The relationship between a police chief and a city/county/town manager is a pivotal and intricate partnership at the heart of any well-functioning municipal administration. It serves as the cornerstone of effective law enforcement, community safety, and the overall governance of a community. This dynamic alliance between two key figures—one responsible for law enforcement and public safety, and the other overseeing day-to-day municipal operations—is essential in shaping the direction and priorities of a community.
In this conversation, we will delve into the significance of this relationship, highlighting how it impacts the delivery of public services, fosters community trust, and ultimately plays a critical role in the well-being and prosperity of a community’s residents. The synergy, trust, and regular communication between a police chief and a city/county/town manager is not merely administrative; rather, it provides for clear mission, purpose, and values for the broader workforce within the public safety agency and other associated operational and logistical functions of government.
Travis Parrish, director of client services and relations for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA®), sat down with four local government leaders to discuss topics that continue to top news headlines: community engagement and transparency.
Chief of Police
Brentwood, Tennessee Police Department
Chief of Police
Wyoming, Michigan Police Department
Retired City Manager
Former CALEA Commissioner
Travis Parrish: Public safety is clearly a critical component of a thriving community, but there are so many other departments under your oversight that play as vital a role in your cities. How do you balance a critical area like public safety with all of the other areas involved in leading a successful city?
Kirk Bednar: Yes, I oversee all departments, so my relationship with each of my department heads is critical. If you don’t have a good working relationship that’s based on mutual respect and trust with any of those department heads, it has the potential to really negatively impact the entire organization and certainly the leadership team. Now the difference with the police chief is that it’s obviously, as you imply, a much more public position, maybe more than a lot of other department heads might be. Most people know who Chief Richard Hickey is in Brentwood. They may not know who serves as water and sewer director or public works director. So, I think it is a little more important that the city manager and the police chief or fire chief in a public safety arena have a good working relationship, because if not, that can be much more visible. The police chief needs to be worrying about fighting crime, not fighting city hall.
I make a special effort not to play departments off each other and certainly make a special effort not to in any way give the impression that one is elevated above the other. In any given situation one department is going to be key to solving that issue better than another one. Overall, we all must be prepared day in and day out. The chief of police is one member of our department head leadership team. He doesn’t have special standing with me more than any others. For example, all of our emergency management training is coordinated through the fire department and Chief Hickey and his folks are participants in all those events, but they’re an equal participant with every other department. All our leadership department heads truly do work together as a team.
Curtis Holt: I always believe that communication is key, and Chief Koster and I had a very open line of communication. And because of that, we also had a high degree of trust. Now that doesn’t mean we agreed on everything and we didn’t. But I also was able to know when our chiefs were very passionate about things and Chief Koster is one of those that can be very passionate about the business needs and what’s going on in the community. I had to look at how to address those needs and work to support her in addressing those needs. Obviously, we discussed things, we talked about what the need was and why.
More important than anything is that we worked together. When we went in front of the council, we went as a team—a team that was trying to make our community better. It wasn’t me going behind her to council saying, “Hey, we don’t need to do this.” It wasn’t her going to councilmembers saying, “Hey, the city manager won’t do something.” If we disagreed on something, we worked on it until we found agreement. I guess I believe that if we don’t trust the people we work with, then we’ve got to find a different way to do our job. If I can’t trust my police chief, then I probably need a different police chief.
I always thought very highly of our police department and the work we did together. I always trusted our department heads. I trusted Chief Koster. I trusted that we were doing the best job for the city. We have spent a lot of time talking about the team and talking about how one part is no more important than the other. However, there are times when there are priorities depending on what’s going on and what the issues are.
Wyoming was unfortunate enough in my tenure to have two different tornado events that went through our city, and during each of those I was out of town. I did rush back, but when I got there, our police department was on the scene taking charge and implementing our established emergency management plan. After the second tornado, by the time I got back, public works was already on the ground, and they were already picking up trees and debris and helping people. We really focused on the fact that if our residents can’t depend upon the city to help them in the worst possible time, then what are we there for? What are we working for?
