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Back to Archives | Back to October 2008 Contents 

Lessons Learned: Advice for New Chiefs

By Jimy Perdue, Chief of Police, North Richland Hills, Texas

he hiring of a new police chief is a significant event in the organizational life of a city. It offers a unique opportunity to evaluate the operations of a police department from a new perspective, to review any areas that are deficient or lacking in emphasis, and to infuse new ideas into the organization. Throughout the country, departments who fail to conduct rigorous self-evaluations can find themselves functioning in their comfort zone but mired in the status quo. Conducting regular, ongoing evaluations of departmental operations is important to avoid organizational complacency. New police chiefs must possess the leadership skills necessary to stretch their organizations and challenge them to set new goals and chart a course to reach them.

It is essential that a new chief have the ability to develop a foundation of professional values and ethics on which to build a leadership team. Although this fact might be difficult for many police departments to accept, departments that face their own realities and recognize their shortcomings are those that rise above the others and regain their status as leaders in the area of public safety.

Understand the Department’s Past

Before new chiefs can set a path for a new vision, they must have a clear understanding of the past. A police department’s organizational culture is a deeply ingrained, personal aspect of its functioning that must not be trivialized. Years of hard work and dedication by scores of individuals went into the creation of that culture, and it must be respected. However, if the culture is no longer in step with the expectations of the community, then changes must be made. Changes for the future must be carefully crafted to achieve the desired goal without disregarding the past. New chiefs can best accomplish this task by first listening to the variety of individuals that represent the stakeholders for their departments. Gaining input is important to obtaining an understanding of the values and expectations of a department and its community.

There are three distinct groups that need to have a voice in reflecting the past and to assist in shaping the future of a police department. Each of these three represents a component of the department’s personality and will help to establish priorities. The three groups are the department’s employees, city management officials, and the community. Excluding any of these entities will result in an incomplete picture of how the department functions. It is critical to understand how each group views the current mission of the department and how well it is achieving those goals. Receiving input on this level will aid chiefs in establishing the foundation for shaping the future direction of their departments.

Especially in the beginning of their tenure, new chiefs must be available and visible to as many of these three groups as possible. They should seek out opportunities to meet with and establish a dialogue with each municipal department as well as the members of the management team. Being accessible will promote a feeling of trust and will encourage open and frank dialogue. It is important that chiefs and all the members of their departments recognize that their agency, though possibly the most visible, is just one of many departments in its community. Without the combined efforts of fire, streets, water, and many other departments, the residents of the community would not be completely served. Nowhere else in governmental service are citizens any closer to those that provide that service than at the local level. Coordination is critical to a municipal government providing the services that the community expects. Too often, each municipal entity will operate independently, without regard for the others, and poor-quality service is often the result. As leaders of police departments, chiefs must establish this attitude of cooperation and coordination early in their tenure.

Review History of Complaints/Commendations

The quality of the service provided to the community can also be determined by reviewing the history of complaints and commendations submitted to the department. An analysis of this information will likely show trends and recurring themes in officer behavior. New chiefs should review the internal files of the command staff as well as random internal affairs files to determine the quality of the investigations performed. Familiarity with these files will help a chief establish where the department has fallen short and will demonstrate what the community feels the department does particularly well. This information provides a new chief with a snapshot of the organizational mind-set and provides an opportunity to address evident problems or issues quickly. It also offers some positive attributes on which to build when change becomes necessary. Tying the overall departmental skill set to specific mission goals will give officers a sense of accomplishment and make them feel like they are contributing to the success of the department.

Prioritize—Make Incremental Changes

A new chief must establish priorities and focus on them. Small, incremental changes will give employees an opportunity to “buy into” the changes and become active participants in making their department better. Most employees want to work for the best; they just need to be given the opportunity to succeed, with a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Experience has shown that police officers are universal in their desire to serve. In fact, most would state that this was the reason they got into police work in the beginning of their careers. A variety of reasons might have caused them to move away from this affinity for service, but it is incumbent on the chief to foster an environment where service to the community is the overarching theme of everything that is done.

Too often, a new chief will come into a department and attempt to invoke a massive change in culture and behavior. This type of sweeping change is seldom really needed and is often a reflection of the chief’s ego and inability to understand the unique dynamics of the department. Trying to accomplish change too quickly will result in organizational chaos, promote employee resistance, and stymie any real opportunity for change. Police officers can become very resistant to change if they feel that it will have a negative impact on their environment. The goal is to provide the type of leadership that embraces change as a normal occurrence and to make it an integral part of maintaining the department’s progressive mentality.

