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View from the Top: The Frustrations of Police Chiefs, and How to Solve Them

By Bruce L. Benson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Police Chief (Retired), Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan

A prominent police educator called the police chief position "the most difficult and demanding job in public administration today." 1 A government journal article about police chiefs is titled "Mission Impossible" for a number of very valid reasons. 2 Police chiefs have the only position without a peer group within their organizations; they are truly alone at the top of the organization. Often they hold the only position in the organization without job protections, yet they are asked to lead, to discipline, to take professional risks, and to create positive change.

The author has served in a police chief position for more than 15 years and has experienced a number of job-related pressures. As chief, the author also interacted with other chiefs who expressed frustrations and difficulties in their positions. Are our communities' police chiefs becoming "battle-weary executives" with unduly heavy burdens? 3 To understand this dilemma the author conducted a survey to identify the following:

  • What are the most common frustrations chiefs encounter?
  • What successful methods do they use to cope with job pressures?
  • What could be done to better support our chiefs and meet their professional needs, in the interests of greater success, higher productivity, and better health and well-being?

Following are the highlights from this survey and they clearly establish that the job of police chief is rewarding and demanding. It is set apart from and quite different from all other ranks and assignments in the police organization.

The Survey
The sample group4 consisted of the police chiefs from 50 larger municipal police departments in Michigan, excluding Detroit. 5 The police departments range in size from 45 sworn officers to 366 sworn officers, with community populations from approximately 20,000 to 198,000. The survey was anonymous, and all 50 chiefs were contacted in advance by telephone. They were advised of the nature of the survey, told to expect it in the mail soon, and asked to personally complete and return the survey instrument. Thirty-seven completed surveys were later received, for a return rate of 74 percent.

The group surveyed is indicative of an educated, impressive group of police professionals leading municipal police departments. Eighty-nine percent of the police chiefs hold at east a four-year college degree; 54 percent have a master's degree or law degree; and 3 percent have a doctoral degree. They have an average service of 5.4 years as police chief, with an average of 28.6 years as a law enforcement officer.

Disappointing, however, is their low level of job protection and job security as police chief:

  • 46 percent have no job security and serve strictly as at-will employees.
  • 24 percent report civil service job protection.
  • 14 percent have a written contract for one to five years.
  • 14 percent may be discharged for "just cause."

  • 2 percent have union member protection.

Highlights of Chiefs' Views
A series of questions were designed to identify several aspects of being the chief executive officer of a department. Readers should consider these responses in light of their own personal experience.

Career Satisfaction: Although 97 percent of the respondents felt their law enforcement career had been a good choice and they would do it again, that same satisfaction was not related to the specific police chief position. In rating how "really satisfied" they are in their current job, on an increasing scale of one to 10, only 16 percent of police chiefs chose the top rating of 10. When asked, in looking at their overall career, to select the level or rank at which they felt the happiest and most satisfied, and when they had the most fun in their jobs, only 27 percent selected the "now, as chief" category. The largest response category to this question, 32 percent, selected "as sergeant." Other responses were mixed among other ranks.

How City Executives Can Help: The chiefs were asked what their immediate boss (city manager, mayor, and so on) could do to help them more in their jobs. Thirty percent responded that their boss could be generally more encouraging, empowering, and supportive; while 19 percent said they are satisfied that their immediate supervisor gives them the freedom and support that is necessary.

How Employees Can Help: When asked the same question about how police employees could better assist the chief, the largest response group, 22 percent, said that police employees could show a more positive outlook on the department and what's good for the organization and community. Other responses include employees taking more responsibility for their actions; being more proactive and creative; and seeing the big picture and the social, political, and legal ramifications of their everyday actions as police officers.

One survey question asked directly, "What categories of people seem to cause you the most difficulty and frustration in your job?" Overwhelmingly, the police chiefs selected problem employees, followed closely by politicians and elected officials and media reporters. The chiefs reported personal stresses in numerous examples of administering discipline, meeting political resistance, or grandstanding by local politicians, and being misquoted or mischaracterized by reporters.