We talked a lot about community safety and stewardship, specifically during budgeting. Our priority is the safety of our people, the safety of our residents, our training, and then everything else comes after that. The department heads knew that when they came to me for budget, the highest priority items were going to be those things that ensured the safety of our officers. I made sure we addressed that first before we addressed other “nice to haves” and other latest and greatest technologies. That’s just the way we approached it. We approached everything as a team.
Parrish: As city manager, what do you see as the perfect model for public safety success in a community?
Holt: Well, I think the model that worked in Wyoming (and that Chief Koster and Deputy Chief Snyder really focused on) was a model of integrity. We were a police department that was focused on the integrity of our officers and integrity in how we interacted with the community. Looking back at our police department, I was very proud of the work we did, and it was appreciated by the community. We were out there trying to listen to people, understand their needs, maybe determine what caused them to get into the situation they were in, and work with them closely. As city manager, we talked about community safety and stewardship a lot in Wyoming and that is the expectation I had for our police department.
Bednar: For me, it starts with community trust. We can think we’re doing great things within the police department or fire department from a public safety perspective, but if the community doesn’t see that, doesn’t appreciate that, and doesn’t respect that, then obviously I don’t think we’ve been successful in our mission. Whatever we do has to build on the trust we already have and keep it moving forward. Beyond that, my role is to ensure that the chiefs can be successful by being their advocate. I don’t approve everything that he asks for, but I think the chief would agree the department is provided the funding to accomplish their mission in serving the community. But for me, being their advocate with the elected officials allows the chief and his officers to focus on the safety and well-being of the community and not the politics. I don’t necessarily have to be their advocate with the community because they’re well versed and better at doing that than I could ever be. In a city manager form of government, our elected officials are policymakers. They’re not involved in the day-to-day operation. So, in addition to being the police department’s advocate, sometimes I need to be a blocker or buffer to keep political things off the chief. That’s more easily done with other departments. The police department is community facing and it’s sometimes difficult to buffer when the department is in such a public position. But for me it’s making sure that they have the resources based on our available budget to do what they can do, and then let him do the job.
Parrish: Chiefs, from your perspective, what does a model of success look like for you as it relates to working with city leadership?
Koster: I was very fortunate to have the city manager that I’ve had. The model for success is based on mutual respect and really all about a trusting relationship. It’s truly about trust and mutual respect, honesty and integrity. When you have a relationship that’s built on those principles, established goals are more likely to be achievable. I understood the complexity of Curtis’s (my city manager’s) job. I understood that public safety was just one of his concerns, but I knew that it was my responsibility to communicate with him and make sure that he understood the priorities that I was facing or that I was trying to accomplish and how those fit into the overall goals of the city. He trusted that I saw the big picture and that I supported the overall mission of the city, and he could rely on me to communicate that to my staff and to our officers. As a result, we were able to meet the needs of the community and make sure that we were doing that in a way that was respectful and fair, and our community could truly trust those leading the city’s different departments. Curtis understood law enforcement. He made it a point to make sure that we knew he understood the challenges that we faced and that he supported our officers. That was critically important not only to our leadership team but to the officers on the street to know that he understood their challenges and the sacrifices that they were making.
Hickey: It must be about trust and there has to be a relationship. The time to build relationships is not during budget time. You better already have a relationship in place, and you better know your city manager and know that they are doing their best for your department and looking out for the entire city. It’s important to have a very open dialogue. I don’t think we pull many punches, and we talk very openly, which I think is healthy. I try not to surprise my city manager with anything, and I know he tries not to surprise me.
Parrish: You mentioned informing your officers and keeping your community informed. What are some strategies for communicating to your residents about the work that is happening on their behalf?
