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Back to Archives | Back to January 2008 Contents 

Guidance from a Mentor Helps Avoid the Pitfalls of Many New Police Chiefs

By Mark A. Chaney, Chief of Police, New Albany, Ohio

ew chiefs often step into their new role inadequately prepared for the challenges ahead. Police chiefs need an array of tools to help them succeed. A major part of achieving this success involves sidestepping the more common pitfalls into which many new chiefs stumble. The following list, in no particular order of importance, identifies the top 10 most common errors police chiefs commit that may threaten their tenure, as passed on by experienced mentor chiefs. Armed with this knowledge, new and experienced chiefs alike may be more likely to enjoy long and successful careers.

Failure to Listen

Listening skills are critical to a new chief’s survival. New chiefs should spend time with staff employed throughout their organizations and hear what they have to say. Chiefs in large departments should speak to a representative sample of the staff, while smaller-department chiefs have the opportunity to meet with each employee and listen extensively. Taking the time to listen is especially important if a new chief comes from an outside agency. Outside chiefs face an uphill battle in learning their departments’ history, culture, values, and problems. This takes time, a commodity that a new chief will be sorely lacking.

One technique to facilitate listening is to ask employees two questions: “If you were the new chief, what is one thing you would change immediately?” and “What one thing keeps you working here?” Chiefs should listen carefully to the answers and write them down. The responses are often surprising and may provide new chiefs with cause for change. Another technique is to schedule a departmental meeting within the first 60 days of tenure. A week before the meeting, employees are asked to write anonymously their top three problems or concerns about the agency. Secondly, and most importantly, employees should suggest solutions to their concerns. This is a good launching point to discuss broad issues that many employees may have in common.

Failure to Learn to Budget Properly

Some people are naturally good with numbers; others are not. If new chiefs are not comfortable with numbers or prepared for the process, budgeting can be challenging and frustrating. Whether newly appointed chiefs have experience in budgeting or not, their ability to obtain funding—or a lack thereof—can directly affect their success as chiefs.

There is no need to panic, however. Learning from the past is a good place to begin. Studying the prior administration’s fiscal budget, noting its successes and shortcomings, is a useful way to start constructing a new budget. Does the previous administration’s budget meet the agency’s needs? Are funds lacking in a particular area? Are there sufficient fiscal provisions for the replacement of old equipment? Cultivating allies, like the finance director, can prove to be a great asset. Finance directors may provide an approximate budget amount to aid in proposing and presenting a balanced budget. They may also assist the new chief in identifying hidden costs and writing grant proposals.

Failure to Create a Strategic Plan/Vision

There is an old adage that states, if you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there. This is true in life and in police agencies. Creating a road map that guides the agency to its intended destination—a strategic plan—is critical to a chief’s success. The strategic plan should take the agency one year, three years, and five years down the road. A rule of thumb in policing: officers need to look one week ahead, sergeants one or two months ahead, and lieutenants (or middle managers) six months ahead, whereas chiefs need to be looking well ahead into the next year.

Failure to Deal with Politics

The word politics is not intrinsically dirty, but its application can be. Police chiefs, for the sake of mere survival, need to be politically astute. This does not mean that they have to be backroom political mavens, but they should at least know the first names of their elected officials and attend council meetings. It is far easier for chiefs to ask for new cruisers or weapons when they do not show up as strangers once a year to ask for money. This will also make it easier when things go awry in the agency. If chiefs have developed relationships with local political officials, they are better able to defend their agencies against negative allegations.

Failure to Learn, Cultivate, and Manage the Organizational Culture

It takes approximately three years to change an organization’s culture. For better or worse, new chiefs inherit their departments’ culture and must learn, cultivate, and carefully manage it. If chiefs do not, others will. Part of managing the culture includes standing up for what is right and challenging the status quo. Another important component is developing and instilling strong organizational values. If new chiefs do not develop formal cultural values, then informal values, good or bad, will develop on their own. New chiefs need to take the initiative to ensure that their organizational culture reflects their own values, not someone else’s.

Failure to Meet Community Stakeholders

Every community has its movers and shakers. These are the people who get things done. It is important to identify these people and become acquainted with them. One manner of introduction is to attend chamber of commerce meetings and/or service club meetings. These include organizations such as Rotary clubs, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Optimist clubs, Lions Clubs, and others. By attending chamber of commerce events and speaking at various club meetings, chiefs can both positively promote their agency and meet community stakeholders. The best time to meet these individuals is in an informal setting over breakfast or lunch, where chiefs can speak one-on-one with them.

