From left, Sanford Police Chief Ronnie Yarborough, Sanford Mayor Chet Mann, and Sanford Police Captain Eric Pate.

By Richard Sullins |

You might have been forgiven for being intimidated as the Sanford City Council’s meeting began on Tuesday night by the more than 50 uniformed members of the city’s police department lined the walls of the room. They were accompanied by at least 20 other plain clothes officers seated in the gallery. But this group wasn’t there to arrest or even ticket anyone. These men and women of the department had come at the request of the council to be recognized for achieving a standard of excellence that few departments ever attain.

The Sanford PD earned a prestigious level of excellence this summer that has been recognized by a national accrediting agency, the Commission for Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Across America, only one in every 20 law enforcement organizations has earned this distinction, which sets the Sanford Police Department at a level that is above 95 percent of all other departments across the state and nation.

CALEA is a non-profit credentialing authority made of recognized experts in policing and law enforcement from across the country designed to improve the delivery of public safety services by maintaining professional standards help departments to continuously improve their own processes and procedures.

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann presented the framed certificate of accreditation to Chief Ronnie Yarborough and spoke of his pride in the department.

“In a time where police departments and elected officials have gone through a lot, you guys have never wavered in your steadfast duty,” Mann said. “We have seen lots of things happen around us that did not happen here. Our chief is the longest-serving chief in North Carolina. He leads a department that does not carry tasers, we do not employ chokeholds and never have taught that, which means that our officers must be of a higher quality in order to de-escalate situations. It’s not easy to do your job when you are under the microscope, and in Sanford, we have been very blessed to have a police department that rose to the occasion during a pandemic to seek and obtain the highest level of excellence there is.”

Yarborough, who has served as Sanford’s Chief of Police since 1978, brought three fourths of his 110-member department with him to the meeting to give them credit for an incredible accomplishment.

“We’ve got a great, great bunch of people working with us and they really shined through all this process,” Yarborough said..

In 2019, Yarborough tasked Captain Eric Pate, who heads up the internal affairs division, with leading the accreditation.

“I knew that he was the right man for the job,” he said.

The Chief and Pate set a goal of completing the 3-year accreditation process within 18 months. And without any warning, COVID descended on the city 9 months after the effort began.

“It didn’t slow him down at all. He never missed a step,” Yarborough continued.

The task was daunting. Not only did 180 different standards of excellence have to be met, but documentation had to be provided to support compliance with each benchmark and then verified by CALEA experts in the field that the department was, in fact, meeting each measure. The process was completed on July 16 as Yarborough and Pate were interviewed by the 21-member commission and the department’s accreditation proposal was approved.

Pate gave credit to the many officers who did much of the leg work in bringing the department up to the national standards.

“It was quite the challenge,” Pate said. “It’s a rolling process because these performance benchmarks are constantly changing at the national level, so we really have to be on top of our game, not just to be accredited for a five-year period, but to be the department that the people of this city deserve every time we put on the badge.”

As he presented the certificate, Mann talked about the qualities that, in his opinion, make the Sanford Police Department among the top organizations in the state.

“Law enforcement is not all about putting people in jail. It’s about helping people,” he said. “We want to be as transparent as possible with the community and let them know that we are trying to help them as much as we can. Very few cities the size of ours can claim to have a police department that has shown the level of excellence that ours has.”

Then, Mann spoke directly to the officers.

“We are an over-achieving community,” he said. “We always beat the odds. We are the underdog that always comes through, and you should never bet against Sanford. You’re a really big part of that. And tonight, your accreditation through CALEA has proven that once again, we can do almost anything we set our minds to do in Sanford.”