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State your case: How young is too young to be a police chief?

With supportive peers, an inquiring mind, and a mix of confidence and humility, a young chief might be just the thing a department needs


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Last month, we reported on William Armstrong, the new police chief in the Town of Brookford, N.C., who is only 24 years old. Chief Armstrong is not the youngest chief we have featured on Police1. In 2022, we shared news about the youngest police chief ever in the state of Ohio – and maybe even in the country – 21-year-old Sabin Ward.

How young is too young to be chief? Our experts debate this issue.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Joel Shults: The science of police chiefing, if there is such a thing, has always fascinated me. So many paths can lead to those stars, or eagles, or whatever collection of collar and epaulet decoration gets chosen.

I’ve seen officers wait patiently for their chief to die or retire, gambling on the assumption that they are the logical choice for succession. I’ve seen multiple vacancies in leadership occur from scandals or retirements and a wide-eyed underling is suddenly thrust onto the throne. I’ve seen the merry-go-round of local candidates failing, the outside candidates failing, then big-city brass taking small departments and failing. I’ve seen chief hires based on the faults of the previous chief and hires based on a candidate promising whatever the politicians want to hear.

With rare exceptions, the law enforcement profession assumes that somewhere among today’s rookies a chief executive will emerge: Does that candidate need a college education? Should they have served as a supervisor for “x” number of years? Or can someone with the requirements prescribed by law, along with some common sense and people skills, stand as good a chance as anybody to be chief?

Frankly, my experience tells me it doesn’t take much to become a chief but it takes an extraordinary person to be a really good chief. I say all that to say that in the list of characteristics prognosticating a successful chief tenure, age may be on the list, but not at the top of the list. With supportive peers, an inquiring mind, and a mix of confidence and humility, a young chief might be just the thing a department needs.

Jim Dudley: Chiefs in America average over 46 years old and coupled with their average tenure of about just over 3 years, that seems about right. I would have to say that I would have more confidence in a more mature chief, along with experience and ability. I recall from a Police1 survey, that officers preferred competence over other attributes. In other words, they preferred a chief who was smart, well-trained and had empirical knowledge from experiences over a career to make good decisions. It may seem biased to prefer someone older, but age is not the sole reason. Clearly, a 45-year-old would have more experience than a 25- or 30-year-old.

Sheer numbers may create a situation where a very young individual may land into the chief’s chair. After all, nearly 50% of all law enforcement agencies have 10 people or fewer.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had some outstanding 30-year-old sergeants to rely on to make good, sound decisions in the field. As you know, taking on the responsibility as chief of a department means they should have the ability to be a trainer, a diplomat, a coach, a businessperson and someone with political acumen to navigate other department heads.

I realize we are in a hiring crunch with attrition decimating some departments of veteran leadership, but so many things can go wrong with an inexperienced individual taking the chief’s job over a more experienced member of the agency. Morale may be one of the biggest obstacles to a young chief taking control of the agency.

Joel Shults: It’s hard to argue the experience advantage, but we aren’t debating whether we should prefer an older and wiser chief, but whether we should discourage or prohibit a younger one.

One thing we haven’t settled on is what we consider to be young in the police executive world. We can find many examples of young people stepping up to major responsibilities. More than a dozen of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were 35 or younger. The average age of our military officers is under 35, with a third under 30 and enlisted personnel have major responsibilities where over half are under 25. Ages 20-30 comprise nearly a quarter of medical residents practicing in the U.S. High school teachers under 30 make up 15% of their profession, and about 1 in 5 lawyers are under 35.

Finding a precocious officer ready for the chief’s hat would be an exception to the norm, but finding an outstanding performer at a relatively young age in any field is not unheard of. We might even spend some time talking about the disadvantages of chiefs who have lost their enthusiasm and idealism, who have succumbed to the pressure of politics, and who have the “survive until retirement” mindset compared to that young leader with nothing but the future ahead.

Jim Dudley: I would never discourage anyone with the goal of becoming a chief from pursuing their dreams.

I would say, however, that they should embrace each level of authority along the way, and become a master of the position before moving on. I’ve seen so many ambitious individuals spend so much time training rather than working in the field to gain real-world experience.

Every agency has a version of their Wonder Boy or Wonder Girl flying through the ranks. They often miss the experiences and lessons that will be invaluable to their education of being a great chief.

I fear that any appointed 24-year-old chiefs, even in small departments, may only be put in a position to be manipulated by their village or town council.

In regard to your comment about the framers from the 1700s, with people in the 1700s living to only 45 years old on average, those 35-year-old Founding Fathers probably hastened the process to get the Declaration of Independence signed as soon as possible.

Joel Shults: Jim, I can’t disagree with your arguments, I just believe that we need to be careful about ignoring young applicants, expecting them to fail, and predicting that their idealism will be their downfall, all of which seem to be in the cynical eye of observers (not necessarily you – it’s those other people!).

One concept that I think every police chief needs to understand and embrace is the acceptance of the reality that their careers are fragile and their integrity must prevail over their paycheck. Failure as a young police chief can be a catastrophic derailment of a promising police career. Of all the counsel I might give a fresh-faced candidate for chief, it would be that their appointment must be earned every day and the price of their integrity may be higher than they expect. Enthusiastic men and women are welcome to apply!

