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Do your residents have a say in who’s hired as police chief?

A California city launched a community survey to give police leaders insight into which qualities mattered most in their next police chief hire

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Align your services and initiatives with what residents care about.


Content provided by Polco

By Jessie O’Brien

The police chief’s top aim is to establish safety goals and objectives that are in line with community expectations and values. That alignment forges trust between the public and the police department, which, in the end, creates a safer, stronger community. Resident-police alignment extends beyond police department services and priorities. As leaders, the police chief should reflect the community’s standards.

With this philosophy, the City of Morro Bay, California, included residents in hiring their new police chief.

“A lot of people move here from other places that have crime issues and safety concerns, which is largely absent here, so I want to maintain that,” said former Morro Bay city manager Scott Collins. “The police chief is clearly a symbol of that, so we wanted to make sure that person represents the values of the community.”

The Morro Bay Police Department (MBPD) emphasizes community policing in the small city. As a result, including residents in the hiring of the new chief was a natural process. The city launched a survey on Polco, a community engagement and analytics platform. Questions asked residents what qualifications and values the new police chief should possess. Those skills and ethics were then sought out in the new hire.

Residents said recruiting and retaining officers, emergency preparedness and addressing homelessness were the most important past experiences. They also said public transparency, strategic thinking, inter-department collaboration and inclusive outreach were valuable leadership skills. Addressing homelessness was their top safety priority.

Morro Bay also ran an internal survey of MBPD employees. Results were similar to what residents recommended. This verified that MBPD and the community were on the same page.

“I was delighted with the results,” Collins said. “You are always in a vulnerable position when you ask people for their input.”

Respondents also surfaced another qualification Collins had not included in the survey. Many residents said they thought it was important that MBPD hired from within.

Collins said this sentiment shows people are pleased with the culture and services of the department. “They don’t want to lose that momentum,” he said.

The data proves their satisfaction. The survey showed over 90% of people feel safe in Morro Bay and 87% said they trust MBPD. Those trust ratings are well above the national average. The high levels of confidence is largely due to the city’s commitment to community policing and including residents in decisions (like hiring the new police chief).

“It’s the responsibility of the city and police department to foster trust. You have to demonstrate your value continually. Engagement efforts like this are just one of many ways to do that,” Collins said.

The city ended up hiring Amy Watkins internally. She was also vetted by a panel of current police chiefs in the county and a panel of Morro Bay community members. Both showed unanimous support.

Collins says residents want that connection and participation in city decisions.

“We are already in a more digitized world and folks are feeling more distant from each other. Having a way to use that digitization to your benefit vis a vi an electronic survey gets people where they are at,” he said. “You can start to see that desire for connection in real life and that is why these surveys are really important. Especially in small towns where there is a little more cohesiveness around the community.”

Ensure Community-Police Priorities Align

  1. Identify residents’ safety priorities: Platforms like Polco allow leaders to survey community members and understand what matters most to their residents.
  2. Act on resident feedback: Align your services and initiatives with what residents care about.
  3. Show your results: Let community members know you are listening to them by reporting back the changes you’ve made based on their feedback. The cycle of listening, acting and communicating will improve safety services over time.

About the author
Jessie O’Brien is the head copywriter at Polco. Polco makes community engagement accurate and reliable. Hundreds of government leaders trust Polco for insights from surveys and data analytics on one easy-to-use online platform. Learn more about Polco for police departments at