Koster: Well, you know, social media is at the forefront of everybody’s mind today. That’s how we’re able to get our messages out much better than previously. We can now tell our story. So, we do have a communications unit and we work really well with them to craft a message that’s consistent with the city’s message. Again, it’s a team approach like Curtis said, and everything that we put out on social media just highlights the good work that we do in the programs that we offer. In addition to social media, we are in the community. Our officers are getting out of their cars. They are attending neighborhood meetings, as well as some of the more traditional programs, like “shop with a cop” and “coffee with a cop,” where we can sit down with residents and talk to them about some of their concerns. Community policing is something that we have done as an agency for the 25 years that I’ve been here, and we just get better and better at it, and being able to utilize social media just helps.
Holt: One of the things that I always emphasized to the police department when we talked about how we react to our community is that we lead by example. Our officers’ actions speak loudly about who we are as a city and what we do, and that includes other departments. I’m always amazed when you look at Wyoming social media and you see city staff on the job—whether it’s public works, the water department, police, or fire—how many people react and just say thank you, thank you for the work you do. That goes back to what Chief Koster said about community policing.
Parrish: Unrest between law enforcement and the community can raise questions and concerns, and some folks may stand up and challenge your police department or city officials. What actions can you take to address those issues in a collective manner, instilling public trust and confidence?
Holt: Whenever something like this happened, whether inside or outside of our community, we first addressed it with our staff and made sure they understood what was going on and what our feelings were. Many times, people reached out to members of our community who were leaders. We would immediately have a conversation with them about what the Wyoming Police Department was about, what our community meant to us, and how we operate differently. Just like when we talk about severe storms, critical incidents, or things that happen in our community, again, it was communication, trust, and integrity. It was putting our residents first.
One of the tornadoes that came through Wyoming also went through a neighboring community. That community took the approach of “well, you’ve got insurance, residents, you clean it up.” In our community, police and public works took the approach, “If we don’t deal with the issues that are happening now and support our residents, we’re going to be dealing with this for six months, a year, or three years.” So, when residents had issues, we helped to make contact with FEMA. Team Rubicon was there, and our public works officials worked in concert with them to make sure things got done. It costs us a little money to do it, and it costs us a little time having the police department on the front lines and talking to people and asking what their needs were. But in the end, we dealt with it for a couple months. We didn’t deal with it for three or four years and people felt great about the service they got from the city of Wyoming in their time of need.
Parrish: Staffing and budgets have always been an issue in public safety and presenting requests for more staff funding can be a challenge. So as a city manager, can you discuss common challenges?
Holt: We did several staffing studies through ICMA. We really looked at our staffing in terms of active time versus downtime. We didn’t use the national averages of two officers per thousand residents or whatever those averages are out there—perhaps 2.4—because we didn’t really feel that was representative of what our officers were doing. Wyoming’s police department had struggled with staffing and finances for a long time. Probably one of the biggest things was trying to keep enough money in the budget to fund our police department and find that little extra help when we needed it. What we found as we started to ask the council about more officers is that our officers were above that peak for reactionary versus community policing style patrols. In other words, our officers are going from call to call on a regular basis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that when your officers are doing that, your interactions with the community are probably negative because the engagements are mostly enforcement. So, we knew we had to get back to a position where our officers had time to interact with the community. We came up with what the number was and how that would affect our shift schedule. As city manager, I did a weekly report for the council, and I would send them call data and resource data and what we were able to do or not able to do.
Koster: From my perspective as chief, it became clear we were just going from call to call and were not able to get out of the car and talk to the business owners or engage in many community policing programs. We needed to talk about some of the proactive activities that were suffering as a result of the call-to-call activity. It was really a lot about outcomes. Curtis (Holt) would always want to know, If we add officers, what is the tangible outcome going to be? If you’re talking about community policing, you have to be able to show what that team is going to do and how they’re going to build relationships. So that was also a critical part of talking to the council, letting them know that we want to be present in the schools, have officers creating relationships with the kids and having cruisers outside of the school, patrol officers having time to visit the schools in their districts and things like that, that’s important to parents. Those are the things that we had to talk about that we would not be able to do if we had to start taking officers off other assignments and putting them into reactive policing. If you’re reactive and only reactive, you’re going to need more personnel. You’re not going to be preventing crime, you’re not going to be able to solve crime. I’m a firm believer that preventing crime means solving crime. You have to have enough detectives to work cases to solve them and take some of the people that are perpetrating crimes off the street. One example is computer crimes involving crimes against children. We have this huge caseload, and we were able to show that if we could one more detective, we would be able to make a difference.
