A Question for Today’s Chief of Police: Whom Do You Serve?

pcrA Question for Today’s Chiefs of Police:

Whom Do You Serve?

Who should police chiefs serve? Their organization or the citizens in their community? The answer, of course, cannot be one or the other, but both. Yes, a chief is the leader of police in the community, but he or she is also the chief of the city – the community and that responsibility can often put chiefs in conflict with either their officers or their community..

A recent editorial in the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel praises their police chief, David Rausch, for making the right choice after three officers had severely beaten a homeless man and there was an effort within the police department to cover up this criminal behavior. They rightly concluded:

“[The Chief] is sending the right message to his troops and to the general public — brutality will not be tolerated. Knoxvillians should be proud of their police chief and confident that in the future he will make sure the officers under his command conduct themselves in a humane and honorable fashion.” 

It is easy to get these two important service objectives in mixed up. But a top quality police chief works always to serve the community even when it may mean not supporting some members of his or her department.department. You should be aware of the Blue Culture (if not, read my new book.)

For most days in the life of a police chief it is an easy task. When it gets difficult is most likely in the use of force – how much physical force was used to contain and situation or effect an arrest and illegal internal practices like breaking the law to enforce the law.

That’s when the going gets tough. One one hand, at stake for the chief is the support of the men and women of the police department. One the other hand there is the support of the rest of the community.

Like it or not, officers of the department expect their chief to protect them in situations in which they may have erred. The narrative often goes like this: “Chief, we have a tough and sometimes thankless job to do handling criminals for our community and now we are being second-guessed by them. We expect you to protect us from that criticism.” (Or as one officer once told me, “Chief, we don’t need you to stand up for us when we are right. We need you to stand up for us when we are wrong!”)

Often in conflict with the police officers are those in the community who feel the department has erred by using  excessive force in a particular arrest. They expect the chief to discipline those officers and make corrections so that it does not happen again.

Thirty years ago, I tried to address this conflict when I wrote a small book entitled, How To Rate Your Local Police. Here are some highlights from that book that I think still apply today. Those which particularly address the matter at hand are underlined.


 A. Leadership Characteristics

         1. What kind of person is the chief? 

  • Does he/she have a clear vision?
  • Is there a willingness to challenge the status quo?
  • And a willingness to take risks, be innovative, build a coalition of support for change?
  • Does the chief have self-confidence?
  • A track record of personal integrity?
  • Does he or she have the respect of community and elected officials?
  • And the ability to inspire and motivate?

       2. What tone does the chief set for the agency? 

  • Does he/she have a coherent crime control strategy?
  • A concrete crime prevention strategy?
  • Does the chief defend the rights of unpopular groups?
  • And see that police services are delivered equally to the community?

       3. Does the chief articulate the policies of the agency clearly and understandably?

  • Does he/she speak out and take stands?
  • And an articulate a spokesperson on crime control and public safety?
  • Does he or she advise the community on personal security?
  • And preserve guarantees of due process?
  • Does the chief stand up and defend minority rights?
  • Assure protection for the weak and injured?
  • Is he or she an able manager in a complex bureaucracy?
  • Does the chief act as a guardian of the rule of law?

     [How to Rate Your Local Police. David C. Couper. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 1983.]

For more on this and other areas in need of improvement, see my new book, Arrested Development.



  1. A pertinent question for Madisonians and our police chief Noble Wray – whom do you serve, police or community? Answer: neither. In immediately defending Officer Heimsness in the Heenan shooting last November, he was making a bid to defend his own, ham-handed though it was.

    When that became untenable due to community backlash, he moved to fire Heimsness for saying “WTF” and such on police equipment, claiming the shooting had nothing to do with it, in spite of everyone in the city knowing otherwise.

    The community is still torqued off at him and now he has managed to piss off half the department for *now* enforcing rules that were surely widely violated. A canonical move for poorly led organizations – bring dead-letter rules to the fore when you want to nail someone. It’s a recipe for disastrous morale, because everyone lives in doubt, not knowing what the real rules are.

    He would have been better off to handle this correctly from the get go.


    1. What transpires in the coming months will be very interesting. To what level in the community is mistrust and lack of confidence occurring? How does a police department regain trust and confidence? In my experience, it takes a long time…


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