So you want to be a small town police chief? Consider these 4 factors

To become a police chief, most individuals follow one of two paths, either rising through the ranks within their department, or coming in from the outside

There probably has never been a cop alive who hasn’t — at one time or another — thought that their chief wasn’t doing something the way they thought it should be done. It’s human nature. 

It’s a pretty safe bet that every current and former chief had those very thoughts at some point in their career, too.

Those who have recently become chief, and those who have made becoming chief a career goal must carefully consider the potential pitfalls that will surely present themselves once that position has been acquired. 

1. Logistics
To become a police chief, most individuals follow one of two paths:  rising through the ranks within their department, or coming in from the outside. The latter tends to be a much faster process. 

You can obtain a job as a small town chief much sooner in your career than you can become a chief of a medium to large department. 

One of the primary reasons for this is personnel logistics — the larger the department, the greater number of qualified and experienced in-house candidates who already hold senior administrative positions exist. 

If the council or hiring committee wants to hire someone in-house, you’ll have greater competition from candidates they already know and with whom they may have an established relationship. 

2. Economics
One of the most important factors in pursuing the position of chief in a smaller jurisdiction is economics — this goes hand in hand with personnel logistics (competition) noted above. The larger the jurisdiction, the more money will be available for a chief’s salary. As the salary goes up, the number of qualified and experienced candidates interested in the position does as well, especially if the jurisdiction is open to an outside candidate and advertised regionally or nationally. Good money, the social ‘prestige’ that comes with the position, and the improvement the position will make to the resume of the upwardly-mobile, all create a pool of extremely qualified applicants.

Generally speaking, if you want to become the chief of a medium to large department, go to work for one and work your way up through the years to a senior administrative position. From that position, you can move to the number one slot either in your department or move to another department of similar or slightly smaller size. That’s the longer way.

If you’re looking to become a chief relatively early in your career (10 years or less), smaller jurisdictions and departments may offer significantly more opportunity. For one thing, economics may determine that there will be less competition from more qualified and experienced candidates. Simply put, it’s not at all unusual for a first line supervisor in a medium to large department to make more money than the chief in a smaller jurisdiction — sometimes a lot more money! 

3. Numbers
Another factor contributing to the speed of becoming chief in a smaller jurisdiction is simply a matter of numbers. The vast majority of police departments in the United States are not medium or large departments — they are small ones. 

For example, in the Commonwealth of Virginia approximately 74 percent of the police departments have 35 officers or fewer. Of that 74 percent, approximately 64 percent have ten officers or fewer. The bottom line is that just under half of the police departments in Virginia — approximately 47 percent — have ten or fewer officers. 

The smaller the department, the more potential openings exist.

4. Politics
A major factor in smaller jurisdiction openings for police chief is politics. Small jurisdictions frequently are affected by small-town politics. Generally speaking, the more severe the politics are, the more frequently  the turnover in the chief’s office will be. 

While a number of chiefs of small towns have worked the majority of their career in that small town, small towns frequently do bring in candidates from the outside. Typically, the reason for this is either that they don’t have a suitable (or politically popular) candidate in the small department, or they think they want “change.”

For all the reasons noted above, the likelihood — and speed — of obtaining your first chief’s job is much greater if you pursue the position in a smaller jurisdiction. 

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