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Tips on Police Leadership

By John L. Gray, Chief of Police, Arlington, Washington

Police executives of smaller agencies have to be generalists in police work and organization management. Their daily duties often combine those of a line officer, a first-line supervisor, a middle manager, and an executive. The effective police chief is a blend of both a leader who has the bold, courageous vision of what should be and the administrator who can juggle competing interests while managing budget and personnel issues. Following are some tips that can help a small agency chief to be effective.

Be Honest
Your professional credibility is everything. Be absolutely honest and accurate in everything you do and say. Be consistent with the public, the council, the mayor, the media, and the union. Do not fudge or shade the truth even a little bit, ever.

Hire the Best
Turnover in a small agency can be catastrophic.1 It takes two years for most new officers to become productive, and an agency can easily invest $100,000 in salary and training in that time. Training new officers should be viewed as a capital investment to be spent carefully. In a hot job market, agencies compete for the desirable applicants and are actively recruiting lateral transfers from each other’s departments.
Smaller agencies can protect their investment in their employees by hiring only the best applicant who fits the agency. Create a selection process to identify the applicant who knows something about the community and who is attracted to that community’s style of policing. Place more emphasis in the traits of integrity and loyalty because these are not generally trainable and don’t hire the applicant who merely wants to get hired by any police department who will take him. Avoid the tendency to take shortcuts or lower the standards for selecting officers and part-time reserve officers.

Get Evaluated
Consider a top-to-bottom management audit of the department. For a new chief this is easier, but even an established chief can justify and manage an audit to the agency’s benefit. A properly conduct audit provides recommendations to use as a roadmap for improvement.

While an outside audit might influence other decision makers in accomplishing the department’s desired goals, internal audits are also of value. Some executives have viewed the audit process with suspicion but most chiefs who have experienced an audit have found it to be an excellent way to jumpstart an agency that is in transition.

Have a Goal That Is Both High and Attainable
A work team that is unfocused but well intentioned will welcome a high set of goals that they can attained. Most employees want something better for the department, and once focused on a common attainable goal the employees will come together. Consider the goal of earning national or state accreditation as a method of upgrading operations to current professional standards. It is also a way of gaining the professional and community recognition that is widely accepted. Accreditation should become a way of doing business rather than an event. Share the Vision and Support the Mission.

Improperly developed mission statements without employee ownership will have no meaning. A mission statement that has meaning is one the staff and chief use as a standard for evaluating the work accomplished. This makes the mission statement of real value. Consider making the mission statement a part of the performance evaluation system to emphasize the value placed on it. Also use the mission statement as the foundation during interviews for finding new team members.

Decide and identify the areas that the department is going to excel in and the areas in which it will rely on other partners for help. Realistically, departments do not have the available resources and personnel to excel in every facet of policing, although they can and should be competent in all aspects of policing.2 For example, a smaller agency may not have the resources to conduct complex fugitive investigations3 or detailed crime scene searches. Enter into agreements with other agencies to get assistance on the rare occasions that require these skills.

Ask, what does this department want to be known for? Some departments have strengths in working with youth, others focus on working with new immigrants, other excel at victim services and still others focus on resolving traffic problems. Once the areas of excellency are determined, use this vision to direct the department’s training plan. Consider creating an individual development plan program with employees. This program is a formal partnership between the agency and the employee to meet mutual goals.

Use Lots of Carrots and the Occasional Stick
Experience has proven that rewarding in public and criticizing in private works. Do not sweat the little things about performance as long as the employee gets to the desired outcome without compromising the mission or their integrity. In smaller departments, consider getting everyone in one room once a month to share information and to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with the department, give out letters of commendations, and critique teamwork to determine what we could do better next time. Use a city council meeting to announce the officer of the year and recognize employees who have received letters of commendation.

All complaints against employees should be documented and handled quickly and privately. As in the criminal justice system, justice delayed is justice denied.

Walk the Talk
If chief wants trust, the chief must be trustworthy; if chief wants openness, the chief must be accessible; if the chief wants a professional appearance, the chief must wear the uniform with pride; and if the chief wants the highest professional service, then the chief must be the model. Employees will study and analyze the chief’s actions, rather than the chief’s words, as the true message of expectations.

Trust, but Verify
Regular inspections of vehicles, the property room, uniforms, and weapons send the message that attention is being given to the organization. Read the officers’ reports, check with the prosecuting attorney for quality issues, and check on the progress of delegated work. Regularly show up on calls and be willing to get your hands dirty. It has been found that inspections and audits that are rarely done create fear and frustration in employee when one is conducted. Adopt what some have called the doctrine of no surprises but regularly inspect, as this helps create an atmosphere of calm and predictability as well as ensuring proper action is taken. 4

Share Everything, Especially Information
Find a way to systemically and regularly share information about work, what the trends are, and what changes are coming. Information is power, and rumor and gossip exist in the absence of shared information. There are really only a few secrets that a chief has to keep (personnel, union, and pending liability issues); everything else is an opportunity to share. Consider printing and distributing a weekly letter that includes compliments and thank-yous. A hard-copy letter, as opposed to an electronic one, allows employees to take it home and share it with their family to keep them informed also.

