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IACP 2010: Five strategies for aspiring police chiefs

Four police chiefs shared best practices to help young new chiefs of police succeed in the precarious first few years on the job

According to Dianne Beer Maxwell of the IACP New Police Chief Mentoring Project, most new chiefs of police only last about 22 to 25 months in that position. Consequently, the first year of employment as a new chief of police is a pivotal time period, not only for that chief’s success, but for the success of the agency they lead.

At a standing-room-only panel discussion during IACP 2010 in Orlando, moderator Paul Schutz — who now serves as Director of Peace Officer Standards and Training for the state of Colorado — lead a discussion among four chiefs of police about the things newly-minted chiefs of police need to know about achieving success in their new roles. The four participating chiefs on the dais were:

  • Chief Jeffery Smythe, from Show Low (Ariz.), whose PD of 29 sworn officers patrols a town of about 12,000 people
  • Chef Brandon Zuidema, Garner (N.C.), whose PD of about 64 sworn patrols a town of about 27,000 people
  • Chief Dave Banaszynski, Shorewood (Wisc.), whose 25 sworn officers work in the most densely-populated town in the state, with about 13,000 people living in a one-square-mile area
  • Chief Katherine Perez, Bouie (Md.), started her police department four years ago with 52 sworn officer for a city of about 54,000 people

Schultz opened the discussion with the statement that there is a bit of art and a science to becoming a police chief. “It takes a combination of a lot of different skills, a lot of different talents, and a little bit of luck sometimes,” he said. He also noted that new chief’s will sometimes make mistakes. In fact at one point during the two-hour session, he listed some common mistakes. Let’s look at those.

Top 10 Mistakes Made by New Chiefs of Police

  • Failure to listen
  • Failure to learn about budgeting
  • Failure to create strategic plan and vision
  • Failure to deal with politics
  • Failure to learn, cultivate and manage the organizational culture
  • Failure to meet community stakeholders
  • Failure to properly assess the talent pool
  • Failure to choose works carefully
  • Failure to take time to assess — don’t be too fast to make changes
  • Failure to develop relationships with the local media

strategies for new chiefs

So how does one avoid making some of those mistakes? The panel offered many insights — I can only capture a few here — that can help guide aspiring young police leaders as they contemplate becoming chief.

1. Do a thorough review of the political climate you’re going into

“You don’t have to be a politician, but you have to be politically astute,” Chef Zuidema said. “You have to understand what’s going on with politics — and not just politics in general, but politics in the community you’re in, or if you’re coming from outside, the community you’re going to. One of the things that I found to be night-and-day different between Lynchburg Virginia and Garner North Carolina was the politics. I like it much better where I’m at by the way. It can be an extreme difference. You have to be prepared for still managing the organization and being that final word, but also being prepared to deal with a lot of things you probably never did as a deputy chief or assistant chief or whatever you role might have been.”

2. Learn about the inner-workings of your department — every shift, every assignment — so you can make informed decisions

Chief Smythe offered a model to consider. “Spread your time around — try not to specialize in any one thing for too long — don’t do DUIs your whole career. I made sure that about the 18-month mark of any assignment I started shopping around. My experiences were in Scottsdale Arizona — an agency of more than 400 with plenty of things to do — so I made sure to not stay in one assignment too long. I kind of spread my wings and keep moving within the organization. When I landed in Show Low, I had a broad base of experiences on which I could make decisions, and that has been enormously helpful in my first two years there.”

3. Involve family in the decision-making process before taking the job

“Recognize the significant commitment you’re taking on — it’s a huge decision for your family,” said Chef Zuidema. “I got to Garner in December and my family didn’t follow me until June. That was pretty much the hardest seven months of my life. I found out a couple of things. Not only did I find out how much I’m crazy about my wife and two girls, I also found out that I am horrible at taking care of me. You can talk and talk and talk about it — which we did, we talked about what it meant for us individually, collectively, the kids and career-wise — but you still not realize the change you’ve made if you’re leaving one community and going to another one. Hopefully you’ll be fortunate like we’ve been — we’ve been very warmly received.”

4. Understand that you cannot do it all

Chief Perez explained, “Most new chiefs want to get in there — we’re usually A-type personalities — and do 20 hours a day and go a hundred miles an hour. The problem is, that’s not enough — 24 hours in a day is not enough. You have to be realistic not only with yourself, but with the community. Tell them it’s going to take some time. Creating a new agency had been an idea for many years before the actual referendum that brought our police department into fruition. I lived in Bouie, so I was able to hear and know what some of the issues were that were driving this quest to have a municipal police department in a city that had always been served by the county police. Even knowing those issues, and thinking I was going to hit the ground running, on my first day it was me, my computer, and my phone. For all of you who go through the department and say ‘If I were the chief, I would do this,’ or ‘If I was the chief I would do that,’ well, once you become chief, you have to actually do those things. It’s not that easy, and being a consensus builder is an art. It’s a constant battle sometimes because you know what you want to do, but most of the time you cannot do it yourself. You have to have partners — whether that’s in the community or whether that’s in the city government itself — because everybody kind of touches what you do. So you can’t just go and have your blinders on and go a hundred miles an hour in the direction you know you need to go. You need to kind of take it a little bit slower.”

5. Get more than one mentor to help guide you

Chief Banaszynski said, “You are not alone. No matter what you get yourself into, somebody else has been there. Somebody else has already done that. Go to your state association. Wisconsin has a listserv, and if you have an issue you can put it up there and five minutes later you’ll have 20 responses. Get yourself a mentor — get yourself a couple mentors. One mentor may know an awful lot about one item, but this one over here can help you with something else. You’re never alone, so find somebody.”

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.