3 more harsh realities of being a police chief

Are you sure you actually want the job?

Last month, I wrote about three harsh realities of being a police chief. That article explored how a candidate for chief must consider their feelings about relocation (multiple times), control (and/or lack thereof), and the irrationality and destructiveness of fickle politics. But there are additional issues to consider.

The fact is, as much as all law enforcement officers are prone to feel underappreciated, chiefs can feel it more so. Additionally, while the chief’s chair does come with a bigger paycheck, you will never get rich. Finally, though line officers (and even most command staff) get off time that is unlikely to be invaded by work issues (failing a major catastrophe when it’s basically all-hands-on-deck time), the position of chief can be a 24/7 deal.

Let’s examine each of these issues.

Expect to be Unappreciated
As the chief, you will be held ultimately responsible for everything every officer does, good and bad (but especially bad). You can expect to hear both at the office and in the grocery store about the “unjust” traffic ticket, the “harassment” of some parent’s little angel, the “unnecessary” arrest of an intoxicated individual.

On occasion, someone will express appreciation of something you or your officers have done. All too often, those expressions are like a breath of fresh air when you’ve been living downwind of a paper mill or fertilized field. If your job satisfaction is tied to receiving positive feedback, you’re not going to be a very happy camper much (ie: most) of the time.

Expect to be unappreciated by the citizens, by the politicians and, frequently, even your own officers. Janet Jackson once sang, “What have you done for me lately?” Expect to hear that a lot. Expect to be told how to do your job by people who haven’t got a clue (the worst is when they actually have the authority to insist you do your job their way). Everybody — from the council to the greenest rookie — is certain they know how to do your job better than you do. Think about how and how well you’ll respond to that verbal assault now, before the consequences of your response can impact your career.

Don’t expect loyalty from those above and below you simply because you’re the chief because you’ll be sorely disappointed. You’ll have to earn it from those who are already there, and will have to re-earn it every time a new officer comes on. And with some, no matter what you do or don’t do, you’ll never get it.

To make things worse, while some things universally generate loyalty, others will vary by generation. It’s not unheard of for respect and loyalty to the chief in the department to be divided along generational lines. If there are no barriers between officers and town politicians, the politician’s personal agendas can have a direct influence and impact on those working under you. This can have a disastrous effect if the political environment is divided into “camps” and is adversarial.

Don’t Expect to Get Rich
Chiefs are frequently “exempt” employees, and accordingly not eligible to be paid overtime. Actually, in several of the small departments that I’ve served as chief, patrol officers often had bigger paychecks than I did, and the assistant chief would make $17-$35,000 more a year than I did. They got overtime and I did not. Be sure to determine what the classification of the position is before you take it. If you will be an “exempt” employee, then your salary is all you have to look forward to in future paychecks. Being an “exempt” employee can also disqualify you from working extra-duty gigs — the holiday and vacation fund for line officers.

If you hope to be able to pick up the extra coinage by working ball games or selective enforcement, get permission in writing prior to accepting the job! Ideally, make it a clause in your contract (if you can get one). It is extremely important that you not assume anything prior to accepting the job, and that you get it in writing (documented by email, if there’s no written contract) before you accept.

If you’re being hired to be a “working chief” you must recognize that the classification frequently translates into, “Do everything a chief is supposed to do and everything a patrol officer is supposed to do, so we don’t have to hire another officer. And oh, by the way, you don’t get overtime.”

Double and triple check all the financial details. And don’t assume — particularly in smaller jurisdictions — that the way they paid the former chief is the correct and legal way to pay you. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a town’s administration to be clueless when it comes to the particulars of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). As with so many things, just because “that’s the way it’s always been done” doesn’t mean that it’s the right way.

Expect to be 'On' 24/7
It goes without saying that the chief is expected to be available when the stuff hits the fan, and that’s how it should be. When you accept the position of chief, your level of public scrutiny and responsibility changes drastically. You are the face and the perceived character of the department — all else will be judged by how you act and respond.

No longer will you have the ability to deflect media and direct public inquiries. The buck stops with you, and that can necessitate walking a very thin tightrope. In a major use-of-force incident, for example, the balancing act can put the chief in a nearly unwinnable situation. The past several years have provided many nationally-observed examples where the comments and actions of the chief have either resulted in public outcry and accusations of a cover-up, or the law enforcement community feeling that the chief had caved to politics and thrown good officers under the bus (or both).

It’s not just your professional life that will be under the microscope. You will quickly find that your personal life is much less personal. You are the face and the perceived character of the department, and that will definitely bleed over into your time off. What church you do or don’t go to will be public knowledge. Who you socialize with, how you blow off steam, how many beers you had in the restaurant, what liquor you bought at the store — all these and more will quickly find its way into the town’s gossip network, if not on social media.

And it won’t be just you that’s the subject of public discourse and scrutiny. Your family (including your dog) can be fodder for gossip and possibly publication. Not long ago, an excellent and well-respected chief had to read off his adult son’s legal difficulties on the front page of the local paper, under a banner that trumpeted “Chief’s son....”

Is it fair and just? No, but it’s a reality that you need to be aware of and prepared to deal with.

The life of a chief of police can be very rewarding, both professionally and personally. The position brings with it more opportunity to make things better for your community on a broader scale. But it also brings with it a great deal more responsibilities, complications and stress than are present at lower ranks, with a great deal less job security. It is a career path that is best entered by first checking your ego at the door, and objectively analyzing all the pros and cons. Only then can you truly know if you want this job.

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