Evaluate Policies and Procedures

An evaluation of department policies and procedures is another critical step toward assessing a department’s effectiveness and efficiency. A new chief can gain significant insight into the culture of a police organization by looking at the way its policies are written and where it places its priorities. A deeper insight is obtained by comparing written policies with actual practices. How well a department is managed will show up in the degree to which it complies voluntarily with the rules and regulations. If there is a lack of trust between the police administration and the employees, then employees will likely disobey or ignore the policies frequently. Establishing a collaborative relationship will help officers to feel like they are part of a team and to take ownership in achieving the goals of the department and its community. This is reflective in their willingness to comply with policies or suggest improvements or corrections. A complete review of the policy manuals is essential to any initial evaluation; it will help guide any future changes.

Determine Community Expectations

Most communities expect their police departments to take the lead in providing a community that is free of crime as well as the fear of crime. Time and again, citizen surveys across the United States have expressed the idea that keeping the crime rate low is important for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the safety and welfare of those that live in the community. Residents want to feel safe in their homes, parks, and streets. Communicating with the community in both individual and group meetings can help determine if this goal is being met and what the expectations are for the future. This dialogue also offers a chief an opportunity to solicit the community’s help in achieving this goal. Regardless of the personnel and resources available, it is critical that residents feel that they have a role in protecting their community. Evaluating a police department’s business and residential outreach programs is also a way to determine if the department truly desires to reach out to the community and to seek its help in making its neighborhoods safe.

Another, less commonly understood reason for managing crime is the impact that a rising crime rate can have on a municipality’s financial stability and overall potential for growth. If a police department is failing to create an environment of safety and security, then it can have a negative effect on the business climate and the municipality’s ability to attract and retain important business development. Future residential construction can also be affected as well as existing property values. A police department must also recognize its role beyond that of crime suppression and develop a plan to deal with quality-of-life concerns. These issues are often the biggest drain on police resources and the most frequent cause of calls for service from the community. These can include loud music, traffic complaints, juvenile gatherings, or barking dogs. A department that has developed a service-oriented mentality will understand that even though these complaints may not be due to a serious crime, they are very important to the people making the complaints. Promoting this attitude is critical to creating a safe community and gaining the public confidence and trust. In addition, this is another way that a department must recognize its role in the larger operation of municipal government. Each municipal department must do its own part for the good of the entire municipality to thrive and prosper.

Address Operational Issues

In addition to these larger, conceptual issues, there are several operational issues that a new chief needs to evaluate to get a complete picture of the department and its priorities. These things include overall activity (citations, arrests, and so on); training and hiring standards; equipment care and maintenance; job duties and descriptions; use of advances in technology; emergency preparedness; and the level of preparation for events involving weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). An evaluation must also be made of the relationships that exist with the surrounding police departments as well as federal agencies. Criminals seldom respect jurisdictional boundaries, which makes it critical to develop a regional approach to crime. All of these issues, and many more, are geared toward addressing how well a department is using the resources entrusted to it by the community.

The most important resource that a chief controls is the officers that deliver basic police service to the community. Across the United States, community residents expect their police officers to have some basic core skills. Although there might be some minor differences based on unique local circumstances, all officers should possess the skills of attentiveness, reliability, responsiveness, competence, manners, and fairness. It is these competencies that represent the cornerstone in developing a solid relationship between the public and the police. Maintaining a service-oriented mentality is critical to keeping the proper perspective on how the role of a police department is viewed by the community.

Be the Torchbearer

Police chiefs must be the torchbearers for the service-oriented mentality and demonstrate their willingness to serve everyone in the community as well as those in municipal government. Establishing clear lines of communication between chiefs and their employees, municipal leaders, and the community will foster a relationship of trust that must exist for the police department to accomplish its mission. Chiefs must be viewed as active participants in identifying issues and finding solutions to problems. They must provide clear and strong leadership that will instill confidence throughout their departments. When chiefs possess the skills necessary to achieve this goal, they can look forward to the opportunity to help their departments regain their “cutting edge.” ■

Chief Jimmy Perdue has 26 years of experience in the law enforcement profession. He has been chief of police for the North Richland Hills Police Department since July 2005. He holds a master’s degree from the University of North Texas and is a graduate of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy and the Advanced Management College at the Institute for Law Enforcement Administration. Chief Perdue is also a licensed instructor for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education and an adjunct professor at Dallas Baptist University. In addition, he serves on the board of directors for the Tarrant County College Criminal Justice Training Center and the Executive Board for the North Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 10, October 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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