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So, you want to be a chief of police?

Ambition is a good thing but getting to the top takes more than just an excellent resume and master’s degree in public administration

Washington DC chiefs of police

J. Thomas Manger, a veteran police chief of departments in the Washington, D.C., region, is welcomed by Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman as he takes over the United States Capitol Police on July 23, 2021.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Many of us dream about becoming chief of police in the department we are currently serving in or retiring and becoming chief in another town or city. Ambition is good and if you have properly credentialed yourself it just might happened for you. This article is designed to provide some information about the testing process for chief of police and what you can do to position yourself should an opportunity present itself.

education requirements and other Credentials

Although you may get an interview if you are a police lieutenant and have an unusually strong management background, most successful candidates are at least the rank of captain or deputy chief. It’s rare that a candidate for a chief’s position is selected that doesn’t have a masters degree. It would be preferable if your masters was in public administration or a related field, but the threshold is that you have a degree higher than a Bachelor of Science or Arts.

Your resume should demonstrate a wide range of progressive police experience with emphasis on command level assignments (division commander, etc.) along with increasingly high level work experience in the planning, budgeting, community oriented policing and staffing areas. Top candidates will have attended the F.B.I. Leadership Academy and remained active in that organization.

If you are vying for the chief’s position in your own department, you will have an advantage over outside candidates unless a change agent is desirable due to a perceived leadership, corruption or severe morale issues. This is with the caveat that you have the outgoing chief’s blessing and that of local politicians.

It has been my experience with internal candidates that:

A.) the testing process is bypassed and a new Chief is promoted almost immediately, or

B.) there is a nationwide search and then the candidate from inside the department is selected.

Once in awhile a person from another department is selected to be the next chief of police, but statistically across the fruited plain, someone from inside of the department is chosen to lead the agency.

The Testing and interview Process

Since the chief’s position is outside of the bargaining unit, in years past, chiefs almost always were selected (read: anointed) from inside of the department by a mayor, city manager or city council without a formal testing process and then served many years in that position.

Today’s chief often signs a three- to five-year contract outlining salary and benefits regardless of whether the candidate is from inside or outside of the department. Often the contract has language tying the chief’s tenure to some type of performance-based incentive.

If there is to be a testing process for the position, it typically begins with an advertisement seeking applications with specific language as to the qualifications required for consideration. This process may limit applicants to the state in which the department is located, or if the chief’s position is for a large department — a thousand officers or more, for example — a national search may be instituted.

As a test consultant, national searches are a nightmare for me because there is so much talent within our profession and it’s not unusual to receive hundreds of applications for the position from command officers who have backgrounds and credentials which, on paper, would qualify them to be a chief of police anywhere.

Don’t forget, people who already are serving as chief of police may be applicants for the chief position in your city or town or in the agency you are applying for. So, the first “test” is to vet these applications down to a sizeable number. Such factors as the size of the department the applicant has served in, length of time in positions providing command level experience, training and education, and a perceived, subjective “right fit” analysis will begin the process of deselecting many of the applicants. The goal may be to get the selection process down to five or six viable applicants.

Often, the next stage of the process is a telephone interview and/or having applicants respond to a series of essay questions. Both are “tests” and are graded. In either case the candidate is notified by letter and/or telephone that a “telephonic interview” will take place on a specific date and time.

In the telephone interview the candidate may be asked questions such as “What is your experience in community oriented policing” or “what has your experience been in dealing with a highly union dominated work force,” or “what leadership style do you feel most comfortable using.” In addition to grading for communications skills, this provides the person doing the interview with a host of subjective grading options. I prefer to have candidates answer specific essay questions which makes the initial process somewhat more objective.

Either way, the number of candidates can be whittled down further using this process. Asking candidates to provide a notarized letter from a physician indicating that they have passed a “stress test” also eliminates some candidates. An applicant being given a job offer will have to take another medical stress test with a town or city designated physical, but that is much later in the process.

After the list of applicants has been reduced to a manageable number, candidates are invited to participate in the next stage of the testing process. Although a written examination is still sometimes used, the assessment center testing process — or parts of it — is the methodology more often than not used to differentiate between candidates and get the list down to three qualified persons.

As mentioned in previous articles, an assessment center is a series of job related mini-tests designed to place candidates in situations mirroring what a chief of police would face in real life. An assessment center for chief of police might consist of an “In-Basket,” “Media,” “Leaderless Discussion,” “Employee Conflict” and an oral board with panel members consisting of local chief of police. The top three candidates are usually selected from this process. What comes next is, for most of us, unchartered water.

the final step: embrace the political

Most of us came up though the ranks through the civil service testing process. We took some type of examination (written, assessment center) followed by an oral examination in which other police officers of higher rank grades us. Usually, people in political or human resource positions had a limited role in whether or not we got promoted. Not so in the process for selecting chiefs of police.

After the assessment center or some other type of process, the top three candidates now enter an arena in which the city manager, mayor and/or town council selects who will be the next chief of police.

Candidates may individually be invited to a meeting with the council, who then ask the candidate a series of questions. These may range from “If you are selected as the next chief of police, how will you reduce crime in our town/city?” In this case, for example, it would be a good idea for you to have looked up the crime statistics prior to the meeting. Or, “I believe the chief of police should live in our town. Are you prepared to move your family here”? So, they are looking for “right fit.”

Candidates may also be invited to a “town meeting,” where residents or members of specific groups ask the candidates questions while the city council looks on. (Watch the two final candidates for the chief position in Bloomington, Illinois, introduce themselves to the city below.)

This “political arena” is what separates successful candidates from those who just aren’t good at this type of process. They may be excellent leaders and more than capable of running the department but have little experience in this phase of testing and are not offered the job.

Another Consideration

Many years ago while I was still with the Hartford, Connecticut Police Department, I applied for a chief of police position out of state. It was an assessment center testing process, and I came out number one and after meeting with the town manager I accepted the job. Several days later, my wife and I travelled to the city to look for a house to buy and I noticed my wife had become teary eyed. When I asked her what was wrong she said, “I don’t want to live here. It’s too far away from our family.” She was talking about our children, grandchildren and parents.

I asked her why she didn’t say anything earlier and she said, “I never thought you would get the job.”

I called the town manager the next day and informed her I would not be accepting the position.

As it turned out, I began teaching instead and it was the best thing that ever happened to me since I pulled the pin.

The moral of the story is to check with those you love before you jump into the race. It may not be just about you! This article was designed to provide an overview. Future articles will cover how you can excel in the process.

Be safe out there!
Larry the Jet

This article, originally published July 2010, has been updated.

Next: 5 strategies for aspiring police chiefs

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.