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Back to Archives | Back to August 2010 Contents 

Continued Utility of Civil Service for the Chief’s Position

By Alice E. Perry, Assistant District Attorney, Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, Northampton, Massachusetts, and Doctoral Candidate at Northeastern University

This article is based on a survey of police chiefs in Massachusetts, and the focus is on the respondents’ attitudes about the continued utility of civil service for the chief’s position and the concomitant issue as to when leadership training should begin.

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ivil service, whether it is state or local, provides a measure of job security against political changes. Critics of the system have pointed to the bureaucratic rigidity of civil service and the lack of flexibility and discretion in decisions. The civil service systems came about in the late 1800s and early 1900s to solve the problems of political patronage and corruption in government agencies, and, in some states, they still strongly influence government personnel decisions. Over the years, not much has changed in the civil service system.

Unlike the civil service system, the policing strategy in the United States has undergone tremendous shifts. Currently, policing is in the problem-solving era. One author contends that “strong leadership is integral to the success of preventive policing.”1 The issue of leadership is of paramount importance for a variety of reasons; chief among those reasons is the global world with its varied cultures and diverse attitudes about law enforcement. Second is the intense media scrutiny of all things law enforcement, with its attendant local, national, and global publicity, which places a heightened stress on police leaders. Third, current economic woes facing the United States demand that fiscal resources spent on police agencies reap the most benefit for the communities they serve.

The Setting

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has most of its population of 6.6 million living in the Boston metropolitan area. The eastern half of the state is made up of urban and suburban with a mix of rural areas, while western Massachusetts is mostly rural. Massachusetts is the most populous and wealthiest (by gross domestic product per capita) of the six New England states.

Massachusetts has been significant throughout U.S. history. Plymouth, Massachusetts, was the second permanent English settlement in the United States. Colonists from England founded many Massachusetts towns in the 1620s and 1630s, and many residents today can trace their roots back to these founding families. Then during the eighteenth century, Boston became known as the “cradle of liberty” for the agitation there that led to the American Revolution and the independence of the United States from Great Britain. It was also a center of the temperance movement and abolitionist activity. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legally recognize same-sex marriage. Today, the state’s economy is based on higher education, health care, technology, and financial services.

Massachusetts policing is steeped in tradition. During the political entrenchment era in policing from 1840 to 1900, police departments were decentralized into precincts. The neighborhoods were significantly influenced by local politicians that created an inextricable link between the politicians and the police. This was a time when cities were controlled by political machines. The politicians decided who would be hired as police officers and who would be rejected. These close ties with politicians inevitably led to patronage and corruption.2

Civil Service System

The reform and the professionalization of Massachusetts police departments began in the 1920s. Standards for eligibility, recruitment, and training were instituted. Centralization of decision making was implemented to remove political control from the precincts. A chain of command with an attendant rank-and-file system was established, which included top-down management with one-way authority over decision making.

During the reform era, Massachusetts police departments and the police chief’s position were made part of the civil service system.3 It was assumed that if a prospective employee had to take an exam and score high enough to be hired, hiring practices would be removed from the politicians’ grasps. In other parts of the United States, police leaders such as Orlando Winfield Wilson opposed the civil service system because of the belief that the civil service tests encroached upon the police chief’s ability to select the most qualified personnel for leadership positions.4

Massachusetts is currently in the problem-solving era of policing. Problem-oriented policing seeks to integrate the police into the social fabric of the community.5 Problem-solving policing must deemphasize control and discipline and focus on leadership.6

Study Methodology

The Massachusetts Chief of Police Questionnaire was disseminated to the 350 police chiefs in Massachusetts; 100 police chiefs returned useable responses for a 28 percent response rate. A written survey was chosen as the research vehicle to solicit the wisdom of the Massachusetts chiefs on matters currently being debated by public policy makers nationally, as well as in Massachusetts.

The June 2010 issue of Police Chief magazine published an article titled “Seniority Rights.” This article was based on a study of eight mid-sized police departments in southeast Michigan to gauge officer perceptions regarding seniority-rights practices affecting departmental operations and career advancement. Readers are encouraged to review the seniority-rights article while reading this article about the survey conducted in Massachusetts with a focus on the utility of civil service for the chief’s position.
Michael E. Walleman, “Seniority Rights,” Police Chief 77 (June 2010): 32–36.

