Picking a New Police Chief: Design the Process a New Mayor Should Follow

Posted: May 14, 2013 in Police, Police reform
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

How would you set up the the process to pick a new chief of police for a mid-sized city?

Amidst a corruption scandal, Pittsburgh’s police chief resigned this Spring.  (He has announced he’ll plead guilty to the charges against him.)  This happened with an election for mayor already underway; a short time later, the heavily-favored incumbent dropped out of the race and announced that he would leave the choice of a new chief to his successor.  In a post on March 6 (here), I spelled out what my criteria would be for a picking a new chief.  These included unquestioned integrity, experience as a chief or deputy chief in a police department not less than half the size of Pittsburgh, and a commitment to diversity of all kinds in the ranks.  I said that no excellent candidate, whether an insider or an outsider, should be ignored, and that the process of selection the new chief would be critical, given the circumstances of the chief’s resignation.

Imagine that you have the ear of the new mayor-to-be.  (Which candidate this is will be largely determined in the Democratic Party primary, one week from today; whoever wins the primary is overwhelmingly likely to win the general election in November.) What would be your advice on how the process of selecting the new chief should work?  I can think of a number of possibilities, including:

1) Put together a small group of experts — present and former chiefs of police, law enforcement experts, etc. — to give private, candid advice to the mayor-to-be, regarding what to look for in a successful chief.

2) Create a citizens advisory board to advise the mayor on this important choice.

3) Hold a town hall meeting or two to gather a large and wide swath of public comments on the choice.

4) Conduct focus groups, each with members drawn from all of the important stakeholder groups: citizens, rank and file officers, police union officials, the faith community, the business community, neighborhood advocates, etc., to ascertain what kind of person, with what kind of qualities, the mayor should look for.

What are your ideas?  Have you been through this process before, in any role?  I would very much like to hear from anyone and everyone with thoughts on this.  The choice is coming for Pittsburgh, and it’s going to be crucial.

Thanks for your help.

  1. […] one of the posts I wrote about these events, I asked what process a new mayor should follow in searching for a new […]

  2. Geoff Gruson says:

    David – I would use the Canadian competency-based framework for leadership as the basis for assessing the candidates; and expect that the new chief would qualify at level 5 proficiency on 14 critical competencies identified for executive command-level leaders – for more info contact ggruson@policecouncil.ca

  3. michael says:

    I think cities with populations of over 300,000 should have a standing, independent advisory police commission with the power to investigate. Its primary role would be to request, collect and receive information, deliberate and report and make recommendations.

    The standing commission would consist of 12 persons serving 3 / 5 year periods and made up of retired law enforcement, law professor(s), retired judges (trial and/or appellate), practicing criminal attorneys, public defender and prosecutor, and a member from the Governor’s office, city council designees and citizens. The mayor would have a seat at the 13th chair.

    The Commission would meet twice a year with additional sessions as needed. It should be given a budget by city council to fund an investigative staff, as needed. The committee itself would serve pro bono, for the good of the community. The committee chair would be responsible for administrative activities but would not have any superior authority above any other member.
    The committee would not meet in public but its recommendations to the mayor or to the city council body would be public.

    The commission’s investigative power to subpoena could be put under supervision of the chief U.S. District Judge or designee.

    I was a law student in Los Angeles during the Rodney King trial, ensuing riots and the Christopher Commission report. That commission you will remember arose out concern that the Los Angeles police force was a subculture of excessive use of force hiding behind the thin blue line culture. The Christopher Commission was a one-off investigation that was well done and resulted in a report that I believe continues to have value as a guide to large urban police forces.

    The Pittsburgh incident is familiar to Pennsylvania publiticos: in Harrisburg during Bob Casey, Sr.’s administration it was called “Walking Around Money.”

    The civil rights section of the Justice Department should be in a position to lend a guiding hand if requested in assembling an independent, advisory policy commission/committee.

  4. Craig Brannagan says:

    Among the choices you’ve presented, in my view Option #4 seems to be the most reasonable.

    The role of Police Chief is a highly political and politicized one, and any chief who is going to do the job right — particularly one stepping into the situation that Pittsburgh’s chief-to-be appears to be stepping into — will have to be experienced not only in policing (operationally and administratively), but also in the art of communication. Whomever the choice, that person will necessarily have to deal with each of the distinct groups that you’ve mentioned; at the same time, however, the new chief cannot be seen to be beholden to any single one of these groups.

    My personal view of policing in Canada (specifically in the Province of Ontario) and the selection of municipal police chiefs and provincial police commissioners would reflect the fact that politicians, generally, tend to pander to public calls for greater accountability and transparency in policing by selecting police administrators who promise to drop the proverbial hammer on front line police officers, often to the detriment of the relationships that must, of practical necessity, exist between the police service and police unions and the front-line officers who are out there doing their jobs and engaging the public every day.

    As a police association lawyer, I am often privy to behind-the-scene conversations that take place at the highest levels of police unions, as well as knowledgeable of the opinions that rank-and-file hold (usually my clients), in relation to the approaches that police services take towards them. I would say that, based on my own anecdotal experiences, police unions and their members are not naive to the importance of accountability in policing, but this accountability should not, in my respectful view, be implemented at the expense of significantly straining or irreparably damaging the fundamental relationships that must thrive for community policing to achieve its maximal effectiveness.

    • Craig: Very interesting insights. From your particular position, you have a point of view that is rare. Whatever process is put in place, I would advocate for including the police unions in the process. Without having them at the table, I believe the process would not work well.

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