Should We Elect Our Police Leaders?

thFor most of my career I was opposed to the idea of electing police chiefs. To me, it was to keep politics out of policing — or so I thought.

Now I am questioning my position as I see many reform-minded police chiefs (all appointed by city mayors or managers) “bite the dust.” (For example, Oakland [who went through three police chiefs in only nine days], Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Cincinnati, and so on.)

Police improvement and reform is tricky business that takes not only a long time (8-10 years) but also the ability to withstand the “slings and arrows” of one’s opponents who often happen to work for you and enjoy the benefits of a protected labor union.

I remember talking with Bill Ferris who had been elected Sheriff of Dane County just before I was appointed to take over the police department in Madison, Wisc. Discussing the problems I was having implementing new policies regarding public protest and making the way for our first women in uniform, Bill said, “David, they only come after me every four years at election time, they come after you every day!” And it was true.

Watching today’s Dane County Sheriff, Dave Mahoney, and many elected law enforcement officials make the first necessary changes in getting control of police use of deadly force, I am starting to re-think my position.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton

Just this week, Dr. Gary Cordner alerted me to a podcast entitled “Criminal (In)justice” in which University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris interviews Jerry Clayton, the three-term elected sheriff of Washtenaw County, Mich.

Clayton started improving the services of his department of 400 officers eight years ago with both service and sustainability in mind. One thing that captured my attention was Clayton referring to the citizens he and his department served as their “customers.” This is something I have preached for far too long and great to know other police leaders are catching on.

So I would have to rank Sheriff Clayton as one of our nation’s police leaders who “gets it!”

What we need to do is to gather together these police leaders throughout the land who “get it” to share their experiences in implementing true community-oriented policing, practicing Procedural Justice, controlling/reducing the use of deadly force through better training in de-escalation, understanding mental illness, and being committed to the sanctity of human life.

You can hear the podcast and a transcript of their discussion HERE.

In the meantime, I need to re-think my position on electing police chiefs!




  1. There are some great sheriffs out there. And there are some clunkers and kooks (I think you have one right down the road). Not sure election per se is an answer, but then I don’t have a better one either. I’ve always thought the best compromise was a contract with substantial severance pay, so the city or town would have to keep paying the chief for a while if they decided to dump him or her. At least that makes them think twice.


    1. I agree. But some cities would most likely take the financial hit (severance pay) in order to quell some officers who simply do not want to do business in the democratic and constitutional way.


  2. With the Supreme Court allowing corporations to have rights like us regular human beings, I worry about all that dark money from corporations pouring into elections of police chiefs so they can have their own private police force while the taxpayers’ still have to subsidize the cost of maintaining it. From what I saw on the movie Plutocracy II, the Pennsylvania State Police started out as a private company police force and then it was decided to make it a government police force so the corporations did not have to pay for its upkeep while at the same time, they can still rely on it at the behest of the corporations while the common people pay for their own suppression. What a sweet deal for corporations.

    I would try not to make the severance pay so large that the cities do not take a financial hit because it only reinforces failure like American corporations do with their CEOs.


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