The survey instructions advised the prospective respondents that the responses would remain anonymous and confidential. The project was approved by the Northeastern University Institutional Review Board. As per the Code of Federal Regulations title 45, part 46, 117(c)(2), signed consent was waived as the research presented no more than minimal risk of harm to subjects and involved no procedures for which written consent is normally required. The survey was broad in scope, covered a range of issues, and included both open- and closed-ended questions and a Likert scale.7 The survey responses were rich with information because most respondents added narrative explanations to their responses. This article focuses on the survey results that address when leadership development should begin and the continued utility of a civil service for police chiefs.

Survey Analysis

Demographics: The respondent police chiefs ranged in age from 31 years old to 65 years old. Ninety-eight were white, one was black, and one respondent did not indicate race. Ninety-four of the respondents were male, and six were female.

In answering the questions about the highest education attained, sixty-five respondents had graduate degrees, nineteen had bachelor’s degrees, nine had associate’s degrees, and three had high school diplomas. Four respondents did not answer the education question.

The sizes of the police departments were also ascertained. Sixty-six respondents indicated their departments employed fewer than fifty employees, twenty-nine respondents reported their departments employed between fifty and five hundred employees, and five respondents did not answer the question.

Preferred education level: 84 percent of the responding Massachusetts chiefs possess a bachelor’s degree, and, of particular note, approximately 68 percent possess a graduate degree. However, when queried about the level of education a police recruit should possess, the chiefs were almost evenly split in their preference for either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree (see figure 1).

An insightful observation was penned by one chief, who commented on the educational background of his department.

Eighty percent of my officers now have, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree; unfortunately, they all majored in criminal justice. I wish we could . . . attract candidates who might have a degree in philosophy, economics, history, or something other than criminal justice. I think it would make for a more well-rounded department. If you are intelligent, motivated, and sincerely committed to making a difference, we can teach you all the “cop stuff.” It has always bothered me that we will pay an educational stipend to someone pursuing an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Bunker Hill Community College, but will not offer the same to someone pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Columbia.

The author has heard the chief’s sentiments expressed many times over the course of this study. In short, the chiefs are saying that the law enforcement field would be well served with a diversely educated workforce, for example the addition of forensic accountants for white-collar investigations or mechanical engineers for accident reconstruction. In order to better serve communities and move in time with technological advances, the police forces should reflect this reality with diversification in educational backgrounds of recruits.

Attitude toward the civil service system: The civil service system was created by the desire to thwart political patronage and to remove government departments from political influence. The civil service system in Massachusetts was established in 1884.8 To hire police officers in Massachusetts cities and towns that use the civil service system, the appointing authority must use the “rule of three.” The rule of three requires that the appointing authority select the candidate from the top three scores on the civil service examination. If a decision is made to bypass a name on the list, the appointing authority must justify the decision.

The Worcester, Massachusetts, Research Bureau reports that in cities with populations surpassing populations of 40,000, approximately 60 percent of police chief positions come under the civil service system.9 Adherence to the rule of three limits the discretion of the hiring body in the selection process for a new police chief. Candidates who are bypassed for promotion may grieve the bypass to the appointing authority and then to the Civil Service Commission.10

The litigant can appeal the Civil Service Commission’s decision to the Superior Court and onward to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Both of these courts review the Civil Service Commission’s decision on promotion to determine if it violates any of the standards set forth in the administrative procedure statute governing judicial review and cases construing those standards.11 If the litigation is protracted, it can divide a department. There have been incidents when a passed-over captain spends years litigating the decision while still working with the successful candidate for police chief. This can create a divided workforce among employees supporting the passed-over captain versus the current chief.

According to Jonathan Walters, senior correspondent for Governing magazine, “[T]ime hasn’t been kind to the Massachusetts merit system. Title IV, Chapter 31, of the Massachusetts General Code, entitled ‘Civil Service,’ a ponderous 233-page set of rules and precedents, is no longer up to the big job of helping government in Massachusetts recruit and hire the most talented personnel possible. Over the course of the century, Massachusetts has fallen well behind the leaders in public sector personnel administration practice.”12

Walters points out that, nationally, other state public administration officials have been examining ways to improve the hiring, the recruitment, and the evaluation of state employees. Every state, with the exception of Georgia and Texas, has civil service systems.13

Of the police chief respondents in this survey, 63 percent did not hold a civil service position; 34 percent did have a civil service position. When queried as to whether the chief’s position should remain in the civil service or should be removed from civil service, 41 percent believed the chief’s position should be removed from civil service; 33 percent disagreed (see figure 2).

