How to Find the Right Interim Police Chief, Especially in a Crisis

The critical appointment of an interim chief in a city rocked by a high-profile investigation [PM Magazine, May 2020]

By Norton N. Bonaparte Jr., ICMA-CM and Richard W. Myers | May 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

As any mayor or city manager knows, filling the office of police chief is one of the most critical appointments they will make. Such decisions must be made with due deliberation, gathering the input from the community, the governing body, and experts in the field of policing.

When the announcement of a chief’s retirement or other rapid or unexpected separation occurs, the appointing authority needs to avoid the pressure to rush into a permanent replacement. The only exception may be when a well-prepared successor is poised and ready, and the organization would benefit from continuity more than a thorough search. More often, the appointing authority wants to use this opportunity to evaluate the culture of the police organization and identify the ideal qualities of a new leader, and then conduct the necessary process to find that leader. It is in these times that an interim police chief is the most likely immediate outcome.

Interim chiefs may be either internal or external; there are pros and cons for both models.

Internal Interim Chiefs

Pros:

• They know the organization—its history, challenges, and successes.

• They know and may already have the trust of the command staff and employees.

• They may be a known commodity to the governing body and city administration.

Cons:

• If they are going to compete for the permanent position, being an interim often puts them in a tenuous position, having to choose between “making no waves” and “doing the right thing.” It is best to not have an interim who is also an internal candidate.

• If the organization is in chaos, or is lacking in community trust, rarely does an internal interim bring the “fresh look” that the community demands…or at least the community may perceive it that way.

• An absence of experienced, mature, and stable candidates for interim chief.

• Some agencies experience a division of loyalties if there is more than one internal candidate and one is the interim, resulting in internal strife and morale issues.

External Interim Chiefs

Pros:

• Hiring authority can select a mature, experienced leader to keep the ship afloat during the search process.

• An external interim provides a good cushion between the last chief and the next chief, allowing for the next chief to “start fresh” and out from under the shadow of the last.

• Depending on issues ongoing in the agency, an external interim with specific focus or experience can stabilize the organization prior to the selection of a new chief.

• There are multiple sources to turn to for sourcing potential external interims.

Cons:

• Just as any external appointment, an external interim will likely have little knowledge of the community, agency, and the challenges and concerns.

• The limited term nature of an external interim may create hurdles to leap to foster increased trust and partnerships both internally and in the community.

• If the external is from a distance away, the city may have additional expenses like travel and housing.

• The hiring authority will have to conduct an abbreviated search process to identify the best fit, which some may criticize as duplicative to the permanent search. (Note: Given the average tenure of police chiefs in the United States as between 3.5 and five years, the term “permanent” is inaccurate but used to describe regular appointments as police chief.)

Having weighed the pros and cons, a hiring authority decides their police organization would benefit most from bringing in an external interim chief. So, how do they do it and what are the most important qualities to seek? The co-authors in this article represent both sides of this equation: a hiring authority in need of an external interim, and a veteran police chief ultimately selected to take on a challenging interim position.

After the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, the city’s police chief became the target of a great deal of criticism for the department not arresting George Zimmerman. While it was an ongoing criminal investigation, many residents viewed the chief and the Sanford police department as incompetent. Members of the media and the much of the public expressed sentiments that the department had “botched” the investigation when in fact the public had no information about how the police were conducting the investigation.

During a Sanford city commission meeting, one of the commissioners moved that they take a vote of no confidence in the police chief due to the negative media attention that was being brought to the city. The mayor made the point that the police chief works for the city manager and not the city commission. Another commissioner seconded the motion. After some discussion, the commission took the vote: three in favor and two opposed to the motion. In doing this, the city’s elected officials had publicly stated that they did not have confidence in their police chief.

The following day the police chief announced that he would temporarily step aside as chief of the department. The city manager then named a captain as the acting chief. However, given the continuing public criticism of the police department, the city manager decided it would be best to bring in an outsider to serve as interim police chief. He contacted Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), for suggestions on seasoned and respected police chiefs who would be good candidates. After interviewing a number of individuals, a decision was made to offer the position to former Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers.

Even experienced police chiefs may not be the “right fit” for interim positions. The nature of being a police chief in the United States today requires a level of self-confidence, assertiveness, and vision that results in leadership that is most often focused on taking the organization in a specific direction. Chiefs of police usually introduce change, initiate programs, make promotions, and hire new personnel. Chiefs hold ideas about how agencies should evolve; in short, chiefs own the mission of growing healthy organizational cultures based on values and provide the vision for all employees to know where the department is going.

Interim chiefs, on the other hand, must not focus on their personal ideas and strategies, nor use their vision for long-term planning. The interim’s job is very narrow: keep the wheels turning in the right direction, deal with any immediate crises, and stabilize the otherwise unstable. Interim chiefs must be ever mindful that the next chief will no doubt chart a course for the organization that will impact on the employees as they learn and adjust. An interim that begins that process prior to the selection of a new chief risks overwhelming employees with a violent pendulum swing. The interim police chief must be the bridge from the old to the new, not a winding highway to an unknown place.

Some of the most successful and high-profile police chiefs today simply could not leave their portfolio of programs and ideas at the doorstep of an interim chief’s office. This puts an additional burden on the hiring authority to seek not only the expertise needed for the interim, but also the right mindset and insight into the nature of the job.

With 27 years as a police chief at the time of appointment as the interim in Sanford, Chief Richard Myers considered the following as the most critical aspects of this limited term job:

• Take the pressure off a beleaguered workforce and be the public face of the Sanford Police Department in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin homicide controversy.

• Provide calm, professional leadership over day-to-day operations by frequent interaction with command staff and mentoring them in traditionally effective management practices.

• Address major crises head on while avoiding making changes in day-to-day operational strategies and tactics unrelated to the crises.

• Focus on the external relationships, identify sources of disconnect with the community, and begin the arduous bridge building that was obviously needed.

As the originally forecast of three to five months on the job evolved into a much longer time period, two additional tasks became part of the interim chief’s focus:

• Conduct a thorough internal audit of the organization and provide both the city manager and the incoming “permanent” chief with a document that identifies challenges and needs and offers several potential paths forward.

• Assist the city manager in his recruitment and selection of a new chief.

After serving an 11-month term as interim chief in Sanford, Chief Myers quietly stepped aside in contrast to the high profile beginning of his appointment. It was time for the focus to fall on the newly appointed police chief. It is important for interim chiefs to not only provide a solid foundation for the new chief to build on, but to eschew the spotlight as the organization grows and progresses. When the office keys are turned over, with them goes the stress of the job but also any credit that may arise from an improved agency.

Over his tenure as interim chief, Chief Myers provided stability to the Sanford Police Department. He gained the trust and support of the men and women of the department and was able to establish effective relationships with the elected officials and community leaders.

The city manager valued his assessment of the department and his bringing new eyes into its operations. After the new chief was selected, Chief Myers was instrumental in helping with the transition. Choosing to have an external interim police chief proved to be the right move for Sanford, given the circumstances and the extreme high profile that was facing the department.

 

NORTON N. BONAPARTE JR., ICMA-CM, is city manager, Sanford, Florida. He is the past president of both the New Jersey Municipal Management Association and the Maryland City/County Management Association and was a board member of the Florida City and County Management Association and the Kansas Association of City/County Management. 
(nbonaparte@sanfordfl.gov)

 

 


RICHARD W. MYERS is a retired police chief, having served over 40 years in policing. A Life Member of IACP, he is a former executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the former Chair/President of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, and currently consults through his LLC, RWM Limited. (richardwmyers@gmail.com)

 

 

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