July 1, 2023

Managing the mayor-police chief relationship


PERF members,

Recent events have me thinking about the importance of effective mayor-police chief relationships. I regularly hear from chiefs about the challenge of navigating this relationship. There’s no playbook to teach a chief how to balance a mayor’s needs with the needs of the department, the community, and other stakeholders.

Chiefs cannot truly understand the political pressure they will experience until they take their position. If they come from inside a department, they probably know the local players but aren’t aware of the pressure they’ll face from the mayor and other influential figures. (Even being second-in-command doesn’t necessarily prepare someone for the political pressures they’ll face as a chief.) If they come from outside a department, they might not fully understand the local dynamics and history, though chiefs can help themselves by speaking with previous chiefs and others before accepting a position.  

Of course, mayors are elected and have a mandate to run a city as they see fit. Hirings and promotions are part of that mandate, but how far down the organization should that influence extend? Chiefs want to select their own command staffs, but some mayors may expect to be consulted before appointments are made. I remember once attending a new chief’s swearing-in ceremony where the mayor surprised the chief by announcing the new deputy chief. It was not a good sign for the future of that mayor-chief relationship.

One way this relationship gets tested is in the media. Sometimes chiefs have higher approval ratings than their mayors. Popularity, good news, and positive national attention should be in everyone’s interest, but there’s often a backlash from the mayor’s office if the police chief is the story, not the mayor. While mayors generally appreciate the attention, they may be annoyed the spotlight isn’t on them. In many cities, the mayor will maintain some control by selecting the police department’s public information officer.

Many chiefs handle the media issue by owning the bad news and giving their mayor the right of first refusal to share the positive news. Or they may offer to do joint press conferences. But chiefs don’t control how the media presents a story, and a mayor may be irked if they see the chief’s picture on the front page. Savvy chiefs will often give the mayor advance notice if there’s a chance of that happening.

Navigating members of the city council, politicians’ donors and relatives, and other influential local residents can also be a minefield. They have their own sources of power and can make a chief’s job difficult when they don’t get what they want. No training can fully prepare a chief for all the intricate personal dynamics. By saying yes to a city councilor’s political request, a chief could anger the mayor or someone else influential. A chief may take an ethical stand by saying no, but that decision to do the right thing may be held over the chief at future budget hearings or council meetings.

An added complication is when the mayor is a former member of the police department. Having a mayor who is familiar with policing issues can be a good thing, when the mayor serves as an empathetic champion for the police department. But some mayors in that position over-involve themselves and are inclined to micromanage the police department. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, the mayor may distance themselves and not provide the police department with the necessary support.

So, as a key member of the mayor’s cabinet, how can a chief manage that relationship with professional boundaries? I think it comes down to openly communicating those boundaries with the mayor. Before accepting the position, a prospective chief must have a frank conversation with the mayor to identify the type of political influence or operational interference they can and cannot accept. For example, a chief may be fine with coordinating media availability with the mayor’s office but need to select their own deputy chief. Once boundaries are established, there needs to be constant communication to address issues as they arise. I know one chief who spoke with his mayor every morning at 7:00 to catch up on events of the previous 24 hours.

External chiefs may have more leverage when initially setting these boundaries. They often have proven track records and are brought in to serve as change agents. Internal chiefs are already part of the organization and expected to support it, which can make these discussions more difficult. But it’s a necessary conversation for chiefs from both groups to have with their mayors.

Many police chiefs have lost their jobs because of communication issues with their mayor, an outcome that harms both sides. Mayors should hold their police chiefs accountable for public safety and delegate authority over day-to-day decisions to the chiefs. And by establishing clear ground rules and an open line of communication, chiefs can do their part to make these relationships work. I’ve spoken with many chiefs and mayors over the years, and I’ve learned that these relationships are most productive when there is mutual respect, candor, and an understanding of what each side needs to be successful.