What Should You Expect From Your Chief of Police?

UnknownThis past week I received a call from a journalist in San Francisco. He asked me if I thought a chief of police should hold a bachelor’s degree. Of course I said, he or she should most likely have graduate degree given the complexity of leading police in a democratic society.

[In Arrested Development, I identify four major obstacles which prevent police from improving — the first is “anti-intellectualism.” And it can be overcome with higher education.]

Alas, he said, his city is not requiring a college degree, only ten years of management experience. (See the news article HERE.)

So I reiterated my thoughts to him and quoted the following from  How To Rate Your Local Police (1982 and revised in 2015):

images-2 What kind of person is the chief?

The police chief should be a visible and accessible leader who thoughtfully strives to improve the effectiveness of police services. The leadership ability of the chief is the single most important ingredient in a good police agency. Police agencies, like all large bureaucracies, tend to resist change. Improvements can be made only if the person at the top is willing to challenge the status quo, take risks, be innovative, and build a coalition of support for change. Improvements are not automatic with a committed police chief, but they are impossible without one. Change for the sake of change is wasteful and inefficient. But because all police agencies need to constantly monitor the fairness and effectiveness of their services, a willingness to change, to continuously improve, is an essential characteristic for all police chiefs. To make those improvements, the chief must have a clear vision of the agency’s objectives, the role of police in a democratic society, and how to successfully and collaboratively achieve those objectives. Additionally, a police chief must have the vision, self-confidence, persistence, and passion to chart an improvement course and see it through.

Finally, to the list of essential characteristics for a police chief, add personal integrity, the respect of the community and elected officials, and the ability to inspire and motivate his or her officers to share the vision and work to the best of their ability.

What tone does the chief set for the agency?

The chief sets the tone for the agency through both actions and words. An aggressive tone could translate into physically and abusive officers, insensitive to citizen’s rights to due process. Or the chief can emphasize restraint, requiring all officers to exercise civility at all times and to meticulously observe the legal rights of all citizens they encounter.

In a large dimension, the police chief also sets the tone in the community for discussion of all public safety and law enforcement issues. The chief must present a coherent crime control philosophy as well as concrete crime prevention strategies, striking a balance between the conflicting demands of freedom and public order, majority rule and minority rights, government authority and individual rights, and resisting the pressures from various powerful interest groups. For example, to “do something” to remove an annoying group of protesters, or “clear the streets” of poor or homeless people who are not breaking the law. A thoughtful chief must defend the right of unpopular groups to exercise their Constitutional guarantees to freedom of speech and assembly, as well as safeguard the physical safety of those who choose to exercise these rights, protect powerless, unpopular and disfranchised groups from police harassment or intimidation, and insure that all citizens, regardless of gender, class, race, ethnicity, citizenship status, or sexual orientation, receive the same respectful level of police services.

A strong, effective police chief will not hesitate to take public stands on controversial issues facing the community, balancing the legitimate law enforcement needs of the officers and the safety concerns of the community. It is the chief’s responsibility to educate each group about the other’s interests and perspectives. While a perfect solution to many of these conflicts is rare, the effort put forth to listen to one another is essential in a diverse and free society such as ours.

Does the chief articulate the policies and direction of the agency clearly and understandably?

If there is community resistance or disagreement over certain police practices, the chief must acknowledge these differences, discuss them in a fair and open manner, explain how the practice fits in with the overall direction  of the agency, and then resolve the dispute by either modifying the practice or by clearly explaining why one course of action was chosen over another.

The chief must be able to:

  • Mediate complex community problems,
  • Speak out on controversial public safety
  • Offer citizens a coherent definition of the role of police in a democratic

The chief’s roles are many and complex:

  • Spokesperson on crime control and public safety;
  • Advisor on personal security;
  • Preserver of due process guarantees;
  • Defender of minority rights;
  • Protector of the weak, the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the injured;
  • Guardian of the rule of law and our democratic values; and
  • Manager of a complex bureaucracy.



RATING YOUR POLICE CHIEF: Leadership Characteristics

1. What kind of person is the chief?

  • Does he/she have a clear vision?
  • Does everyone know that vision?
  • Is the chief’s leadership style collaborative and respectful?
  • Does the chief have a willingness to challenge the status quo?
  • Does the chief take risks, be innovative, and build a coalition of support for change?
  • Does the chief portray self-confidence with humility?
  • Does the chief have a track record of personal integrity?
  • Does he/she have the respect of community and elected officials?
  • Does the chief inspire and motivate?

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

  • Does he/she have a coherent and concrete crime control strategy?
  • Does it include crime prevention?
  • Does the chief defend the rights of unpopular groups?
  • Does he/she see that police services are delivered equally and fairly to the community?
  • Are organizational decisions based on data and not emotions?

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

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

A Chief of Police must also model these characteristics and be highly mature, a good listener, and willing to work closely with his or her officers and members of the community.

The following must also be taken into consideration:

  • The candidate’s demonstrated ability to lead change and sustain it.
  • The candidate’s appreciation of the importance of diversity in a modern police organization.
  • The candidate’s intellectual and creative ability.
  • The candidates understanding that a police chief wears two hats — and they must be balanced: to be the chief officer internally and, with regard to the community, to protect and represent their interests as well.




  1. I was very surprised to hear that they are not requiring a degree for this position. That is a “red flag” for me indicating that politics are in play and they have a person ready to step-in who has not made the commitment to prepare themselves through higher education. I have known some great police officers who did not have degrees, even a few good supervisors but the demands on a police executive today are such that a chief without the demonstrated planning, organizing and self-discipline skill required to obtain a degree is doomed to fail.

    On the other hand, requiring a degree places minority applicants at a disadvantage. There are some great, experienced African-American candidates out there who have not had the same opportunity to obtain a degree and having this requirement does place them at a disadvantage.

    In our quest to have a police department that is more “representative” of the community we need to consider this possible trade-off. The one thing that I personally discovered is that having an advanced degree helped make the job easier than it would have been. So, how much of the planning, organizing, staffing and budgeting skill are we willing to trade-off in order to have a chief who more closely resembles our community?

    It strikes me that we have been through this discussion already. Removing “politics” (and the resulting corruption) from policing was the hallmark of the professional policing movement. Do we need to re-hash that discussion given today’s politics?


  2. As Always you are bang on;

    Glad to see the newspapers are reaching out to you gleaning from your experience and wisdom; (applied knowledge).
    Hopefully they will be able to help.
    Don’t give up you are to valuable.


  3. Even if you have a college degree, it is no guarantee that police officers will change. You look at the FBI with their college educated people and they have not changed much at all. Shorty after Bush, Jr., left office, the FBI admitted that they spend more time spying on people and organizations who were not a threat to the USA than they did on terrorism and white collar crime. No moral backbone when it comes up to standing up to politicians, corporate leaders, and wealthy people.


      1. True Reverend; however, as I stated in the article about mediocrity, the public, politicians, and the police did not learn anything about police misuse of power from the 1920s to 1960s and introducing strong measures to make sure that it never happen again. Instead we let the police state grow and grow until it has become what it is today.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.