Applying for chief: Which jurisdiction is right for you?

When you’re applying for the position of police chief, an honest assessment of the job environment is essential, as well as a willingness to walk away if it’s not the right situation for you

So you’ve decided you want to be a chief of police. You’ve submitted applications and gotten the call to schedule an interview. That in itself is thrilling, and confirms that your experience, resume, and cover letter have made you a contender. Now come the hardest parts.

First and foremost, you have to check your ego at the door. No matter how much you want to be a chief, you’ve got to hold your ambition and ego in check, and truthfully answer some serious questions to yourself. It’s essential that you remember that not only are they deciding if they want you, you’re deciding if you want them! 

When you’re applying for the position of police chief, an honest assessment of the job environment is essential, as well as a willingness to walk away if it’s not the right situation for you.

Do Your Homework on the Department
Before you walk into the interview, learn everything you possibly can about what you’ll be walking into. You have to burn up your computer with research. You need to learn everything you can about the area and jurisdiction. Much of that information can be readily found online. 

What’s the poverty level? If a large percentage of the residents are living in poverty, there are likely to be extremes of income, possibly dividing the jurisdiction between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” What are the average educational levels of the citizenry? How does that compare with yours? What’s the percentage of unemployment? How many and what type of schools are in the jurisdiction?

Other information that is critical can be found with a little more digging. What problems currently exist in the jurisdiction? Are drugs a major problem? If so, which ones? Is there a history of race conflict and bigotry? Are there known hate or extremist groups in the area? Is there a history of religious or political extremism? 

How many different churches are there in or just outside of the jurisdiction? A community of 3,000 that has five or six churches will be different than one that has 35 — a difference that can have an impact on how you carry out your mission.

Another thing to investigate: what makes the town’s news, and what do the reports tell you? What is the relationship between the town administration/police department and the various media outlets? By researching articles and stories about the department and the town itself, you can get some pretty clear insight into what you are likely to encounter from the media. 

Use the media archives to discover any law enforcement issues that have occurred in the past. Remember, their issues will be your issues, regardless of how long ago they occurred. If there have been issues in the past of police abuse, drugs, corruption, or anything else, that albatross is going to be hanging around your neck the minute you walk in the door. 

It’s something that you will need to acknowledge, and be willing to address directly. Such foreknowledge can be very helpful to you in the actual interview. If the jurisdiction has had personnel problems, having training/experience in dealing with internal affairs investigations is something you want to make known in the interview. (Be sure to point out that your focus will be on prevention, rather than reaction after the fact.)

Location-based discussion boards, such as  those found on Topix, will give you a good idea of what the current rumor and scuttlebutt is in the jurisdiction. 

Leave Your Computer and Walk
Don’t limit yourself to the Internet in your pre-interview research. Go to the jurisdiction and spend at least two days scoping things out. Talk to people on the street, business operators, senior citizens on their front porch and kids at play. Learn what kind of reputation the department has on the street. That information can serve you in not only what you say in the interview, but what you ask as well. 

If four out of five people you’ve spoken with in your pre-interview stroll had a negative opinion of the department, ask those interviewing you how they think the public views the department. If they tell you everything’s rosy, you’ve just received some extremely valuable information — they’re either completely out of touch, lying to you, or lying to themselves. Whichever it is, it’s not going to stop suddenly when you pin on the badge.

Learn as much about your predecessor as you can. After all, you’re there because he or she isn’t. Make every effort to go and talk to him/her in person. If that’s not possible, call them. The former chief will certainly have their own perspective regarding the town, department, and administration, and while you may not want to automatically embrace their report as gospel truth, their experience will likely clue you in to what issues exist, and what you can expect to run into in one form or another.

Make a Deliberate, Dispassionate Decision
Before you make a decision, to thine own self be true. After the interview is over — but before you tell them “yes” or “no” — objectively review everything you’ve learned. Don’t let your desire to be a chief cloud your judgment and allow you to rationalize a bad decision. If the situation is a good one or at least one you can work in without regret, then do it. 

If it’s not, walk away! Walking away is hard to do, certainly, but it can save you a world of hurt personally and professionally. If you do need to pass on an offer, look at it this way: if one department wanted you, others will as well. Don’t be in such a rush to get your first chief’s job that you wind up doing damage to your career.

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