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Knowing when to push the chair

Preparing for retirement is no different than preparing for any other major life event: create a plan and stick to it

Sgt. on computer.JPG

When done right, the process of retirement should be relatively painless.


“Pushing the chair” was what we called succession planning at the San Francisco Police Department during my time there. It was a phrase known to command staff members at the commander, deputy chief and chief of police rank. It basically means to “push the chair of command to the next leader in line” for promotion. Or, knowing when to retire.

When done right, the process is relatively painless. When not done right, you may end up the subject of newspaper headlines that say: “Chief is fired!” That is what Oakland’s Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick recently experienced. Some say she should have seen it coming. I opine that she should have mapped out her exit plan long before. Since Chief Kirkpatrick was hired three years ago, several issues rose under her command that should have aroused the suspicion of what was to follow.

Oakland’s struggle with crime, homeless-related issues, and open drug use and drug dealing were not much different from other urban areas. Still, the police department’s departure from traditional policing efforts had an aura of political influence lurking close behind. The chief had open arguments with members of the civilian police review board. She was admonished for allowing the Oakland Police Department to allow officers to help with traffic control at an enforcement operation by Federal ICE Authorities while in Oakland city limits. The chief was also directed not to allow officers to support the local sheriff’s department in eviction efforts to remove squatters from a privately owned home under renovation.

Being fired is never how you want to leave your agency. The best solution is to create an exit plan well ahead of your desired departure date and stick to it.

Reasons for retirement may be personal, professional, or a combination of both. Ideally, it would be good to have time in grade, at or over the retirement age, and personal satisfaction that you left the department better than when you assumed the position. Understand, this is not ageist, it acknowledges when there are times to be introspective and decide if the department is moving forward or if it would be better to bring in new leadership.

As a chief or sheriff, the choice may be easier than for those at lower ranks or for younger agency members who may still have young children, college tuitions or other financial obligations. Once age and time in grade are achieved, personal satisfaction and benevolence should be the guide, and not merely for prestige or ego. Choosing when to leave may be for esoteric reasons while important considerations may include a political climate that may be in opposition to professional, or in some cases, deep personal moral or ethical ideals and beliefs.

All things being equal, some issues to consider include:

Personal considerations

  • A sense of “mission accomplished” in regard to a legacy you have helped create that improves your agency and will be sustained after you leave.
  • Personal health issues.
  • Family issues.
  • Another calling, whether an avocation, hobby or other personal pursuits in another field.
  • Another position at an agency where you may be able to help.
  • A sense of dread of having to go to work.
  • Being angry more often than usual.
  • Constant conflict or turmoil.

Professional considerations

  • Satisfied that the agency is in a good place and a good system is in place.
  • Good people are in positions and there is a good leadership succession plan in place.
  • Knowing that others are waiting in the wings to bring new energy and ideas to the agency behind a logjam of senior management.
  • Feeling a sense of ineffectiveness that can only be overcome with a new leader and direction.
  • Knowing that your agency is either standing still or, worst of all, in need of a major overhaul.
  • Being stuck in the middle of personnel, union and political issues.
  • NOTE: A good reason not to leave may be that you are the only one on command staff who represents the interests of the rank and file men and women of the department.

Before you leave

Create a viable and achievable succession plan. Convene a meeting with command staff and review plans in place. Conduct an audit, just like the audit you did when you took over command.

Start to mentor potential candidates early whether you have a role in selecting your successor, or not. Take them on “ride-alongs” whether in a radio car, at a management meeting or at your desk to learn the “in-box” strategies.

Create a database that reviews important policy issues, disciplinary or training issues, and long-term goals and projects. Include a calendar or chronological timeline for the next person in your chair to follow. List annual events, retreats, trainings or plans for command staff to follow. Create a “handbook” for new positions (captain, commander, deputy chief, assistant chief and chief or sheriff). Remain as a resource

Finally, know when to say when. Retire with dignity and a sense of accomplishment. Come to terms with your move once you decide if it is benevolent, practical or just the right thing to do.

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.