Police1 readers respond

  • Experience is a double-edged sword. You have the knowledge of how things can go bad, so you know how to avoid problems before they happen, but sometimes with experience you get stuck in the “we have always done it this way” mentality and that’s not good. As a 29-year-old sheriff with only five years of law enforcement experience, I sometimes feel I don’t have the knowledge or experience to make the decisions necessary but that’s when I lean on other sheriffs or chiefs for advice. We are a small agency, fully staffed, with only two full-time deputies who both have less than one year of experience. Our lack of experience could pose problems for us in the future, but only time will tell.
  • Excellent article that provokes some good discussion. I work in the fire service, but we’re very similar when it comes to the debate over age and advancement. I recall a local man who was appointed to a career fire chief position at the age of 26. I think most expected him to fail. He’s now pushing 50 and is still the fire chief of the same agency. He’s one of the most well-known, innovative and respected fire chiefs in the region and teaches at the National Fire Academy. He’s the guy that all new fire chiefs reach out to for mentoring. So I wouldn’t be quick to discount someone simply because of their age. If we had in my profession we’d have lost somebody who has turned out to be an exceptional leader.Maturity is not always equal to age. Experience is a better predictor of success.
  • I was 32 when I was first appointed chief in a small town. I had some success in part because of my experience as a supervisor in a much larger department. I have now served 25 years as chief in four progressively larger agencies, including my current role as a state police superintendent. Each role provided the necessary building blocks of experience to move on to the next role. Therefore experience may be more relevant than age.
  • Common sense should dictate the answer to this question as a whole but that being said, exceptionally bright, dedicated and modest individuals should not be precluded from a chief’s position. Really nothing can make up for life experiences and the knowledge that comes along with that.
  • Age along with experience in law enforcement. In their early 20s, a person is still gaining life experience to go along with a career in law enforcement. It would take an extraordinary person to take the responsibility of being a leader at a very young age in this profession. However, the right person can make a very good chief no matter the age.
  • No, but the amount of on-the-job experience speaks volumes. I myself was a chief of police at a young age in my career. Though I was in my early 30s, I only had three years of prior experience that did not prepare me for the job. An experienced officer has a better chance of making a good chief than an inexperienced officer young in their career.
  • I am not opposed to and age requirement but on the same note I took over my department at the age of 23 and on March 9, I will have 29 years at the helm.
  • Age shouldn’t play a part but experience definitely should.
  • I was a police chief of a small department at 29 and had the same position two different times in the same town. It is the quality of the person and the officers under them. Looking back 20 years ago to that time I do realize the mistakes I made and now at 50 would have seen things from a different perspective.
  • I believe age is just a number...sometimes. That said, the level of maturity and ability to make decisions, along with clerical, financial and people skills among many other proficiencies, should play a role in the selection of a chief. In 1991, I was 23 years old and was selected from a decent size group of applicants to be police chief of a police department in Southern Illinois, not far from St. Louis, Missouri. I remained chief of the rapidly growing community and department until my retirement 28 years later in 2019. During the last 10 years with this department, I also served as chief of police in a small community located in a neighboring county. The second department was a part-time organization, yet still came with the same responsibilities as my full-time department chief’s position. Since my retirement from the larger department, I have become full-time with the smaller agency, with things continuing to run smoothly. I will say, not just anyone would fit as a younger chief or perhaps even want to fill the role of a chief with a department regardless of their age. My tenure was filled with ups and downs, rewarding experiences and tragic incidents. However, the one thing that helped the most with my successful career was and is a knowledgeable and dedicated team of officers and civilian staff along with supportive mayors, board members and of course a good working relationship with legal counsel.
  • Since it takes 10,000 hours to be competent in a skill, I would say that experience is a better indicator of success than age. If a candidate was a police explorer at age 14, went on ride-alongs and learned from the veteran officers, and became a non-sworn employee until they turned the age to be a police officer (some states only require a person to be 18), this candidate would have 4 or 7 years of experience working at an agency. So when they turn 23 or 24, they could theoretically have 9 or 10 years of experience. So that might be adequate to be a chief of police.
  • I am a retired (sergeant) deputy sheriff. I did 25 years with a small department in Virginia. Obtaining rank was very hard to achieve as we had little turnover. There is a lot of responsibility to becoming a sheriff or chief of police. My personal opinion is experience is number one and age is second. Then having an open mind and not going on a power trip. A good set of officers can run the department and the chief can focus on other administrative responsibilities.
  • Absolutely. A community deserves the best and brightest to lead the most critical function of government. Is the chief cardiac surgeon of a local hospital 24 years old, or the chief of a nuclear facility, child protective services, a Seal team commander, banking branch chief, power utility company manager, etc., that young? Policing is not a job for a librarian. You can’t even rent a sports car from Enterprise if you are under 25 years of age! We will set up for failure anyone who is not qualified to hold this job. Sure, one in a thousand might be fine in a rural town of fewer than 1,000 people, but in light of today’s complex policing issues, the chief has to have a combination of experience, education and training. No 24 year old is that good. Our profession is under attack, it is complex with legal, moral, life and death issues that few jobs have. Let’s be honest about this, the public safety role should reflect society’s needs, but not be watered down to be a mockery of a very serious aspect of our country’s survival.
