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How the police chief hiring process changed in 2020

Cities are looking to engage their communities in an open and transparent selection process


Nashville, Tenn., Interim Police Chief John Drake speaks Oct. 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Drake was named Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, as the new Nashville chief of police.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey


2020 brought dramatic changes to many aspects of policing, including the process for hiring new police chiefs and other police executives.

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler recently spoke with PERF’s Executive Search Consultants Charlotte Lansinger and Rebecca Neuburger about changes they’ve observed while assisting with executive search processes.

Many aspects of the police executive selection process remain the same, but there have been changes. Can you outline some of those changes?

Every community is different, but there are some common elements in what people look for in their police chiefs.

In general, a hiring authority is looking for someone who comes in with a level of experience and a communication style that enables them to develop trusting relationships with their communities and internal trust within the police department. Whether the person is selected from inside or outside the organization, it’s all about the ability to lead, command respect and have integrity. I think a police chief’s most important individual relationship is with their boss, whether that’s a mayor or city manager. That relationship needs to be strong and based on trust.

I think the challenges today are impacted by two things. One is the public outcry for police reform. The other is the COVID-19 pandemic. Those two things have converged to change the way we go about these processes, and I think some of these changes are here to stay.

— Charlotte Lansinger

How did the interview process change during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Because of COVID, we’re not encouraging cities to have candidates travel, so everyone needs to have a certain level of literacy when it comes to calls on Zoom, Skype, or Teams.

For example, in a video interview, you are trying to approximate a connection with a human being, so you try to look at the camera, instead of the people on screen. Eye contact is important because it’s really all you have when you’re on Zoom. These video calls are slightly better than a phone call, but it’s not the same as an in-person interview.

When you don’t have an in-person interview, you miss the in-person interactions, like when you walk into the room, shake everyone’s hand and say hello. That’s an opportunity to establish a little bit of chemistry.

Even in person, I think that interviewing is an inadequate way to assess a human being. But it’s the best that we have.

— Rebecca Neuburger

The police reform movement has accelerated greater public involvement in the selection of police chiefs. Can you outline increased expectations of transparency in police chief selection processes?

We’ve always had a fairly high level of public interest in these processes, and over time, that level of public interest has been increasing. It has never been greater than it is today.

I think most cities feel the need to provide an open and transparent selection process, so they’re looking for ways to engage their communities in that process. And they’re looking for ways to do that safely during this pandemic when they cannot have open meetings or town halls to gather input from members of the public. They’re using online surveys and virtual listening sessions to gather public input.

We have always recommended that cities get public input at the beginning because it helps inform and steer the rest of the process. That information helps us identify a candidate pool with the qualities the community is looking for.

There are people who simply won’t apply for a position if they know that part of the process involves releasing the names of all the candidates. And some candidates want to know that mutual interest has been established before their name is released. In some cases, current police chiefs know their careers may be negatively impacted if their name is released during a process. So you have to balance that with the desire for transparency in these processes.

In this environment, I think a lot of mayors and city managers feel pressure to release all the names of candidates who apply. That’s their response to the call for transparency. But that can have a detrimental impact on your ability to recruit high-quality candidates. As consultants, we help the city find that balance, where they are gaining public input and providing transparency, while also protecting the integrity of the process so that well-qualified candidates will be willing to express interest.

— Charlotte Lasinger

In addition to the technical ability to do the job, cities are looking for candidates who display humanity and a connection with the community. What qualities are cities prioritizing?

What I think cities are looking for more than ever is humanity. The thing that will make someone stand out in the crowd is the ability to communicate their humanity, above and beyond their career as a police officer and executive.

People need to be able to build relationships in every direction. The politics of policing are always complicated, and now they’re even more complicated after the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide uprising of activism. And COVID makes everyone feel isolated. And we have an economy that does not make people feel secure.

So in the best-case scenario, a police chief is right at the heart of that nexus between government and people. That’s particularly important in times of turmoil, when people may not feel safe and confident about their own lives.

Building trust also requires good relationships with members of the department. If the officers and other employees don’t feel supported, it feeds into an “us and them” dynamic that pits the community against the police, instead of with the police.

— Rebecca Neuburger

NEXT: 21 on 2021: A police leadership playbook