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The average tenure for a police chief is four to six years, according to a 2019 study. That time may have shortened in recent years as demands for additional police accountability have emerged.
There are myriad reasons why police chiefs leave their posts. Some of the voluntary reasons include health, stress, political climate, a better position and family matters. These separations are common and rarely generate interest or controversy from the public.
There are, however, some involuntary reasons a chief might leave, including incompetence, corruption, malfeasance and public outrage – usually the result of some type of police-related scandal – including the suspicious or unjustifiable killing of a community resident. In the past year, these scandal-related separations have become more common. We need to look no further than Atlanta, Seattle and Baltimore as examples.
When a police chief retires, quits or is fired due to some controversy or scandal, it is almost always followed by demands for more oversight and accountability and for a new chief who comes from outside of the department. Elected officials, community members and good government groups usually call for a chief who has innovative ideas, progressive values and leadership style and is community-focused. They argue that an internal hire would just perpetuate the culture and behaviors of the previous chief. In the last year alone in San Diego County, residents in Oceanside and La Mesa have urged city leaders to look outside the department for chief candidates for these exact reasons.
There are advantages to internal candidates. They are already known to the sworn officers and staff in the department. The candidate has a working relationship with key government officials, as well as relationships with the broader social and political stakeholders. Their previous performance and leadership style are already known. Unfortunately, the internal candidate is also the candidate who represents the status quo. Since this candidate has most likely spent his or her entire career within the organization, they tend to have fewer innovative ideas and often lead in the manner of their predecessor.
It’s a natural reaction to want to bring someone new into the organization, especially after a scandal or crisis has occurred. External candidates are prized by police organizations, as they are seen as a departure from the status quo to something different. External candidates are believed to join the organization with an outsider’s perspective, including innovative ideas, diverse professional experiences, and a different approach to leadership and decision-making.
But what if that chief with innovative ideas, with a community focus and an excellent leadership style does not exist?
For the most part, the universe of available police chiefs is limited. Police chiefs are expected to have spent time as patrol officers. They are expected to have some supervisory or management experience in law enforcement. Generally, some achievements in academics are expected. If those were the only requirements, that would be a pretty large pool of candidates, but here is where the numbers contract. Officers on the fast track – those who want to be in police leadership and eventually be chiefs – all participate in the same training programs, are members of the same professional association and share the same fundamental values. If you want to seriously be considered chief material, you have attended the FBI’s National Training Academy, an Executive Command College or other advanced/executive training. Training and leadership are important, however, not one of these academies, colleges, or executive training programs is known for producing progressive chiefs with innovative ideas. The system encourages the opposite. To move up through the ranks in law enforcement, a certain amount of conformity and unwillingness to rock the boat is required. This is part of the ephemeral “police culture” that is always discussed.
Why is this important? Well, it means that the assistant chief working in your police department probably has the same professional credentials as the new chief you are considering. They have both been exposed to the same leadership theories, best practices and professional values. Would you expect a person who spent 20 years in policing, went to the traditional training and executive leadership programs and belongs to all the mainstream professional associations to be an innovative leader in policing? Well, I have just described almost every police chief candidate – internal and external – in the United States.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that all police chiefs are the same. Each person has their own and unique lived experiences. They have their personal stories and journeys. In recent years, we have made impressive gains in diversity, equity, inclusion with the promotion of women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals to the rank of chief. These new chiefs, however, worked their way through the ranks of traditional police departments, spent time in training in Quantico, belong to the International Association of Police Chiefs, subscribe to the Police Executive Research Forum and are ensconced in the same professional police system as their predecessors.
Consider former police chief of Atlanta and current police chief for the Louisville Metro Police Department, Erika Shields. Shields became chief of the Atlanta Police Department in 2016. By all accounts, she has had a successful career in law enforcement. She joined the APD in 1995. She moved through the ranks, taking on more responsibility as she rose. She has a master’s degree in criminal justice. She served as deputy chief for five years before assuming the role of chief. No doubt, Shields’ lived experience as a woman and a lesbian gave her a different perspective, but it did not make her a reformer. As with so many other chiefs, Shields left her post in Atlanta after a high-profile shooting in 2020. Famously, or infamously, Shields would later be selected to head the Louisville Metro Police Department, a department that lost its previous chief after a high-profile shooting. Not surprisingly, Shields replaced a chief who had 30-plus years of experience, worked his way through the ranks taking on additional responsibilities as he rose. He had served as assistant chief, attended the FBI National Academy, and had a Master’s degree.
So how do we find reform-minded police chiefs who will bring innovations and new ideas to policing?
You guessed it. Civilian police chiefs. Having a civilian director or commissioner, while not a new idea, is an option rarely considered. Civilian leadership not only allows us to draw upon the vast experiences of individuals serving in civilian capacities in law enforcement, it also provides departments access to the experiences of those in other parts of government as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. Imagine being able to draw on America’s most loved and respected organizations and industries’ management and leadership talents. Is there something to be learned about response times from FedEx? Is there anything to be understood about information-gathering and organizing from Google? Could we better understand emergency management and response from the expertise of personnel from the American Red Cross? At present, we can’t know because policing and police leadership are closed systems. No innovative leaders (and thus, no innovative ideas) can break into the ranks of police departments as they currently exist.
We like to think of law enforcement and public safety as unique among the public services, but in reality, this is not the case. Police departments are public agencies that are tasked with providing the good of public safety. Like education and transportation, we want this public good to be delivered in effective, efficient and equitable ways. You do not have to be a sworn officer to do that. So, the question should never be whether we should hire internally or externally. It should be: Should we hire sworn or civilian?
Roddrick Colvin is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, where he teaches courses in public administration and criminal justice. He is the author of “Gay and Lesbian Cops: Diversity and Effective Policing.”