Most of the narrative responses believed the chief’s position should be removed from civil service. Following are some responses from three chiefs on the civil service issue:

     I have changed my position over the years. I used to think that the chiefs needed civil service protection, but now I see that the cities and towns need protection from bad chiefs they cannot get rid of.

     Civil service should be abandoned so as to ensure employees are hired and retained on their own merit, and not where they appear on a list.

     That’s a difficult question. There are pros and cons to both, but I guess in the long run, the community is best served by a non–civil service chief.

The civil service issue is quite important. In order to maintain the high standards by police departments, it may be time to rethink the constraints placed on departments by adherence to the civil service system, starting with the chief’s position.

Leadership development: The real issue is whether the civil service system provides the best leaders for the position. Today’s role of the police chief is changing and extremely demanding. The erosion between state and federal boundaries has broadened the police chief’s focus beyond local issues. Technology has changed the way in which police departments are directed and managed. Technology has also changed the way chiefs and police departments communicate with the community. The increased media attention to law enforcement and the use of social media outlets to show local policing activities and crime have added to the pressures of the chiefs’ job.

In addition, the chief needs new management and leadership skills. Police chiefs must possess the talent to lead, motivate, and train the officers moving up the ranks. This officer training and education must be completed with increasingly smaller budgets and with the knowledge that lawsuits against municipalities and police departments continue to rise and show no signs of abating. Police chiefs require the intellectual acuity in this increasingly global world to respond with alacrity when presented with a crisis.

A critical element of this survey was to determine when leadership training should begin. Fifty-one percent of the responding chiefs replied that leadership training should begin at the police academy. That response did not change when cross-tabulated with the size of the department or with the respondent’s educational background (see figure 3).

The response to this question is one of the most important in the survey because this overwhelming response is a mandate from the collective sagacity of the respondents. It would be prudent for public policy makers to take note as they design the curriculum for new police officers entering the police academy and in the development of leadership curriculum for police officers during the course of their careers. During these turbulent economic times, utilizing the academy training to develop police leaders is a cost-effective measure. This makes leadership development at the police academy level all the more relevant and necessary for twenty-first century training.

What the Chiefs Said

This survey set out to see how Massachusetts police chiefs felt about three important items, and they have responded accordingly. The critical messages follow:

  • Of the respondents, 41 percent believe the chief’s position should be removed from civil service—and of the 24 percent who wrote narrative responses, most wrote that the chief’s position should be removed from civil service. Conversely, 33 percent believed the chief’s position should remain in civil service.
  • Chiefs are saying the law enforcement field would be well served with a diversely educated workforce.
  • Of the responding chiefs, 51 percent replied that leadership training should begin at the academy. All other categories linger far behind this recommendation.

Based on the outcomes of this study, it behooves public-policy makers to examine the current bureaucratic systems to see if they are still relevant. Policy makers would do well to listen to the sagacity of the present chiefs when deciding policy for future police leaders.■

1David A. Harris, Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing (New York: The New Press, 2005), 131.
2Larry K. Gaines and Victor E. Kappeler, Policing in America (Cincinnati, Ohio: Anderson Publishing, 2003).
4Edward A. Thibault et al., Proactive Police Management, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998).
5Herman Goldstein, Problem Oriented Policing (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990).
6EmmaJean “E.J.” Williams, “Structuring in Community Policing: Institutionalizing Innovative Change,” Police Practice and Research 4, no. 2 (2003): 119–129.
7The Likert scale is an ordered, onedimensional scale from which respondents choose one option that best aligns with their view. A common form is an assertion, with which the person may agree or disagree to varying degrees. In scoring, numbers are usually assigned to each option (such as 1 to 5).
8Jonathan Walters, “Toward a High-Performance Workplace: Fixing Civil Service in Massachusetts” (white paper, Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Boston, Mass., 2000), 1, (accessed March 19, 2006).
9Worcester Regional Research Bureau, “Reorganizing Public Safety Functions: Considerations For and Against,” Report No. 05-05 (December 15, 2005), 1–15.
10Mass. Assoc. of Minority Law Enforcement Officers v. Abban, 434 Mass. 256, 748 N.E.2d 455 (2001).
12Jonathan Walters, “Toward a High-Performance Workplace,” 1.

Please cite as:

Alice E. Perry, "Continued Utility of Civil Service for the Chief’s Position," The Police Chief 77 (August 2010): 106-110, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 8, August 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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