What’s the Best Way to Choose a Police Chief?

What’s the best way to hire a police chief or commissioner?

The answer in the real world is, whatever the mayor or selectmen say it is.

With the above maxim in mind, some notions to kick around.

One approach is this one, advocated by legendary Boston businessman Dave D’Alessandro, in a column today by the Boston Globe’s Larry Harmon.

“BOTH BOSTON mayoral candidates favor a transparent search process for a new police commissioner. But neither state Representative Martin Walsh nor City Councilor John Connolly boasts a lot of executive hiring experience. David D’Alessandro, the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, does, however. And he is convinced that an open search process for a big city police commissioner practically guarantees second-rate results.”

I would not presume to quibble with a CEO of D’Alessandro’s smarts and accomplishments except to offer the following.

1a. Is Paul  Evans second-rate?  Did anyone in Boston not believe Mayor Menino would choose Paul in 1994?  The process was generally confidential, but hardly secret.

1b.  Is Bill Bratton second-rate?  Did he do a second-rate job in NYC?  Everybody who cared to pay the slightest attention to the incoming Giuliani Administration in 1993 knew Bill was Mayor Giuliani’s choice.

2.  The police executive is normally the second most important job in any municipality.  I don’t believe we should elect chiefs, but one could easily make an argument in favor of such a method.  Democracy, in which the police service is a critically important institution, is rich with uncertainty.  We all remember Churchill’s chestnut: it’s the worst form of government imaginable except for all the others.

3.  The essence of police work is making consequential decisions with incomplete information.  Our patrol officers and supervisors make choices all day long that are the best bets they can make.  They can’t know the future, even if the future is five minutes hence.  They must rely on their values, training and experiences to make the best possible choices in complex situations.  There are risks of several varieties inherent in the requirement that one make choices.  Choices such as whether to take life or liberty; choices that will change the lives of all parties, including the officer(s), forever.  So why should we try to eliminate risk for the appointing authority and the persons who would be the police executive?  Deciding to put oneself forward for a new top job is risky.  It’s the moral equivalent of the judgements a patrol officer makes on whether or not to get involved in a given situation.  Risk is inherent in life.  As a CEO it was Dave D’Allesandro’s job to reduce financial risk and maximize financial gain for his stockholders.  His companies, however glorious, were not critical democratic institutions. They were private firms with narrow missions.  The police chief’s job is much more complex.  A plebiscite would be the wrong method. Hiring our top justice officer like we would a hitman is its radical opposite.

4.  Finally, police strategy and ethos varies by region in the US.  The difference is especially stark when we compare East Coast and West Coast, when we compare Boston and NYC with say, LA.  It is not obvious that success in one region automatically means success in another.  Not everyone is Bill Bratton.  The West Coast is much more technically-oriented.  The East is must more people-oriented.  In the East, historically, officers grew up in the communities in which they police.  In the West, people grew up in more rural and suburban areas and neither knew nor trusted the people with whom they policed.  When the  Secret Committee interviews their West Coast candidates, who is going to ask the West Coast people about the “Kill Ratios” in their departments?




About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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