3 harsh realities of being a police chief

Before you go after a position as a chief, there’s one crucial question you must ask and answer yourself: are you sure you actually want the job?

Before you submit your first application to become chief of police, there are a few things you must consider and answer honestly. First and foremost, are you willing to relocate? Several times? If you have a career plan that involves you moving up the ladder in department size and salary, it’s likely that you will do so in several different locations.

Like any other career, you’ve got to go where the jobs are, whether that’s across the state or across the country. If you have a partner or a spouse, they have to be on board with potentially significant relocation and career instability. Recognize that the job future of a chief is much less certain than other careers, and much more uncertain than that of an officer.

The average tenure of a chief of police these days is about two and a half to three years — 40 years ago it was roughly twice that. Yes, it’s possible that you could land your dream job and stay there for the next 15 years, but it’s also possible you could win the lottery. The smaller the jurisdiction you go to — especially if you come in from the outside — the shorter your tenure is likely to be.

The Chief is Not Omnipotent
The belief that “the chief’s in charge” is largely a fantasy — Bob Dylan said it best when he sang “Everybody’s got to serve somebody.” As an officer, you’ve got to serve the supervisors, the majority of whom will have experience and a pretty good clue how to do the job.

A chief, however, has a lot of bosses. Some — if not most — of these bosses are politicians, and almost all of them don’t have a clue what law enforcement actually entails. I’ve seen the entire spectrum of competency — and lack thereof — in my career with the chief’s bosses.

With small town politicians, there’s typically no “minimum qualification” standard for getting elected. It’s a popularity contest pure and simple, and all too frequently getting elected has absolutely nothing to do with experience, wisdom or even intelligence. Research the power structure of the town before you take the job, and weigh what you find in making your decision. Does the chief answer to an appointed city manager? An elected mayor? A police committee? The entire town council?

If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll answer to a professional town manager who will serve as a buffer between the chief and the town council. At the other end of the spectrum, you will have a town council and mayor telling you what to do with equal authority. That translates into anywhere between five and eight bosses, all of whom may have a personal agenda and may or may not know the first thing about professional law enforcement. When there’s division among the council — a frequent occurrence — as to direction and practices of the police department, the chief is placed in a no-win situation, and the outcome is usually not good.

The Drain of Politics
If you’ve been on the job long enough to be contemplating seeking a chief’s job, you’ve likely already had a bit of exposure to departmental politics — maybe more than a bit. Some departments are worse than others, as are jurisdictions. It often seems that no matter how ideal a situation may be, the human animal can’t resist bringing politics into the mix.

If you ask a group of chiefs what they dislike most about their job, the majority will likely answer “politics.” Ask them what they miss most since they became chief and they’ll likely answer with some variation of “being able to focus on real police work.” The unfortunate reality is that the chief must be a politician, whether they want to be or not. This can frequently conflict directly with everything they’ve held dear in their career, but it’s the reality. Chiefs who aren’t adept at dealing with political realities don’t remain chief very long.

Add into that mix that the position of chief is typically an “at will” position. Unless you’ve got a good contract, your continued employment is subject to the whims of whoever hired you at any given moment. There’s a reason why the average tenure for a chief is two and a half to three years. Recognize that typically within a year or two, there will be a town election. The mayor and town council members that thought you were the best thing since sliced bread may be replaced, and the replacements may not feel as kindly toward you and your vision. Newly elected officials results in new agendas (personal or otherwise), and you may not be a part of it.

So in a nutshell, how do you feel about relocation, control (lack thereof, both perceived and real), and the irrationality and destructiveness of fickle politics? Asking and answering these three questions is good place to start in your honest analysis when you consider setting your sights on becoming a police chief.

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