  • Yes. I must compare the training, mentoring, facilitation, skill sets, knowledge and experience to the military. In the military, every soldier is groomed from day one to be the future Command Sergeant Major. They learn the good and the bad of leadership via the supervisors they encounter. If law enforcement did the same thing, we would have chiefs and sheriffs who would really have the skill sets, knowledge, education and experience to manage and run a department effectively and efficiently. They should have no less than 15 years of experience and be no less than a captain who has attended and performed senior executive-type responsibilities and projects like executive summaries and presentations.
  • Absolutely, age should be considered. Experience as well. Someone in their early twenties doesn’t have the life experience much less the law enforcement experience needed to run a department. Managing people is one of the hardest jobs in law enforcement. “Cop work” is easy but you don’t realize that on your first day. It takes time and experience. Once you learn how to manage yourself then you can manage others. I have been in law enforcement for 29 years and in supervision for 22. There is no way I would have had the skill set needed to make the correct decisions for a whole department in my early twenties when I started.
  • Age should never be a problem when selecting someone to be a police chief; there are, however, other factors that should be taken into consideration when selecting someone to put men and women in harm’s way. As an example, I served in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam, in 1967, as a U.S. Navy SEAL Tactical Assault Boat captain, with a highly top secret combat unit (Mobile Support Team Two, Detachment Alpha), while at the ripe old age of 20. At that time I had already been in the Navy for three years, two of those years undergoing some of the toughest, decision-making training that the armed forces had to offer. I was at that time a Third Class Petty Officer (pay grade E-4). My decisions as a boat captain were akin to a senior ranking official, like a police chief; while inserting and extracting Navy SEALS, their officers, or other civilian or special forces personnel, were, according to U.S. Navy regulations, MARITIME LAW; with my position, not my rank, as the person of authority. Moving forward, I supervised men in combat and I received a Bronze Star Medal for valor. I was only 20 years old. Do you think I needed to be an older man before taking on this responsibility? In Vietnam, if you were 23 years old, younger than the subject person in your article, you were considered an old man and someone to listen to if you wanted to come home alive. In the Army, older officers would lock onto the younger sergeants and let them command in the field because they knew that training, experience, empathy and quick wit thinking ruled the battlefield. In my opinion, a good police chief would be someone, regardless of age, who has served in the U.S. Military, who knows the law and has a working understanding of human relations and employment law. Stop and realize that a bomber pilot responsible for an atomic warhead and aircraft, or a fighter jet, for the most part, are an average age of 24 years old. During World War Two, combat pilots averaged 23 years of age were put in charge as squadron leaders of aircraft and at 25 years of age were trainers. In closing, I am a former MCSO Sheriff’s Captain.
  • Not at all. His scores and achievements both in the academy and in his community should speak for themselves. Ethics, compassion, integrity, passion and dedicated service must speak volumes as to why he was accepted into the academy, as well as his consideration and appointment as chief.
  • The best judgment when utilizing a promotion process is how the individual did at their first supervisory position. Did they prioritize the mission of the department and community? I professionally agree with how the United Kingdom selects its senior police leadership personnel, especially regarding the title promotion of DCI (Deputy Chief Inspector basically a precinct area, regional commander) and from that role of the DCI they make selections of department heads, chiefs or chief superintendent (agency heads). Those criteria are: The individual must have a proven grasp and demonstrated ability to successfully apply advanced education, coupled with strong operations skills, working with prosecutorial agencies regarding criminal activities, have an understanding of resource management, have tactical awareness (oversight), community awareness, when to deploy and how to use lethal force. If you make the case of hiring a 25-year-old who has never seen the inside of a courtroom, never worked serious high-profile cases as an investigator, or been responsible for an everyday mission of law enforcement services as a manager/administrator or a tenured sergeant, then no, they are not ready, despite their education and some cross-level experience.
  • I was a young 20s when I found myself many years ago in a small department all of a sudden being propelled into the top spot in the department. Although I had the college and academy knowledge I lacked the experience and wisdom that only on the job real life can give. Dealing with politics was never discussed in the courses I took and the departments I had worked at before I didn’t have to deal with the direct political machine. It didn’t end well and I resigned from the position after a short time and moved on but it added to my experience greatly.
  • I would agree with a lot of the other comments about experience being more important than age. The problem is that how does a 24-year-old have the experience required to perform the job? It was always told to me that it takes approximately 5 years to be a competent police officer. Granted there are a lot of small communities with virtually no crime and the main responsibility is dealing with traffic issues or neighbor complaints. Those types of departments would allow a young 24-year-old officer to excel in a slow-paced learning process. The problem arises when that officer comes across that major event and has no ability training or practical experience to handle it and that creates a bad image for all police. Do not forget the small-town political appointments as well because they were related to someone. That does happen. I have seen it many times. There should be an age and level of experience required for all chiefs to maintain a more positive appearance.