Failure to Assess the Talent Pool Properly

Chiefs should ask themselves a series of questions. How talented is their agency? What are its professional capabilities? Can it handle a major crime scene or hostage scenario? Would there be need to call in assistance from other local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies? Chiefs who came to their position from within the agency possess a good feel for the agency’s expertise in different areas and can make a relatively rapid assessment of needs. The challenge is greater for chiefs appointed from outside the agency to quickly and accurately assess the talent pool.

Once deficiencies are found, the decision must be made whether to develop mutual-aid agreements with agencies that specialize in the areas of weakness or to budget and plan to train agency personnel to develop these special talents. New chiefs do not want to find themselves explaining to the local media why their agency lacks the expertise or knowledge to solve a crime or, worse yet, why it botched a major case investigation.

Failure to Choose Words Carefully

From the moment an agency announces the appointment of a new chief, the new chief’s actions take place on a figurative well-lit platform, and every word uttered is amplified and studied. Even privately shared views are often later exhumed and examined under the microscope of public opinion. Chiefs must heed their internal editor, choose words wisely, and filter out verbiage that is insensitive, biased, or unprofessional.

The rule of thumb for chiefs, whether new appointees or seasoned veterans, is to say nothing, public or private, that they would not want to have printed in the local paper or repeated on the evening news. Chiefs should keep in mind that they represent not only their police department but also their local government and their community; therefore, their words carry a special weight in the mind of the average resident of their community. Hence, they must choose their words carefully and be mindful of their impact on every member of the community.

Failure to Take Time to Assess

There is a strong tendency for new chiefs to want to make changes in their agency right away. Some new chiefs think that this will demonstrate true leadership skills. Chiefs are strongly encouraged to wait at least six months to get a feel for their agency before implementing any major changes, barring any extenuating circumstances that require immediate action. This rule holds especially true for new chiefs who were external applicants for the position.

The first six months are better spent getting to know the agency and the organizational culture. The personnel have just gone through a major change themselves—getting a new chief—and are probably a little apprehensive of what is coming down the road. Wholesale changes only add to this apprehension and make building a trusting relationship even harder. Many brilliant ideas have been left in the dust simply because the people that make up the organization were not adequately prepared to accept major change in their professional environment. Taking time to implement change will pay dividends in the future.

Failure to Develop Relationships with Local Media

Establishing and maintaining a positive working relationship with the local media is essential. It is highly recommended that new chiefs take a course in media relations during their first six months of tenure. Even if new chiefs discover that their predecessors did not have an open or working relationship with the media, they must reach out to establish one. Failure to do so will impede both their agency’s and their own progress and may weaken their standing in the community.

In some respects, the media is like an animal that must be fed. If chiefs do not take the time to develop a good working relationship, the media may feed off of chiefs’ or their agency’s bad news. By taking the time to develop a good relationship, chiefs can feed the media positive stories about their agency. Chiefs should consider submitting guest columns with the local newspaper to get their agency’s good work into print and in the public eye. Chiefs are advised to be mindful of the fact that when the public reads a story in the newspaper or sees a television news report, their agency is being graded. They should make sure that they know the local reporters so that when negative news reports are published or broadcast, chiefs are not stuck cold-calling media representatives or, worse yet, being heard or read stating the dreaded “no comment.”

Final Comments

While the list contained in this article is by no means all-inclusive, it does give new police chiefs a starting point from which to launch their new career. Although experience may be a good teacher, it is even more beneficial to learn by heeding the words of those who have been in that position, who have experienced the difficulties associated with it, and avoiding those mistakes in the first place. By listening to the advice of others who have overcome similar challenges, new police chiefs increase the possibility of their longevity for the benefit of their community. ■

Chief Mark Chaney has 27 years of experience in law enforcement and has served as the chief of police in New Albany, Ohio, for nine years. Chief Chaney serves as an advisory board member to the IACP’s Smaller Police Department Technical Assistance Program and as a mentor for the New Police Chief Mentoring Project.



From The Police Chief, vol. 75, no. 1, January 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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