This year has brought dramatic changes to many aspects of policing, including the process for hiring new police chiefs and other police executives. PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with PERF’s executive search team about changes they’ve observed while assisting with executive search processes this year. PERF’s executive search team includes:

-- Charlotte Lansinger, Executive Search Consultant, who has been conducting police chief executive searches since 1987. She is the author of Command Performance, PERF’s career guide for police leaders.

-- Rebecca Neuburger, Executive Search Consultant, joined PERF as an intern in 1999 and became a full-time staff member in 2000. She has worked as an executive search consultant for the past eight years.

-- Sarah Mostyn, Senior Research Associate, has been with PERF for six years and supports many aspects of the executive search process, including fielding inquiries from cities seeking assistance with their search processes.


Many aspects of the police executive selection process remain the same, but there have been changes.

Ms. Lansinger:

Every community is different, but there are some common elements in what people look for in their police chiefs. In general, a hiring authority is looking for someone who comes in with a level of experience and a communication style that enables them to develop trusting relationships with their communities and internal trust within the police department. Whether the person is selected from inside or outside the organization, it’s all about the ability to lead, command respect, and have integrity. I think a police chief’s most important individual relationship is with their boss, whether that’s a mayor or city manager. That relationship needs to be strong and based on trust.

I think the challenges today are impacted by two things. One is the public outcry for police reform. The other is the pandemic. Those two things have converged to change the way we go about these processes, and I think some of these changes are here to stay.


The interview process has changed during the pandemic.

The most significant change to the interview process is that more interviews are occurring virtually, with in-person interviews occurring later in the process, if at all.

Ms. Neuburger explained how this has changed the experience of interviewing for a position:

Because of COVID, we’re not encouraging cities to have candidates travel. So everyone needs to have a certain level of literacy when it comes to calls on Zoom, Skype, or Teams.

For example, in a video interview, you are trying to approximate a connection with a human being, so you try to look at the camera, instead of the people on screen. Eye contact is important, because it’s really all you have when you’re on Zoom. These video calls are slightly better than a phone call, but it’s not the same as an in-person interview.

When you don’t have an in-person interview, you miss the in-person interactions, like when you walk into the room, shake everyone’s hand, and say hello. That’s an opportunity to establish a little bit of chemistry.

Even in person, I think that interviewing is an inadequate way to assess a human being.  But it’s the best that we have.


The police reform movement has accelerated greater public involvement in selection of police chiefs.

This year’s protests and increased scrutiny of policing have advanced changes that have been occurring since 2014, when there were widespread protests about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

Ms. Lansinger discussed the increased expectations of public involvement and transparency in police chief selection processes:

We’ve always had a fairly high level of public interest in these processes, and over time, that level of public interest has been increasing. It has never been greater than it is today.

I think most cities feel the need to provide an open and transparent selection process, so they’re looking for ways to engage their communities in that process. And they’re looking for ways to do that safely during this pandemic, when they cannot have open meetings or town halls to gather input from members of the public. They’re using online surveys and virtual listening sessions to gather public input.

We have always recommended that cities get public input at the beginning, because it helps inform and steer the rest of the process. That information helps us identify a candidate pool with the qualities the community is looking for.

There are people who simply won’t apply for a position if they know that part of the process involves releasing the names of all the candidates. And some candidates want to know that mutual interest has been established before their name is released.  In some cases, current police chiefs know their careers may be negatively impacted if their name is released during a process. So you have to balance that with the desire for transparency in these processes.

In this environment, I think a lot of mayors and city managers feel pressure to release all the names of candidates who apply. That’s their response to the call for transparency. But that can have a detrimental impact on your ability to recruit high-quality candidates. As consultants, we help the city find that balance, where they are gaining public input and providing transparency, while also protecting the integrity of the process, so that well-qualified candidates will be willing to express interest.

Ms. Mostyn has assisted with the Louisville search process, which incorporated a community survey:

We are assisting with the search process in Louisville, and they began the process with a community survey, which received an overwhelming response, with more than 10,000 responses. That shows us that the community really wants to be involved in the process.


In addition to technical ability to do the job, cities are looking for candidates who display humanity and a connection with the community.

Ms. Neuburger shared her views about the qualities that cities are prioritizing in 2020:

What I think cities are looking for more than ever is humanity. There’s an assumption of operational expertise at the outset, because they basically trust us to find them people who know how to do this work. But the thing that will make someone stand out in the crowd is the ability to communicate their humanity, above and beyond their career as a police officer and executive.

People need to be able to build relationships in every direction. The politics of policing are always complicated, and now they’re even more complicated after the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide uprising of activism. And COVID makes everyone feel isolated. And we have an economy that does not make people feel secure.

So in the best-case scenario, a police chief is right at the heart of that nexus between government and people. That’s particularly important in times of turmoil, when people may not feel safe and confident about their own lives.

Building trust also requires good relationships with members of the department. If the officers and other employees don’t feel supported, it feeds into an “us and them” dynamic that pits the community against the police, instead of with the police.


Before taking a new job, candidates should carefully discuss the support they expect to receive from the mayor or city manager.

Ms. Neuburger advised prospective chiefs to shore up political support before accepting a position:

The relationship between the police chief and the hiring authority, whether that’s a city manager or a mayor, is really important. I think we’ve seen recently that some municipal leaders are willing to sacrifice their police chief in order to deal with bad press, even if that isn’t the best decision for the health of the community.

So when someone is in serious talks for a police chief position today, they should take the opportunity to ask for the support of the hiring authority in a more detailed way they might have done before.

A police chief is being asked to do big and bold things today. Those things are not without controversy, and can be difficult without political support. So candidates need to be thinking about that as they consider accepting a position.  They should have those conversations with the hiring authority before they take the job, and they should keep having those conversations if they take the job.

That way, they’ll  know they’re on the same page as their boss when it’s time to make a difficult decision about reform measures, or new training that is needed, or addressing aspects of a union contract, or other controversial issues. And hiring authorities need to understand that they are also responsible for the success of their police department.


Interest from both cities and candidates remains high.

Ms. Mostyn said that more than ever, cities are seeking assistance with their search processes:

This year we’ve had more people reaching out looking for assistance. I don’t know if that’s because there’s more turnover or because more municipalities want assistance with hiring these high-profile positions.  I’ve also noticed a lot of smaller municipalities reaching out for assistance.

Ms. Lansinger added that the increased scrutiny of policing hasn’t dampened interest in police chief positions:

We have continued to see a high level of interest among potential police chief candidates. We’re seeing people step up who have that passion, humanity, and desire to increase public trust. In spite of all the turmoil and challenges, interest in becoming a police chief is as high as ever, if not higher.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.