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Article

2024 | SUMMER

Behind the Badge

The Missteps That Can Topple a Police Chief’s Career

Billy Grogan

Article

2024 | SUMMER

Behind the Badge

The Missteps That Can Topple a Police Chief’s Career

Billy Grogan

The job of a police chief is more complicated and challenging today than ever. I can speak from experience, as I have served as a police chief for the last 15 years. During that time, the challenges of crime have grown, personnel issues seem to percolate frequently, and public pressure for police reform continues.

Most police chiefs expertly navigate these challenges daily. However, even the best police chiefs can make decisions or do things that can prematurely end their career in this noble profession.

What are those career killers?

 

  1. Failing to Support Staff

The success of a police department is fundamentally linked to its officers’ well-being, morale, and professional growth. Loyalty within the ranks is not a given; it is earned through consistent support and genuine concern for the officers’ welfare, both in their professional roles and personal lives. A police chief overlooking their staff’s needs and aspirations undermines their force’s foundation.

When officers feel unsupported, their commitment to the job may wane, and their performance can suffer. This is not merely about the individual officer but about the collective efficacy of the force. Officers who lack the proper support may be less willing to take initiative, less inclined to engage proactively with the community, and more susceptible to the stresses that come with the job. The ripple effects can be significant, leading to higher rates of absenteeism, increased turnover, and even ethical lapses that can tarnish the department’s reputation.

Professional development is another critical component. Officers need continuous training and opportunities to advance their skills to meet the changing demands of law enforcement. A chief who fails to champion and implement such developmental programs misses the opportunity to empower their staff and foster an environment of continuous improvement and innovation.

In essence, a police chief who fails to support their staff fails to invest in the department’s most valuable asset. This neglect can create a leadership crisis characterized by mistrust, poor morale, and diminished respect for the chief’s authority. To prevent this, a chief must actively engage with their officers, listen to their concerns, advocate for their development, and acknowledge their contributions, reinforcing a culture of mutual respect and collective responsibility for public safety.

 

  1. Ignoring the Elephant in the Department

Turning a blind eye to significant yet uncomfortable issues within a police department is akin to letting an elephant loose in the precinct—it’s destructive and impossible to ignore indefinitely. Problems like corruption, misconduct, discrimination, or entrenched outdated practices can corrode the very pillars of justice and public service that a police department is meant to uphold.

Failure to address such issues does not make them disappear; instead, it allows them to grow, further entrenching them into the department’s culture, which can result in systemic failures and a loss of public trust.

A police chief’s role is not just administrative but also moral. It requires the courage to tackle difficult conversations head-on and the commitment to pursue transparency and accountability, even when it may provoke resistance within the ranks or expose uncomfortable truths. By confronting these issues, a chief demonstrates leadership that prioritizes ethical conduct and upholds the department’s duty to the community it serves.

Confronting the ‘elephant’ means more than just acknowledging its presence. It involves systematically investigating the root causes, engaging in open dialogue with officers and the community, and implementing effective solutions. This could include re-evaluating hiring practices, enhancing training programs, establishing clearer lines of accountability, or seeking external audits and reviews.

The willingness to address and resolve these critical issues also sends a powerful message to the public and the police force: that the department is committed to evolution, integrity, and excellence in policing. A chief who can successfully navigate this difficult terrain helps to foster a culture of continuous improvement, reinforcing a department’s legitimacy and restoring confidence among the citizens it serves. This commitment to confronting and resolving deep-seated issues can transform a police department and elevate its standing in the eyes of the community and its officers.

 

  1. Mishandling Use of Force Incidents

Use of force incidents are among law enforcement’s most scrutinized actions and can potentially define a police chief’s tenure. When these incidents occur, the public’s focus intensively narrows on the chief’s response. Any perceived inadequacy or mishandling—be it through delayed action, opaque communication, or a seemingly superficial investigation—can rapidly erode the chief’s credibility and the community’s trust in the entire department.

A police chief’s approach to use of force incidents must be anchored in transparency, accountability, and an unwavering commitment to justice. It requires an immediate, coordinated response that balances the necessity of a thorough and impartial investigation with the public’s demand for timely information. Leaders must navigate the complex terrain of legal protocols, community expectations, and the public’s and officers’ emotional well-being.

A poorly managed response casts a long shadow on the chief’s leadership and can also create a domino effect of negative consequences. It may lead to public unrest, diminish the morale of the police force, invite external investigations, and result in legal repercussions for the department and the municipality it represents. In the digital age, where every action is amplified and dissected in the court of public opinion, a single misstep can become a national conversation, impacting the narrative around policing practices and the community’s sense of safety and justice.

To mitigate these risks, a chief must ensure robust policies are in place for use of force incidents, including clear procedures for immediate reporting, evidence preservation, and initiating an impartial investigation. Additionally, fostering a culture of restraint and de-escalation within the department is crucial. Training officers in these techniques reduces the likelihood of such incidents and demonstrates the department’s proactive stance on responsible policing.