The Job's Personal Toll: The chiefs reported the most significant negative impact of their job on their personal lives as being "the all-consuming stress and constant responsibility of the job." A second response category expressed was "the excessive time demands of the job."

Similar responses were made to the question, "What do you look forward to most about your eventual retirement?" The police chiefs most commonly responded, "Having control over my own schedule and my own time with spouse and family." A second reply was, "Getting away from the constant stress of personnel management and top responsibility."

The Positive Aspect of the Job: The police chiefs listed their most positive, enjoyable aspect of their chief's job as being able to make improvements and affect the department and officers in a positive way. A second significant response was helping people, solving problems, and making a difference in the community.

The Negative Aspect of the Job: The chiefs listed their most discouraging, dissatisfying aspect of their job as being the frustration of working in the political environment and dealing with politicians. The next most popular response was dealing with negative, resistant problem employees.

Handling Job Stress
When asked to whom they talk for advice, for support, or just to vent frustrations, 59 percent replied that they talk with other police chiefs, including retired or previous chiefs. Thirty-five percent indicated their spouse, family members, or close friends. Another frequent response was turning to prayer and faith.

It appears the police chiefs are making good choices in their methods of dealing with stress and job pressures. About 60 percent report dealing with stress by engaging in regular exercise, including jogging, walking, lifting weights, and participating in active sports. About 30 percent report spending quality time, including venting, with spouse and family.

Advice to the New Chief
The respondents were asked for the one piece of advice they would give to a new police chief. Their largest response was to be calm and patient. This included going slowly and deliberately, and carefully evaluating the political environment, the organization, and the employees before instituting changes. Other responses include being honest, never compromising your integrity, developing good leadership work habits, preparing to be a political being, taking care of your personal self, and getting in touch with employees.

The Value of Police Chiefs
This survey established that police chiefs are an extremely important human resource. They provide a unique, beneficial service in leading police departments and protecting communities. Their special needs, frustrations, and problems are important to all of us in the continuation of our American way of life.

Several descriptive conclusions resulted from this study. Among them:

  • Police chiefs, as evidenced by this Michigan sample, are a group of outstanding, professional leaders. They are highly educated and well seasoned in police administrative experience and overall law enforcement experience. They express important personal priorities such as integrity, community involvement, family, and faith.
  • Police chiefs are challenged and fulfilled in their jobs, but not necessarily happy. Police work was more fun, and they were happier, when they were not chiefs.
  • Police chiefs work in high-visibility, high-risk jobs with little or no job security. They regularly handle community and organizational conflict, and they are expected to implement needed, difficult social change, at great professional risk. The largest category of respondents on this issue, 46 percent, comprises so-called at-will employees who have virtually no job security.
  • Police chiefs are cautious, patient, and deliberate when they make decisions and implement changes. This approach may be necessary for political bureaucratic survival, but it may also be detrimental to dynamic creativity and productivity in a rapidly changing society.
  • Police chiefs receive considerable negative pressure and frustration in their jobs, primarily from three sources: (1) the political environment and dealing with local politicians, (2) negative personnel issues, including problem employees and resistant police unions, and (3) news media reporters
  • .

Supporting Chiefs
This exploratory research points the way to possible future improvements. These include the following:

  • Police executive training targeted more specifically toward the identified police chief frustrations
  • Organizational and legislative efforts toward an improved job security safety net system for this high visibility, high risk executive position
  • More extensive research of the police chief leadership position and its needs

Although the survey uncovered some of the frustrations experienced by Michigan police chiefs, it also indicated that public safety in Michigan is in good hands. ■

1 Louis Mayo, remarks at award presentation to Michigan State University Police, East Lansing, Michigan, January 2002.
2C. Mahtesian, "Mission Impossible," Governing (January 1997): 1-7.
3L. W. Tuller, The Battle-Weary Executive (Homewood, Ill.: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990).
4The survey was conducted from October through December 2001, with responses received by the end of January 2002.
5The Detroit Police Department was not included because of its extreme size (more than 4,000 sworn officers) and other apparent dissimilarities to the overall sample group.



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 8, August 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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