LACONIA — The uppermost room at the Laconia Police Department is devoted to simulating crimes in progress. Interactive videos flash on a six-foot screen, depicting hypothetical emergencies that require police to make flash decisions about whether to de-escalate, or reach for a taser or sidearm.
The simulations are as diverse and disturbing as the incidents police respond to: burglaries, domestic disputes, holdups at convenience stores, disgruntled employees seeking revenge, active shooters holding hostages at schools while teachers and students lie injured. And they raise heart rates and adrenaline levels – as well as the bar on decision-making.
The simulator is one component of the department’s training and use-of-force review that is critical to its national accreditation as a law enforcement agency – a designation not common in New Hampshire that the Laconia department has held for 10 years. That accreditation is based on a department's ability to meet 317 standards for policies, procedures, technology and training, Laconia Police Chief Matt Canfield said.
The simulator is where rookies and law enforcement veterans practice reacting according to what they’ve learned at the police academy, in follow-up training and on the job – and not with anger, panic or fear.
“You can give someone 20 years experience by responding to these simulations. It reinforces basic skills without having lived it,” Canfield said. “In a perfect world, I would double my training. Training is how you’re going to react. It’s “one of the best guarantees” that an officer will do the proper thing in an unfolding situation and in the heat of the moment.
The department is currently in the midst of an accreditation review that occurs every four years, but requires yearly documentation that its policies and procedures are updated and being followed.
Today from 1-3 pm residents are invited to call 678-361-4419 to share their opinions with evaluators regarding LPD's performance as a community police department. A public hearing by Zoom will be held at 5 pm. Instructions are available on the police department's website.
Laconia is one of only 16 law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire with the national accreditation, which can reduce liability and stress for officers by taking some of the guesswork out of police work and eliminating variable responses by officers on patrol, according to those who work in law enforcement.
National accreditation requires departments to set and follow standards for complaint investigation, rules for de-escalation versus use of force, evidence handling and storage, and to update policies and procedures to conform with state law, case law and municipal code.
It also places a premium on communication. Departments are required to have ways to disseminate new and archived information quickly, through technology in cell phones, car phones, and home and office computers. The goal is to make sure officers on patrol can find what they need when they need it, without having to memorize a widening and changing catalog of information.
“If you don’t have a mechanism to update what’s on the books, and a way to disseminate that information, you can feel like you’re out to sea, your rudder is disabled, and you have no way to steer through tough waters,” said Laconia Police Sgt. Richard Carlson, who left another central New Hampshire police department five years ago to join Laconia’s because it was accredited, he said. “Often times I was making decisions off book because our practices had evolved but our policies had not. That gets tough because it becomes a variable based on the (the directions of the) supervisor that’s working that day.”
As a result, "everything is up in the air, it’s on everyone’s shoulders, case by case, to think on their feet. I lived that,” said Carlson, who worked as a sergeant at his previous department. “I felt I had the weight of my agency any time I made a decision, and might be guiding patrol officers the wrong way.”
It becomes a liability when officer behavior or department response is in question, and the action isn’t consistent with past practices or policies that are delineated, and there’s no time stamp that the officer on duty has received and reviewed them, Carlson said.
At a time when police departments nationwide are under scrutiny for using force that may be unjustified and unfairly targeting minority groups, national accreditation may help salvage respect and restore a community’s faith in its local police force’s ability to fairly enforce the law without discrimination.
The clarity, transparency, and documentation required by national accreditation “helps officers know what to expect, and what can get them in trouble,” said Carlson, who predicts that a surge of agencies nationwide seeking accreditation to reduce their liability. “We’re going to see value in that relationship, and in showing we care to do it. It’s critical for a community to know they can rely on the decisions their police department is making. If something does happen, there’s a way to address it.”
CALEA, the national accrediting organization, doesn’t tell individual departments what to do. But it requires them to spell out specific guidelines for actions that are lawful, applied across the board, and make sense in their jurisdictions, however large or small or diverse. They must follow these practices daily and demonstrate compliance.
“Without a policy, the policy is to remember. That’s not a good policy,” said Robin Moyer, information technology and national accreditation manager at the Laconia Police Department. With CALEA, “What’s measured gets inspected. What’s expected gets inspected.”
“Policies mean nothing if you don’t follow them,” Canfield said. “If they follow the policy, that takes care of liability.”
The data tracking helps agencies spot worrisome patterns. For instance, CALEA requires member agencies to have an early warning system that tracks upticks and downturns in use of force – by agency and individual officer. This enables supervisors to correct individual officers’ behaviors and require them to get counseling, Canfield said.
John Scippa, director of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, said he would like to seek national accreditation for the state’s sole policy academy. He believes it’s an excellent idea for the state’s law enforcement agencies, whose procedures and policies are guided by law, but can vary. Follow-up training after the police academy also differs between police departments, he said, and depends on the size of the local police force and its budget.
The Governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency is currently evaluating training, curriculum policies and procedures regarding the use of de-escalation and non-deadly responses versus deadly force, and diversity training.
Its recommendations are due out the first week in August, and are expected to include re-establishing state accreditation for all NH law enforcement agencies, which ended roughly 20 years ago as municipal agencies began to seek national accreditation.
The new state standards are likely to mirror the national requirements, said Scippa, a commission member. The state accreditation process will be less costly – especially for small municipal agencies; most of New Hampshire local agencies consist of 10 or fewer police officers.
National accreditation can run roughly $3,000 to $5,000 in yearly fees, plus ongoing costs that include hiring someone to document that the department is meeting standards, or diverting an existing officer to take on that job half-time, Canfield said.
Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com.