using technology at its fullest,” he said.
Officials have rolled out a pilot program testing the use of electronic records for 12 of the 210 forms used by the department.
The SPD receives 80,000 calls annually, resulting in between 30,000 and 35,000 reports, Seber said.
While the department hasn’t crunched the potential time savings from eliminating paper reports, Seber says that the savings will undoubtedly stack up and free officers to do more proactive policing or enhance response times.
Policy, while a central pillar, isn’t the only component of the accreditation process. However, it does guide the other two: Review of records retention and how the department handles property and evidence storage.
Seber admitted the accreditation process has been prolonged because SPD had to reform its evidence storage practices.
While items like guns and drugs had been stored properly, they hadn’t always been categorized efficiently, and items had been kept long after the statutory time limits.
The assistant chief ushered reporters to the department's storage area, where evidence was stored in neat rows of boxes, coolers and expandable shelves, including rows of guns hanging in bags, all tagged with the appropriate barcodes and numbering system.
The area is monitored with cameras and enhanced security measures designed to govern who has access to the locations — keys and codes are needed by at least two different people to access the facilities — safeguards Seber said would eliminate a repeat of a scandal a decade ago when a detective stole crack cocaine from an evidence locker.
The department must review 30 more policies before formally asking for the inspection.
Remaining big ticket items include drafting an updated "use of force" policy.
Part of that is creating a Use of Force Command Panel, said Seber, which would fold in existing elements of internal affairs and the department’s oversight board.
SPD also aims to update policies regarding community engagement and recruiting.
And as part of a parallel process, the department is also seeking an accreditation-type designation for its Special Operations Squad, which it aims to complete by year’s end.
Clifford said the policies are already having an impact.
“As officers gain more knowledge, they’re going out there and serving the community better,” Clifford said. “The way we gauge it is complaints and feedback from the community. Complaints are down, which we’re very happy about."
The chief suspects the final designation, once awarded, will boost morale among personnel and build community trust.
“[Officers] know there’s an end to all of the hard work they put into learning the policies and becoming more professional and meeting the expectations of the community that are out there,” he said. “We truly believe we’re building trust with the public. They’re starting to trust us more and this is working."