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State your case: Should the public have a say in selecting a police chief?

Promoting internal candidates to police leadership positions with no external input is causing concern in some communities

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Community input is a necessary component of police chief selection. The question, of course, is balance.

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This “State your case” addresses whether community members should be involved in the selection and hiring of a new police chief.

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.

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.

The issue: Promoting police chiefs from inside a police department with little external input is causing concern in some communities, with the public asking not only for more insight into the process but also a say regarding candidates under consideration.

Two cities in San Diego County are currently changing their hiring process as a result of such concerns: La Mesa has hired a company to conduct a nationwide search for its next police chief and Oceanside recently surveyed community members to decide how to proceed with its own hiring.

We asked Police1 readers if community members should be involved in picking a police chief and 67% said no. Here our columnists debate the issue.

Joel Shults: From the history of the elected sheriff to more recent times when city marshals were elected, one could argue that these highly accountable elected offices demanded that law enforcement leadership be responsive to the public.

Just as the modernization and efficiency of policing took officers away from their neighborhood beats to the impersonal passing by in their steel and glass bubbles, recruiting consultants and resumes have replaced the relational aspects of selecting a police leader. Chiefs can outlast the companies that recruited and selected them. They can outlast the city councils and commissions that hired them. They will not outlast the communities that they were called to serve.

Criminal justice degree? Check. FBI National Academy grad? Check. Community policing cred? Check. Those scorecards can’t match local cultures, recent experiences that frame public perception, or the depth of a jurisdiction’s needs that are beyond the most recent election cycle. The curtain needs to be pulled back to let the public in.

Jim Dudley: All things equal, the community should have a say in how their new chief would think about a particular issue, just as the public may want to understand a potential Supreme Court Justice, but we have seen that process derailed.

In truth, the public knows very little about policing beyond what they have seen or heard on television, movies, or social media. Law enforcement is complex. The role of the chief is even more nuanced. There are times when a chief may make a difficult decision that the community may not agree with.

In regard to police use of force issues, for example, the public may have unrealistic expectations that jeopardize the safety of the officer, the offender and even bystanders. The president-elect has made flippant remarks in regard to law enforcement by suggesting officers should just shoot suspects in the leg instead of “shooting to kill.”

Predictably, a chief hired by a community group or politicians would be obligated to what they think would be best, not necessarily what may be best for the community as a whole.

Joel Shults: Jim, I think we can agree that community input is a necessary component of police chief selection. The question, of course, is balance.

While there is no uniformity in how chief executives are chosen, I’ve seen the process occur in a vacuum with only lip service given to community input. Perhaps it is time to shift the balance to extensive community input. That could include significant education and orientation to a broad spectrum of community members on the tasks and responsibilities of police officers and their chief.

If the energies now used in hiring consultants and headhunters were focused on selecting and educating citizen panels, the cumulative and long-term effects could be significant. If the selected police leader fails, perhaps the community would have a sense of accountability instead of blame.

Chiefs who fail to survive a reasonable tenure now can be written off as their own fault or those of the city officials who appointed them. With substantial citizen involvement, a chief’s failure would be the community’s failure. In an era when reform and accountability are hanging over every police agency, the shift to community accountability is equally important.

Jim Dudley: Great suggestions, Joel, especially training and education for citizens to understand the intricacies and challenges of policing. This could include a mandatory citizens academy, a range experience, and shoot-don’t-shoot or other training simulations.

That said, it won’t change the minds of true believers. I was in a community cohort a few years ago where a shoot-don’t-shoot series was presented. One individual was “shot” several times by a virtual offender with a handgun. The community member explained that he didn’t take out his handgun from his holster because he never would in any situation. Such individuals attempt to influence police policies with their personal beliefs across America today.

What do you think? Email

Police1 readers respond

I’ve worked with both hired from within and outside personnel. I can tell you that hiring from within the ranks works so much better for all officers, plus citizens. I have been employed 29+ years as police department civilian personnel.

NEXT: Read more “State your case” debates here.

About the authors

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and co-hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on several advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.