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New Ideas for Solving the Police Chief Recruitment Crisis

Phil Coleman is a retired chief of police for the City of Davis and can be reached at pkcoleman@comcast.net.

In the 1980s and ’90s, a California police chief vacancy would attract at least 60 to 80 applicants. Larger and more politically stable communities could anticipate twice that number, and vacancies for police chief were relatively rare (about one a month on average).

Today, there are typically four to five vacancies monthly, according to recent California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) statistics. This past year alone, an unprecedented 68 cities have hired new police chiefs. Another 18 cities have interim chiefs serving until full-time replacements can be found.

Fremont Police Chief Craig Steckler finds this trend disturbing. He notes, "There has been a steady rise in turnover rates and a decline in police chief tenure since 2000," when he began compiling these numbers for the CPCA.

"Responses to police chief recruitments are less than half what I would expect in past years," says Gary Brown, a former police chief in four California cities. For the past 20 years, Brown has specialized in police chief recruitment.

Retired Police Chief Lucy Carlton of Los Altos points out that her Baby Boomer employees are disappearing and being succeeded by members of Generation X. Statistically, there are significantly fewer of these new workers than there were in the Baby Boomer generation.

Where’s the Beef?

These numbers don’t lie. Police chiefs are now retiring sooner and in greater numbers, thanks to increasingly generous retirement plans. The chief’s senior aides follow them out the door for the same reason. Insiders say contentious employee unions and the seemingly endless allega tions of discrimination have made the job of managing police personnel more confrontational than collaborative.

The police managers who remain are less inclined to "step up." Attorney Marty Mayer has defended California police chiefs in hundreds of personnel litiga tions. He says chiefs are handy scapegoats for many internal and external issues in their communities for which they have no control or responsibility. Mayer counsels younger police managers to not even apply for chief because the odds for survival until retirement age are against them.

The Consequences of a Shrinking Supply

As a result, incumbent police chiefs com plain that they cannot get their best-qualified managers to consider a chief’s position. These subordinates say they already have a comfortable salary and pension and have no desire to endure the stress they witness their boss experiencing every day.

As an executive recruiter, Brown has the same frustration. In the past, he seldom considered out-of-state candidates. Their unfamiliarity with California law and administrative training requirements made them expendable. Today, however, many police chief positions are filled by candidates from other states. The City of Davis recently selected an outside chief for the first time in its history. Of the modest number of 41 applicants, more than half (23) were from outside California.

Retired and incumbent chiefs with longstanding experience say that the job has become much tougher in the past decade. Being a successful police chief comes from having many years of management experience, knowing how to juggle political footballs, and skillfully assessing and ranking organizational priorities.

Turnstile police leadership also creates unrest and anxiety within the police ranks. Young and less experienced police managers, thrust into these more demanding roles after being chosen by default, seem predestined to drive up the high police chief turnover rate in California.

What’s the Answer?

Retired Arroyo Grande Police Chief Rick TerBorch has been teaching "The Role of the Chief" courses in California for the past several years. He cautions that chiefs must stop openly bashing their job during moments of frustration. "Remember, your Number Two is listening," he says.

According to TerBorch, police chiefs must do a better job of grooming their successor. Senior subordinates should be challenged using responsible delegation and also sent to all the executive development training that is available.

"This is a great job, and I enjoy the challenges and changing issues. This is a job where you can have fun," says Chief Steckler. He also laments those chiefs who complain.

Bob McDonell, Newport Beach chief of police, faults the current California pension law under which retirement benefits are maximized at age 50. He pleads for legislative changes, noting that a substantial number of police chiefs in the prime of their careers feel compelled to retire. "Retiring at age 50 makes sense for the line officers and supervisors in the field because of the greater physical demands placed on them. But it makes no sense for police chiefs," he observes.

Two years ago, McDonell spearheaded a legislative effort to amend these laws to allow cities the discretion to extend PERS retirement benefits for police chiefs for up to five additional years. But the political timing was bad due to some highly publicized pension abuses that were unrelated to this idea. McDonell urges that this legislative proposal be renewed.

Some assurance of job tenure is afforded police chiefs in the form of employment contracts and agreements. A recent survey by the CPCA disclosed that a somewhat surprising 25 percent of incumbent police chiefs have such protection. Generally, only established and politically secure chiefs are able to negotiate employment agreements. Were initial police chief recruitment efforts to include a provision that an employment agreement is part of the benefits package, more experienced and qualified candidates would undoubtedly apply and in greater numbers.

Looking Out for Our Communities

Among the department head positions within municipalities, the role of police chief boasts the most volatility, the least tenure and the greatest difficulty recruiting qualified candidates. Successful police chiefs must possess the wisdom, vision and courage to make bold and innovative decisions to maximize public safety. California communities deserve the best police leadership available. It is imperative that we do a better job of recruiting senior police managers who have the essential skills required for the demanding job of a California city police chief.