Bednar: I think another, maybe even bigger, challenge for a city manager and ultimately for the chief is when the city manager, for whatever reason, perceives that the community is not satisfied with how the police department’s being operated. So, if the chief and the manager can’t get along, can’t communicate, can’t see each other’s perspective, and work their way through that, it’s likely a recipe for disaster and infects the entire organization.
Hickey: I agree. A new chief coming in from the outside or a new city manager coming from the outside can really create a difficult dynamic. Having a common vision for what we think policing should be like throughout Brentwood is critical. We know we have a good idea of what the community in Brentwood wants out of its police department, not only because we have been here a long time, but because we ask. We ask our officers. We ask residents. We discuss with other department heads. Knowing where you’re going to be at the end of the day is really important.
Parrish: Chiefs, from your perspective, what advice would you give to other public safety leaders who may be looking at taking CALEA accreditation to their county administrator or city administrator?
Koster: I think if you are a progressive department that wants to have a good relationship with the community and you want your officers to have the resources they need to succeed, it’s critical. I mean, today an officer on the street has a lot of challenges and is concerned about their safety, but is also concerned about liability. When an officer knows best practice policies and training are in place, they are going in as prepared as they can be. If you want to ensure their safety and make them feel safer, accreditation is the management tool to accomplish that. Our officers know that should they get into a situation where they’re being questioned, whether it’s in court or by the public, we’re going to be able to back them up with the fact that there is a policy in place and that they were acting in accordance with that policy and training. We have documentation. They’ve been trained. We’re going to be able to show that their actions were in compliance. We’re going to be able to prove that we investigated a complaint or that we thoroughly followed our investigative policies through internal affairs. And I can tell you that it makes all the difference in the world when they know that they have backing, not only of the city administration, but that of CALEA. They know we are going to be able to stand on the principles that we’ve been able to maintain through accreditation.
Hickey: It all goes back to community trust. Again, we are not successful unless the community trusts us as a department to do what’s right. And to me that trust is founded on fair and consistent application of the law. The way you do that as a law enforcement agency is to have high standards, you train to them, and you apply them, and that’s what CALEA accreditation provides to us. Accreditation allows us to make sure we are operating under the gold standard, that we are aware of current trends, and operating under national standards that force us to change if necessary and train appropriately. With a commitment to those standards, holding ourselves accountable, I think the department then operates in a clear, consistent, professional manner, which then leads to a community that trusts the department because they see how we operate.
CALEA is the long-term investment. If you want standards and practices that have been proven over time to be the best way to do policing, then you invest in accreditation. That’s what it means to me; I know we’ve got a long-term plan. We are not reacting to whatever trendy thing happens today; we’re looking at the best practices from around the world and figuring out the best way to do the job. Accreditation goes back to accountability. We make sure that we are policing the way our community deserves. The fact that we have standards that we’re holding people to and that we do things a certain way, a proven way, is really important to our officers and the community. Accreditation is all about transparency. It’s about making sure that we’re using the best practices from around the world. We would be incredibly arrogant and sticking our head in the sand if we thought that the Brentwood Police Department already had every experience there is to have in policing. I know that there are agencies somewhere in America today or somewhere around the world who are doing things we’ve never done before. We’re going to hopefully learn about such things before they ever become a problem in Brentwood and we’re going to have a leg up on the best way, and the worst way, to handle them.
Parrish: What does public safety accreditation mean to you and to the community you serve?
