On Seeking a Chief of Police

“How to Rate Your Local Police

A User’s Guide for Civic Leaders, Governmental Officials, Concerned Citizens, and Police

The city in which I served as chief of police is again in the process of selecting a new chief of police. It will be a lengthy and most likely contentious process before the task is completed.

The state law which governs the hiring of police chiefs requires that decision to be made by a commission of five members appointed by the mayor of the city for a term of five years. No more than three of the five members can belong to the same political party.

In the early 1980s, I wrote “How to Rate Your Local Police” and updated it in 2015. I suggest any community interested in selecting an effective police chief follow the recommendations in this booklet.

Here’s an excerpt from chapter three, “Leadership Characteristics.” Additional chapters address the five myths of policing, policy and organizational characteristics and a handy checklist for elected officials and other community leaders.


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 issues.
  • Offer citizens a coherent definition of the role of police in a democratic society.

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.

Author’s note: Leadership is always about integrity and one’s deep, personal values about people — all the people a police agency serves. The balance (as I mentioned above) is not only being the “top cop;” the leader of the men and women within the agency, but also (and more difficult) is being the community’s police chief; that is, representing a diverse community and — as sometimes happens, make a decision on behalf of one group’s interests (because it is right) and against the interests of another group.

It so happens that chiefs in my state should be able to make those tough decisions because they have the protection of tenure. A chief of police can only be removed for cause and after a full hearing. It was this tenure that saved my career, enabled me to make those tough decisions (often to the chagrin of my police colleagues) and serve for two decades.


In the interest of improving democratic policing, you may download a FREE copy of my book HERE.

And you might also be interested in my police career, why change is difficult for police and how I overcame it and made a good police department a much better one.

See “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police.

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