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Whose Side Is The Chief On?

You worked on a project for the department and made a recommendation to the chief. You performed the research, it was beneficial and it was rejected! Now you find out an unnecessary project that was nothing but flash ‘n glitter was accepted. What gives here, Chief? Just what are the chief’s responsibilities, is it to keep the town council happy or look out for the troops? This is the balancing act between management and leadership. So, what is really going on here?


One of the problems that chiefs face is balancing between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. One thing I learned from my blue-haired sainted Irish mother was the difference between wants and needs. My childlike definitions are wants can wait until Christmas or birthdays (provision I was a good boy) and needs are something I need in my vocation or station in life. If it was for school or work around the home, fine. No whims and no whining, deal with it. In years past, your departmental budget was always spent to the penny. I recall being told if I had any remaining, it would send the message that I had over budgeted and next year I’d get less. I can recall stocking up on equipment late in the 4th quarter to zero out the budget. Now, times have changed; you are praised for having budgetary savings. Often times some surpluses are transferred for the red ink lines. There is no winning here especially in today’s perilous economic times. Your gaining support from the holders of the purse strings is getting harder. But, wants and needs set aside, there is one element to dance with, the “P word”.


If there ever were two things that should not be mixed it is politics and police work. However these two are a reality of life and have to co-exist. I have been on both sides of this debate. I have been the young commander who presented a project that was rejected and I have also been the chief that rejected well meaning projects. There are a few insights I must share from both sides. The biggest thing that grinds you up is to have a project rejected and later discover it is accepted with another’s prodding. Easily this could be a timing issue. The department did not have the money then, now grants are available or political climate is different. Yes, there are times it was rejected but now the political leaders can palate the improvement. Semi-auto transition is a great example. I heard that if the six-shooter was good enough for cops for a hundred years ago why do we need this new fangled autos? Later it was gleefully accepted. Timing is often everything.

What the staff and patrol never sees is the interaction between the chief and political powers. These relations are often times more tenuous than you will ever know. Is the chief’s contract up soon? How does the budget stand? Are there other capital spending projects already in line? Could the chief be waiting for the next election and maybe new council to run something through? One of the greatest ills of being chief is not being able to tell why you have to do some things and why some things are controlled by those who hold the purse strings. The waters of power are fueled by those who control its flow. The chief’s job looks like fun and you think it would be cool to be in charge, but there are days where it is the worse job in the world. Always, you try to look at this from a cop’s perspective and hope to never forget the good you can be doing for the officers.

Often, I will admit it is not the idea but the messenger. Was it tainted by some in-between staffer? Reality is that far too many projects are intercepted like a bad football pass. Someone will reword it and make it their idea rather than yours. Yes, sounds like promotional resume building here and often that is true. If you know that this is a political fight that you are not going to win, the holders of the budget will not fancy it no matter what you do. You have got to hold the fight for a more desperate day. What chiefs often do is say nothing except a rejection frown. You must give those some reasonable feedback other than no but often times there is no feedback. When I was younger I brought up some projects and several were shot down, a few did make it. The problem was there never was a formal methodology of training the youngsters on how to make a true presentation with budgetary support. This too is a part of leadership, teaching the young to become the department’s future.

Preparing future leaders

There is one budget concept that I have performed my entire tenure as a chief. This is not a demeaning or trivial term but I ‘push down the budget’. In other words, those operational commanders have input and vast control over their budgets. They have a responsibility to their sections or units. The more you can do this the higher learning curve for the future leaders; real budget experience under real conditions. If you have an officer overseeing forensics for instance, his or her budget input is critical for they know what the needs are. It goes back to the old maximum of those closest to the problem will know the answers. Again, the chief is the chief executive officer of the department (CEO) so the final responsibilities fall upon you. Here you are ‘growing people’ and creating those future leaders.

Often what occurs is the young commanders take ownership for their division and its productivity. They should be abreast of the technological and state of the art applications for the overall productivity. Additionally, they should know if these devices have applicability in their state. How they present the urgency and needs is often more important. Just running into the office saying that if we don’t get this now somebody is gonna’ get killed is overused and never works. Trying to couch this as a liability preventive is more sellable to the powers that be. If you can show that this new item will be a productivity producer you also have a key selling point. How it can assist you in working smarter and safer are elements you want to inject. Make sure you fully explain each of these points, just because it is new & improved or this is what the other departments have does not sell it to council. Keeping up with the neighbors is not a priority, they could have different circumstances. Avoid the “I want because”, remember you are selling them the concept of them taking to the voters that this decision was theirs to ensure public safety and having a more efficient police agency.


Now, where to get the money since funding streams are drying up. If it is not in this year’s operational budget, where is money coming from? First of all, most will say get a grant, they too are drying up and the days of money from Washington are fleeting memories. I have had good fortune with the philanthropy of community and foundations. The warning here is be ready to show all of the usual needs, how it will make positive impact to service delivery and how it will be a positive public relations for them to embrace it. Many departments are establishing police foundations (501c3) with the ability to solicit monies for use, this is worth investigating.

Manager or Leader

The original question was are you a manager or a leader by saying no to a funding request. Often times it is easy to say no and end it there. That is not leadership. The good police leader does the following: They listen to the presentation, and then offer direction in perfecting the project. Then the leader is assisting or directing in research to ensure that this is the correct answer for the perceived problem. Now, they seek out the traditional funding streams such as adding this to next year’s budget or working it in as a capital improvement project. If that does not work, they use their networking skills to seek out public and/or private funding streams. But, the most important thing of all is to ‘grow people’. A chief cannot be viewed as the rich uncle who used to show up once a year to give you gifts that your family cannot normally afford. You are to create more leaders and help them grow in their current positions; they are the future’s chiefs. Share the budget, push it down and offer them a chance to grow. Better yet, if you are one of the young upcoming stars, ask to have more operational control of your section’s budget. Chiefs, when your staff members approach you for a new product it is time to turn this moment into a learning experience. Often times they will find that some projects do not need to be done and others seem more important and they direct the project to success. In the long run, you may get your want viewed as a need just don’t ever give up and never throw in the towel.


About The Author:

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a native Virginian. He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. He has a BA in criminology from St. Leo University and is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville (103rd AOC). Harvey served for over 23 years with the Savannah (GA) Police Department. He served in field operations, investigations and support services, and completed his career there as the director of training. He has published several articles in professional periodicals and has lectured nationwide. He is serving as a chief of police in central Pennsylvania area; a duty he’s performed for the past nine years. He is on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and other professional associations.