Minimize Chaos
People hate change and in particular they hate the confusion and chaos that change may bring and the contradiction in directives. One way to this limit chaos is by using the policy and procedure creation process to institute change and memorialize it rather than using memorandums. Memorandums tend to not have same value as carefully developed policy or procedure. By using the policy and procedure process, administrators can limit wide changes and keep the policy and procedure manual up to date. Memorandums tend to become lost or stuck in the back of the book and forgotten.

Train Yourself
Take advantage of the management and leadership courses offered by the IACP, state criminal justice training agencies, colleges, e-learning courses and for-profit training companies. Set a professional goal to attain your highest level of professional certification and set a personal goal to attend at least 40 hours of training annually. Join the IACP and other professional organizations. Subscribe to and read the professional magazines and journals and try to get at least one good idea from each one.

Listen to other police chiefs and apply their wisdom. Being at the top is very lonely and isolated and other chiefs have experienced the problems being encountering. Attend and contribute to the monthly regional police chief meetings.

When You Help Others Get What They Want, You Will Get What You Want
Ask employees, “Where do you want to be, and how can I help you get there?” Developing employees is one of the few things that police chiefs can control. A legacy of leaving the department, its people, and the police profession better is an honorable goal for a police executive. Try to establish a succession process by educating and training the next generation of police leaders. Consider adopting the goal that when on vacation the work will get done and your desk will be clean upon your return. Empower and expect the second-in-command to handle the issues in the chief’s absence.

Employees who get what they want from an organization will make the chief look good, and the only problem the chief will have is containing their energy and focusing their goals to the department’s mission.

Nudge People into Their Right Niche
Perhaps every organization has a person or two who just does not fit into the team anymore. Either the person or the organization has grown away from working together and the person may have “retired in place.” Smaller organizations may become dysfunctional because of this one person.

Finding the appropriate niche for this person can solve a host of problems. Sometimes the niche can exist in the department and the employee will again fulfill a worthwhile need. For example, a burned out detective may now excel at patrol; an unhappy patrol officer may excel at report review, statistical analysis, and budget development. At other times it may be necessary to consider using the approach of helping the employee to move on to another place rather than continuing the struggle to improve their performance in the department. Simply confront the employee with his or her behavior and its impact on the whole team. Many times, the person’s aptitude and skills would be better suited for another city department or private employment. When appropriate, offer assistance with employment placement services and a recommendation focusing on their skills. During the relocation process, constantly coach the employee and reinforce his or her need to move to a better situation for themselves and the department. Most employees will move on within a few months and the agency will have saved the money and energy of a negative disciplinary process.

Gain Small Wins Quickly
Quickly gaining a small win earns credibility and establishes momentum for further change. Look for the opportunity to fix something that is widely observable or that has special meaning either to the organization or to a town council member. These successes will rapidly create supporters for the chief and the agency.

Weed and Seed
Attend all the city council meetings and many of their workshops. Learn about other citywide issues, be a part of the city planning and problem-solving team, and use these meetings to address the council to provide new information. Find something to praise the council for or commend an employee or volunteer for noteworthy work. Summarize issues that you are either working on or that may be coming to the council in the future. This technique of planting seeds of information will nearly always pay off later when their support is needed.

Get Comfortable with Conflict
Do not take disagreements personally and accept the fact that there will always be people who disagree with decisions. Do not be someone who holds a grudge. The community wants efficient service and the citizen wants to be treated with respect. Most complaints and commendations are rooted in how people were treated and not what the facts were.

Listen to Supervisors, Managers, and Union Officials
Encourage them to be absolutely honest with you, and reward them when they are. Having yes-people around the top executive is a sure way to disaster. Critical evaluators are invaluable and can save the chief’s career because they help the chief to see all the possibilities.

Establish a relationship with the shop steward and the union’s business agent. Both can provide excellent information and advice that ultimately can create a better working environment and head off potential grievances. Insist on being at the negotiating table when a new contract is being developed. This brings consistency to the workplace and stops the difference between what was agreed to and what is actually done.

Remember That “Politics” Is Not a Dirty Word
Be political but do not play politics. Being responsive to the community, the council, and the mayor is part of chief’s political reality because the chief works for them. Effective politics is about effective relationships. Insist on being at the important meetings because this is where a chief can influence decisions. Do not let anyone involve you in playing political games to get their enemies. Chiefs who are not political do not last long and those who play political games have even shorter careers.

Pick Your Fights Carefully
Do not go to the wall, as they say, over every budget issue. You can fall on your sword only one time, so do it when the issue really is worth dying for.

Take Care of Yourself, Because No One Else Will
Eat right, get plenty of rest, and make regular exercise part of your life. This will keep you strong enough to deal with the demands of work. Do not make a habit of working long days or weekends because the more that you do, the more that will be expected of you. Your staff does not care whether you work yourself to death; in fact, they will probably admire your dedication, but you will still be dead.

1 See “Police Turnover,” on pages 36–40 in this issue of the Police Chief.
2 See Gary J. Margolis and Noel C. March, “Branding Your Agency: Creating the Police Department’s Image,” The Police Chief 71 (April 2004): 25–34, (
3 See Robert J. Finan, “Fugitive Investigations,” The Police Chief 72 (August 2005): 22–25, (; and John F. Clark, “Wanted: An Effective Fugitive Task Force,” The Police Chief 72 (August 2005): 26–30, (
4 For a discussion of internal audits, see John Fuller, “Staff Inspection: A Strong Administrative Tool,” The Police Chief 71 (December 2004): 66–72, (


From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 9, September 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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