September 26, 2020

Who Wants to Apply for a Chief’s Job When Some Chiefs Are Treated So Badly?


Good morning, 

Today I’d like to get something off my chest that has been bothering me, namely, how some elected officials are treating their police chiefs badly  – and how that is harming the policing profession, and will actually damage the quality of policing.

Since the death of George Floyd on May 25, we’ve seen large, intense demonstrations across the country, day after day, night after night.  In many cases, protests are happening in cities that have not experienced a controversial incident; the demonstrations are in sympathy with protests about incidents in other cities. All of that is fine; the right to protest is a key part of what makes the United States a democracy.

But here is what bothers many of us: Increasingly, some city managers and mayors are looking for quick fixes and political “wins,” so they are forcing out some of the most experienced, forward-thinking, hard-working chiefs. These elected officials don’t seem to care about making actual improvements, they just want to do something dramatic, and firing a police chief gets them a headline.

In many cases, the chiefs can see the handwriting on the wall. They recognize the impatience of their bosses to “do something.” So the chiefs offer to resign and walk out in a dignified way.

But for some mayors, city managers, or city councils, a resignation doesn’t seem to satisfy a political need to publicly force an immediate change. So the mayors are going out of their way to humiliate the chief publicly. They announce that they are cutting the chief’s command staff, or even the chief’s salary. Or they simply make it clear that the chief is being fired, in spite of any talk about “resignation.”

The worst thing we’ve seen is to let the chief announce his or her retirement effective a month or two later, and after a short time, jump in and order the chief to leave early.

This is a phenomenon that we haven’t seen before, and it’s very toxic for the profession. Police chiefs strive to teach their officers that it’s important to demonstrate procedural justice and fairness in dealing with the community.  But that message gets trampled when the officers see the mayor treat the police chief in a gratuitously disrespectful and shabby way.

So what happens when a police chief gets pushed out like this? Talk to Charlotte Lansinger, Rebecca Neuburger, and Sarah Mostyn, who conduct PERF’s executive search processes, and they will tell you that the search for candidates today is daunting.  Who is going to want to uproot their family and take a new job as chief in another city, when the previous chief was obviously treated so badly and unfairly? 

This also has implications for recruiting women and members of minority groups for top jobs in policing. Many of the chiefs who have been treated the worst in recent months are women. What message are female deputy chiefs or commanders supposed to take from this?  It definitely does not seem like a good time right now to take the risk of applying for a chief’s position.  Better to stay safely in the second-tier job until the national mood calms down.

What’s at the heart of all this?

I think that the crisis we’re seeing in policing over the last few months is occurring largely because many American people are seeing a part of policing that they haven’t seen before.  Body-worn cameras, citizens’ iPhones, and security cameras are capturing images of the reality of street-level encounters. The transparency that the public has demanded is happening.  And the citizenry is losing patience as they are  exposed to ghastly nightly videos.  If you’re a police chief and you turn on the television and hear, “Caution, the video you are about to see is disturbing, and you may want to tell your children to leave the room,” you know you have a problem.

And the reality of that transparency is that in many departments, policies, training, and tactics seem obsolete. Today’s new normal means that chiefs need to streamline outdated training and take on the toughest issue of all: building a culture that welcomes self-assessment.

But mayors, city managers, and city councils  should recognize that a number of chiefs and sheriffs have already been embracing these reforms. Accomplishing reform is complex and takes time.  Many of the chiefs who are leaving or are being forced out have set their departments on the right trajectory.  But in many cases, they were facing recalcitrant unions that just want to “ride out” the protests and watch as the politicians slash police budgets, micro-manage policy and operations, and fire the chief. Firing a chief who began reform efforts before the death of George Floyd put policing on the front page doesn’t advance the cause of reform.

There’s also a concern about activists who in many cases are advocating good reforms, such as de-escalation and critical thinking skills, but their inexperience is evident around the edges. For example, one group of reformers is pushing for departments to implement the “use-of-force continuum,” which we see as actually a major part of the problem.  (A continuum encourages officers to have a simplistic approach of “Subject does X, Officer uses weapon Y,” or “Weapon A didn’t work, so I take it up a notch  and use Weapon B,” rather than ensuring that any force used is necessary and proportional.  A much better approach is to use the Critical Decision-Making Model, which helps the officer to think about the nature of the entire incident and how to solve it.)

One final point: Charlotte, Rebecca and Sarah tell me that one problem with recruiting police chiefs is that there is an overaggressive intolerance for any type of misstep in a candidate’s background. The Internet has made it possible for anyone, in a matter of seconds, to read about every aspect of a police official’s career.  Transparency is good, but we need to understand that policing is an extremely complex, difficult profession involving millions of incidents where the solution was not obvious. There’s a number of impressive people in our business who have made mistakes, learned from them, and now want to make a difference. But citizen committees see them as untouchable in an environment that seems intolerant of missteps. 

I’m afraid I’m not offering ideas about how to fix the toxic environment we’re in. But for now, I think it’s important to recognize these dynamics and look for ways out of the situation we’re in. That would be in the interest of both the police chiefs who are being treated unfairly and the communities that would benefit from the reforms they were already pushing.

I should add that I have worked with a lot of great mayors and city managers over the years – people who have demonstrated strong leadership and grace under pressure. My column today is about the relative few whose short-sightedness will hurt the cause of reforms.

Have a good weekend.  Weekend Clips are below.