Ultimately, how a police chief manages use of force incidents can either affirm their leadership and the department’s integrity or call both into question. The implications extend beyond the immediate situation to influence the broader societal discourse on police conduct, civil rights, and the support of law enforcement.

 

  1. Engaging in Questionable Practices

A police chief is not only the face of law enforcement but also the embodiment of the department’s moral compass. Ethical integrity, therefore, is the cornerstone of effective police leadership. When a chief is implicated in questionable practices—be they legally dubious, ethically ambiguous, or outright illicit—the consequences can be catastrophic for the individual and the institution they represent.

Such practices might include but are not limited to, nepotism, the suppression of evidence, the manipulation of statistics to fabricate departmental successes or the misuse of department resources. These actions can erode the foundational trust between the community and the police. Once this trust is broken, the path to rebuilding it is long and arduous and, in some cases, impossible.

For a police chief, engaging in or condoning such behaviors can lead to many serious outcomes. Legally, there may be charges, convictions, or civil suits, which can lead to fines, imprisonment, or both. Professionally, the implications often include job loss, a tarnished reputation, and the end of a career in law enforcement. The consequences extend beyond the individual; they affect the morale of the officers, the department’s effectiveness, and the community’s well-being.

Moreover, in an age of rapid information dissemination, unethical practices are likely to be scrutinized by local stakeholders, the national public, and the media. The resultant publicity can negatively impact the police chief’s legacy and the public’s perception of the police department.

A police chief’s commitment to ethical conduct must be unwavering. It requires the continuous evaluation of department policies, a transparent and accountable leadership style, and an environment that encourages officers to speak out against wrongdoing without fear of retribution. By fostering a culture of integrity, a police chief sets the standard for their officers and ensures the department is fulfilling its duty to serve the community justly and honorably.

  1. Poor Personal Decision-Making

In the highly visible role of a police chief, the distinction between personal and professional life blurs significantly. Choices made outside the uniform can impact a chief’s career and the public’s trust in the police force. As leaders in law enforcement, police chiefs are expected to exemplify the highest standards of conduct, serving as both legal and moral compasses for their communities.

The fallout can be swift and severe when personal decision-making falls short of these expectations. This can range from engaging in ethically questionable behavior, such as conflicts of interest or inappropriate relationships, to actions that might be legal but ill-advised, such as publicly expressing partisan viewpoints or using social media to compromise the chief’s or the department’s image.

Such lapses in judgment can have serious ramifications. For example, personal decisions resulting in legal troubles can lead to a loss of credibility, making it difficult for a chief to effectively lead or command respect from the public and the department. Even if such actions do not result in legal consequences, they can still damage the community’s trust in their law enforcement leaders.

Furthermore, in today’s digital age, personal decisions can be broadcast and magnified through social media, rapidly eroding public confidence. This can manifest in public outcry and media censure and could ultimately compel city officials or governing bodies to take action if they feel the chief’s behavior compromises the integrity of the police department.

Thus, for police chiefs, maintaining personal integrity is just as crucial as professional conduct. They must always be aware of the potential for personal decisions to reflect upon the department and the community they serve. Therefore, they must make choices that stand up to legal scrutiny and moral examination. Maintaining such standards is fundamental to the leadership role and is essential for sustaining the department’s integrity and the community’s trust.

 

  1. Inadequate Oversight of the Department

A police chief’s effectiveness is significantly measured by their ability to oversee the full spectrum of departmental operations. This oversight is not merely a procedural requirement but a strategic imperative that involves regular evaluations of department functions, policies, and personnel. Without this vigilant oversight, a range of issues, from minor inefficiencies to grave misconduct, may go unnoticed and unaddressed, festering into much larger problems.

Effective departmental oversight includes establishing and enforcing clear policies, regular and thorough training to ensure those policies are understood and implemented, and a robust system of accountability to monitor adherence. It also involves actively managing resources, ensuring the department is well-equipped and strategically aligned to serve the public effectively. In departments lacking oversight, the consequences can manifest in various negative outcomes, such as unprofessional conduct going unchecked or resources being misallocated, leading to inadequate responses to crime and community needs.

Furthermore, inadequate oversight can significantly erode public trust in law enforcement. If a department appears unable or unwilling to police itself, confidence in its ability to police the community can diminish. Public perception is critical in law enforcement, and a chief’s failure to maintain oversight can swiftly translate into a public relations crisis, eroding the foundational trust necessary for effective policing and community partnerships.

Additionally, a lack of oversight can precipitate organizational dysfunction, as the absence of clear and enforced standards can lead to an environment where indiscipline and inefficiency thrive. In the worst cases, this dysfunction can contribute to systemic abuses and civil liberties violations, potentially incurring community outrage and legal actions against the department.

