October 16, 2021

This Year, Chiefs Are Retiring at Twice the Normal Rate 


Dear PERF member,

There’s been a lot of talk recently about a spike in the number of police chiefs who are resigning, retiring, or in a few cases, being let go.  We ran a CNN story about it in our Daily Clips this week. People are wondering whether the unprecedented challenges of 2020 – especially the COVID pandemic and the nonstop demonstrations and protests — have been taking a toll, resulting in chiefs taking early retirement or looking for less stressful work.

To see if there’s a factual basis for all this, I asked PERF researcher James McGinty to take a look.  He studied 48 of the 50 largest police agencies (Jacksonville and Las Vegas were left out of this analysis because they elect sheriffs). And he found that in 2020, there was little change in the number of top police executives (chiefs, commissioners, superintendents, or directors) who left their jobs. 

But as you can see in the chart below, the number jumped sharply in 2021. The 24 chiefs who left office so far this year are almost double the average from 2010 to 2020 – and we still have 11 weeks to go in 2021.

(Source: PERF.  Analysis includes 48 of the 50 largest cities in the United States; two agencies with elected sheriffs were not included. Leadership changes include appointments of acting and interim chiefs, but promotions from acting or interim chief to permanent chief were not counted again as a change in leadership. Transitions were counted from the date leadership changed hands, not when they were announced.)

I think a likely explanation is that chiefs were handling a high level of stress in 2020, but they didn’t want to leave their agencies in the middle of a crisis. However, once COVID issues started to stabilize with vaccines becoming available, and with the protests of 2020 largely in the rear-view mirror, we started to see a substantial increase in retirements in 2021, as chiefs felt more comfortable about passing the baton.

By the way, I think it’s also interesting that over this entire period, these 48 agencies combined had an average of 13.6 changes in leadership per year, which is an average turnover rate of 28% per year.  I  doubt that you’d see a 28% turnover rate among chief executives in the private sector. Being a police chief has always come with stresses, political pressures, and other destabilizing forces.

I think that what we’re seeing in 2021 is not a crisis, but rather a turning point in police leadership.  One generation of police leaders is moving on, and the next generation is being given the opportunity to step up. This has actually been occurring for the past five years, and this last year is just the final stage of a prominent generation of police leaders moving on.

It’s encouraging to see so many women and men getting themselves ready to step into chiefs’ positions. Interest in PERF’s Senior Management Institute for Police is higher than ever. I think a lot of up-and-coming leaders sense that now is a good time to focus on their goals of becoming a police chief.

PERF’s Executive Search Experts Explain What’s Happening

Another indication of turnover in chiefs’ jobs:  There are few years in our memory when we’ve received so many calls from cities looking for help finding a chief.

I asked two of our Executive Search experts, Charlotte Lansinger and Rebecca Neuburger, for their takes on the changes they’re seeing with the surge in cities looking for new police chiefs.

Rebecca told me that she definitely has seen “a divide between the last generation and the next generation.” Today’s candidates for police chief positions are interested in making reforms, she said, and people of color and women are receiving fairer consideration.

“I think today’s applicants are more hopeful,” Rebecca said. “They see opportunities to make changes and consider things that previously were not on the table.”

There also have been changes in the process of hiring a police chief, Rebecca said. “The emphasis on community engagement in the process is stronger,” she said. “Municipal leaders don’t want to make big decisions like hiring a police chief without some level of involvement from their community. The communities are demanding that, and mayors and city managers are more willing to consider input from constituents. Cities increasingly are holding public forums with finalists, so the community can see the top candidates taking questions.”

During COVID, much of the hiring process switched to virtual meetings rather than in-person meetings, Rebecca noted. As COVID recedes, she expects that some cities will continue to use virtual platforms like Zoom for interviews of candidates at the semi-finalist stage, but interviews of finalists will be in-person. Speaking for myself, I understand that virtual meetings are more efficient and you can interview more candidates that way, but I think you miss a lot of the chemistry and nuances of getting to know someone if you’re just looking at a computer screen.

Charlotte told me that the increasing transparency in the police chief selection process has created a delicate balance when a search is being conducted. Releasing the names of candidates to the public serves the interest of transparency, but some good candidates are risking their job security if they are identified as a candidate for another job.  Many highly qualified candidates jeopardize hard-earned relationships that they have developed with their communities, their employees, and their elected leaders if it becomes public knowledge that they are seeking other employment.  

From our experience, when we’re able to assure candidates that their names won’t be released, we’re able to get a much stronger set of candidates who are presently serving as chief and doing a great job. So the irony is that less transparency in this situation produces candidates who otherwise would not apply, thereby giving the city the absolute best choices. When cities feel obligated to name candidates in the name of transparency, they tend to get less experienced candidates. It’s not always bad, but it’s just the reality of today’s world.

There’s also greater scrutiny of the backgrounds of candidates, Charlotte said.  Actions and decisions by candidates early in their careers are coming under a microscope, because they’re considered part of their qualifications for chief.

And when a candidate is already a chief in another city, issues in their background are closely scrutinized. For example, a no-confidence vote by a union may be viewed by some as indicative that the cops don’t like their boss. But often it’s just a sign of an unpopular policy decision the chief made related to the need for reform or a disciplinary action, and the union conducted a no-confidence vote as a way to destabilize the chief.

Charlotte also noted that when a police executive applies for a new job, the overall reputation of their current department is scrutinized.  Candidates are often defined by how their agencies are viewed by the public. A recent controversial incident in their organization may supersede the candidate’s experience and merits. But if you’re reading this and are concerned that you’re coming from one of these “controversial” cities, do not fret – there are ways to deal with that in the interview process.

My takeaway from all this is that even though the process of applying for a chief’s job is more difficult, we’re seeing a bumper crop of job openings and applicants this year. And I don’t think we need to see that as a bad thing. It may just be a progression to a “post-2020” leadership era in policing.

So while many are wringing their hands and thinking that being a police chief has never been more challenging, remember our history. We have been through periods like in the 1960s and 1970s when there were riots, organized corruption in police agencies, blatant race and sex discrimination, and worse violence than today. And out of that challenging period came a generation of police leaders who changed policing for the better.

Now is the time for the next generation to step up and chart the future. Challenging times, yes, but equally challenging opportunities!

Have a great weekend.