Bednar: I think it’s vital for us. We take great pride in knowing our police department is the longest continuously accredited agency in the state of Tennessee, and our fire department also became accredited about 10 years ago through a separate organization. Brentwood is a suburban, affluent community with a population that’s more of a professional workforce. Our residents have high expectations for how we operate as a department. Having that CALEA seal on our vehicles shows that we live up to the highest public safety standards not only in the United States, but outside the United States as well. We are saying to our officers and to the community they protect that we are willing to hold ourselves accountable to being at the cutting edge of practices and policies.
I think it helps us in a couple of ways. In recent years, social justice protests took place throughout the country. We didn’t have a lot here in our community, but certainly others close to us did. At the time, when there was discussion about laws changing, about policies and prohibitions, all we had to do was show our policies and say, We’ve had this in place for years because we’re a CALEA-accredited agency. Transparency is critical and we have that. From that standpoint, the ability to easily open the books and say, Here are our data and policies, made it easy for us to answer those calls for change. Of course, we are always looking for ways to improve—that is another part of maintaining our accreditation—but for those issues that were in the headlines, we didn’t have to change. We just had to show what we were doing. We have to train our folks to those standards and policies and hold them accountable, but I think that said a lot and calmed whatever fears there may have been in our community about policing.
Koster: Well, I’m going to kind of go back in history a bit. I’ve had the privilege of working for an agency pre-CALEA, move through the CALEA accreditation process, and now serve as a chief of police for a CALEA-accredited agency. I’ve worked for 28 years with the city of Wyoming, and we’ve been accredited for the last 12. So, for a good portion of my career, we were not accredited.
It really is a credit to our former chief, Chief Carmody, who came in and really utilized CALEA as a way to set the bar for where he wanted our performance to be. He wanted us to be a professional agency that people could trust and build on the relationships we had within the community already. We were a good agency, but I can tell you the entire process really changed the culture of our organization. The focus became continuous improvement. It was ensuring that we were establishing best-in-practice policies and directives in writing, so our officers knew what they were supposed to do and what the expectations were in all situations. Equally important was the transparency this brought to everything about our organization, further improving the relationship with the community. And it’s not something that is only seen at the administrative level. At the time, I was a sergeant and I could see the improvement of our agency and how we became so much better at what we were doing. The accreditation process puts a greater focus on analysis, reporting, and statistics, which allowed for data-driven change. As a chief, this information is critical to my decision making as it relates to policy change, budgeting, staffing, equipment, and so much more.
Holt: CALEA is the foundation for professionalism in policing. Not only are we adhering to the highest standards in law enforcement, but we are also able to make changes based on best practices from around the world through the sharing network within CALEA-accredited agencies. As society changes, we’re able to react to that very quickly and adjust those policies when needed. From my perspective as a city manager, I looked at it as a blueprint for building a foundation for an agency that is going to be trustworthy and accountable.
Koster: Being an accredited agency does not mean bad things can’t happen, but they are less likely to happen, and if they do, we can quickly and easily recover and we retain the trust of the community. When social unrest was everywhere in the headlines, and communities were asking difficult questions, we already had the answers. We have the data. We have the policies in place. We were already doing things that other communities were having to explain why they weren’t doing. Accreditation is a tangible way we can tell our community that we abide by best practices, we’re constantly seeking to improve, and we’re looking around to see what other agencies are doing.
Hickey: Recruitment and retention across the nation are a huge challenge for law enforcement executives. Being a CALEA-accredited agency gives us an advantage over other agencies who are not accredited. Our officers want to stay with an accredited agency and others want to join an accredited department. The type of officers that we’re trying to attract appreciate the fact that as an accredited agency we are going to be professionally managed, have clear policies and directives, and a structured advancement process. To me it’s validation that we’re ready and willing to be the very best and ensuring that we operate our police department under the highest standards.
Holt: Every government organization I know has their finances audited every year, and they don’t do that because they’re looking for mistakes. They do that to make sure the message they’re conveying about their finances is correct. They’re conveying the same messages that an outside auditor would see, so why wouldn’t we want to do that with other organizations in the city? It began with the police department, and we now have a few other agencies in the town that are accredited through their respective accrediting body as well.
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