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Are you a police chief or a firefighter?

If you spend most of your day putting out spot fires, you are not setting the course for your agency — here’s how to balance crisis management with long-term planning



Many years ago, my friend Chuck Wexler observed how difficult it was for police chiefs to stay focused on strategic efforts to control crime. As the Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), he had extensive experience discussing such issues with police leaders.

When I pushed back on this idea, he suggested I conduct a simple test: examine my schedule for the month and categorize where I was spending my time. Much to my chagrin, Chuck was right. I found that most of my workdays were consumed by putting out budgetary, personnel and political spotfires. I had become a firefighter!

Over the years, I have tried to never forget the lesson I learned from Chuck. Without an intentional effort at scheduling strategic thinking time, the demands of the job overwhelmed whatever bandwidth I had to think about where my agency was heading as an organization and what our approaches to controlling crime would be in the future. By allowing this to happen, I was failing to meet one of my basic leadership obligations.

The value of “just thinking” time

Leaders have long grappled with managing their schedules and carving out time to “just think.” However, for police chiefs steering their organizations into an unprecedented and increasingly unstable future, finding time for strategic thinking is no longer optional. It has become one of the most critical challenges impacting their effectiveness in leadership.

Certainly, police leaders need to be vigilant about current challenges to prevent them from escalating into much larger issues. When people are shooting at each other, the police must intervene. When a natural disaster occurs, the police must respond. And during acute political emergencies, the chief must pay attention or risk being shown the door.

But it is to the future that leaders must focus the lion’s share of their attention. They must be anticipatory and deliberate about the agency’s desired direction. Identifying, considering and responding to factors that could either aid or hamper their envisioned outcomes is crucial. They can’t allow the short-term urgency of organizational flare-ups to distract them from the strategic responsibility that is theirs alone.

Balancing the “crisis of the moment” with long-term planning

A very real challenge facing police leaders today is determining the degree to which they should be involved in the resolution of “routine” issues. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this. This is where experience produces a great deal of leadership wisdom. Of course, if your agency’s culture prioritizes coaching and mentorship, that helps a great deal too! Delegating responsibilities and holding people accountable for managing issues that are important to achieving the overall agency mission helps leaders sidestep the wide breadth of organizational minutiae that can easily consume their days.

Keeping an agency’s “north star” in sight so it stays on course and arrives at its desired future is the singular responsibility of its chief executive.

I’m sure some may disagree with my assertions about leadership priorities. Let me be clear, I’m not saying the “crises of the moment” aren’t important. They are. The police are in the crisis business and are expected to deal with bad things when they occur. However, like captains of seagoing ships, police leaders must determine their organization’s heading and future destination.

Keeping an agency’s “north star” in sight so it stays on course and arrives at its desired future is the singular responsibility of its chief executive. While police leaders are accountable for almost everything that happens in the organization (like ship captains), they are also uniquely responsible for the future of the agency. Others in the agency should deal with the immediacy of crime, personnel and fiscal issues. And, when they do their jobs, the leader avoids the spot fires I’ve mentioned. Of course, the key is knowing when a spot fire is about to turn into a conflagration!

One crucial responsibility of police leaders is to aid their team in developing a high tolerance for growing ambiguity and risk that characterize the field. Indeed, if there’s one thing certain about the future of policing, it’s that it will be fraught with ambiguity and risk.

A quick glimpse at almost any news source highlights issues like technological advances, the polarization of America, the purpose of policing, global conflict, and climate change. These are just some of the volatile issues dominating our world and impacting policing today. And undoubtedly, they will become increasingly more impactful for policing.

Foresight is the act of looking forward. It is the ability to anticipate and prepare for future developments. It compels leaders to think about the future implications of trends, events and disruptions to their organizations, community safety goals, the methods for achieving those goals, and the capacities the organization will need to create its preferred future.

Under the best of circumstances, developing actionable foresight can be a challenge. It takes time to develop. When leaders spend their days stomping out organizational, community and political flareups, they aren’t focusing on the one place they and their people will spend the rest of their careers — the future. They will struggle, and most likely fail, to develop an anticipatory, forward-leaning organization equipped to meet future challenges. And sadly, as it relates to the prime directive of their position, “to lead,” they will be found wanting.

Breaking out of the spot fires cycle

So, how do police leaders break free of the never-ending cycle of constantly putting out spot fires? Certainly, there are straightforward acts like delegating responsibilities, creating meaningful metrics of success, and scheduling their strategic thinking time like they calendar meetings. But first, they must adopt a mindset that reflects their understanding of the following four guiding principles for leading cops and communities in the future:

  • Dealing with everpresent personnel, budgetary and political spot fires is part of the chief’s job, but it should not be the job.
  • It is the duty of police leaders to prepare their organizations for an increasingly uncertain future.
  • Developing organizational foresight, and a commitment to strategic thinking, must be core values anchored to the cultures of police agencies.
  • Rightful policing that is effective, empathetic and just is what communities want today, and in the future.

A quote by a simple Canadian farmer, Nelson Henderson is applicable here. He said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Perhaps the true meaning of a police leader’s career is to prepare their agency to deal with uncertainty and instability long after they’ve left. History will ultimately judge their leadership, not by the number of awards and accolades they accumulated during their tenure, but by how well they prepared their agencies for the coming uncertain future.

Chief Jim Bueermann (ret.) has spent more than four decades in policing. He is the president of the Future Policing Institute (FPI) which he founded in 2019 as a vehicle for advancing future policing that is effective, empathetic and just. He served as the president of the National Police Foundation (now the National Policing Institute) in Washington, DC., from 2012 through the end of 2018. From 1978 until 2011 he served with the Redlands Police Department (RPD) in Southern California. For the last 13 years of his career with the RPD, he was the police chief and director of housing, recreation, senior services and code enforcement.

It is the uncertainty about the future that served as the impetus for the Future Policing Institute and its Center on Policing and Artificial Intelligence (COP-AI). A central tenet of the Institute is the belief that: 1) it is better to control our own destiny than to passively allow external forces or events to do so; and 2) that by using foresight and strategic thinking it is possible to dramatically increase the odds that we’ll realize the future we desire. The Institute and its Center on AI can be found at