In essence, a police chief must possess the foresight to implement comprehensive oversight mechanisms and the resolve to act when these mechanisms reveal issues. By doing so, a chief ensures the department operates with integrity, accountability, and a commitment to continual improvement, which are essential for maintaining public trust and organizational effectiveness.

 

  1. Disregarding Community Concerns

Community engagement is at the forefront of contemporary policing strategies. Police chiefs who overlook or minimize their communities’ concerns risk severing the essential connection that facilitates effective policing and public safety. When the community feels unheard, the consequences can be far-reaching, deteriorating the very fabric of trust that supports law enforcement efforts.

Effective community engagement involves active listening and constructive dialogue. It requires a department to hear and thoughtfully respond to the public’s worries, whether related to crime rates, officer conduct, or broader social justice issues. This two-way communication should be considered an opportunity for continual improvement rather than a challenge to authority.

Neglect in this vital area can lead to widespread feelings of disenfranchisement among community members, who may then perceive the police not as protectors but as oppressors. This dynamic can create an adversarial environment marked by protests, resistance to police initiatives, and difficulty in solving crimes due to a lack of cooperation from the public.

In addition to fostering distrust, failing to address community concerns can also escalate to political repercussions, potentially culminating in a chief’s forced resignation or dismissal. Public officials, who are accountable to their constituents, may find no other recourse but to change leadership within the police force to realign with community expectations.

For these reasons, a police chief must actively and consistently engage with the community, incorporating their feedback into policing strategies and reforms. This engagement represents a commitment to service that resonates with the public’s need for safety and justice, ensuring that the department’s actions are in harmony with the community’s values and needs. A chief that embraces this approach not only strengthens the relationship between the police and the public but also solidifies the foundation for a resilient and cooperative environment conducive to public safety and mutual respect.

 

  1. Neglecting Elected Officials Priorities

A police chief operates within a complex web of relationships that includes not only the community and the police department but also the political sphere. Elected officials often represent the community’s voice, setting priorities that reflect the electorate’s concerns and legislative agenda. When a police chief disregards these priorities, it can lead to a misalignment between law enforcement strategies and the community’s expectations as articulated through their political representatives.

This misalignment can manifest in several detrimental ways. It might result in the police department pursuing goals that are at odds with community needs or missing out on funding opportunities and resources tied to elected officials’ initiatives. Furthermore, ignoring these priorities can create a rift between the police department and local government, potentially leading to a lack of support for the police from these crucial stakeholders.

Effective police chiefs understand that engaging with elected officials and integrating their priorities into police operations is not about politics but collaborative governance. This requires regular communication, negotiation, and a willingness to adapt law enforcement tactics to the broader objectives of community development, social justice, and public welfare. By doing so, a chief can ensure that the police department’s goals are in concert with the community’s aspirations, thereby strengthening the department’s legitimacy and efficacy.

In conclusion, a police chief who overlooks the priorities set by elected officials may find their position untenable and their career at risk, as it signals a failure to synchronize law enforcement leadership with the democratic will and the policy directions that shape modern community policing.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the role of a police chief is multifaceted and complex, demanding not only strategic policing skills but also high moral and ethical standards. The eight points discussed above — failing to support staff, ignoring the elephant in the department, mishandling use of force incidents, engaging in questionable practices, poor personal decision-making, inadequate oversight of the department, and disregarding community concerns — highlight key areas where police chiefs must exhibit exemplary leadership to maintain their position and the trust of their communities.

This list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, but it can serve as a conversation starter to further open the dialogue on this topic.  

Effective leadership in law enforcement requires a delicate balance between firm decision-making and sensitive community engagement. Chiefs must foster an environment of trust and respect within their departments, ensuring their officers are well-supported and held to high standards. They must confront internal issues decisively, manage use-of-force incidents with transparency and accountability, and avoid any actions that could lead to ethical breaches.

The personal conduct of a police chief, both in and out of uniform, is under constant scrutiny and plays a crucial role in setting the tone for the department’s culture and public perception.

Similarly, maintaining rigorous oversight of department operations is essential to preventing inefficiencies and misconduct and ensuring that the department’s actions align with legal standards and community expectations.

Finally, actively engaging with and responding to community concerns is not just the duty of the police chief but a cornerstone of modern policing. Through this engagement, police departments can build strong, collaborative relationships with their communities, enhancing public safety and trust.

Overall, these eight points serve as critical reminders that the position of a police chief is one of immense responsibility and influence. To excel in this role, chiefs must be adept at navigating the complex interplay of internal department dynamics, community relations, and the ever-evolving challenges of law enforcement.

Billy Grogan

Chief Billy Grogan

Chief Billy Grogan has over 42 years of law enforcement experience and has served the last 13 years as the Chief of Police with the Dunwoody Police Department. Previously, Chief Grogan served as Deputy Chief for the Marietta Police Department. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Georgia Command College, and the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE). He holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Columbus State University.