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Letter from a Police Chief

With four decades in police work I have seen a few things especially from the supervisors’ view. Some are important and some are not. Some things are done correctly and others are miserable failures. If I could write a letter to every new chief about to take their chair for the first time, there are few things they should know from this old chief’s view.

One thing every new chief or sheriff does is write the hello I am the new guy in town letter. This is your introduction letter to every employee about your ideas, goals and visions. I wish I could have a ‘do over’ on mine. Oh, I did what was expected, just like all of those letters from before. What the staff really wants to hear is who are you and how are you going to operate.  Tell them the cold hard facts of life that they really want to and need to hear. How about, I will back you when you are right. All I want is the truth; I will not tolerate any form of dishonesty in any shape, form or fashion. Lie to me; I will deal with you severely. Let them know what your professional operational standards are.

 Reinforce them if they should get into trouble you will apply evenhanded discipline.  Expect your punishment for misbehavior without favoritism and what you think it is reasonable to expect in return. Face it, every one of us has gotten called into the supervisor’s office at one time or another. When it all came down to it, we knew we did it, hoped we would not get caught. We did and now all we want is what is fair, no more and no less. New chief, your first discipline will be viewed microscopically to see how you operate. Nothing states you can’t tell them you are going to be evenhanded and cool headed. Oh, one note, if you say it, please do it.  Most of the time, all real cops want out of you is a fair shake and the truth of the matter at hand.

Always reward good performance and you can expect me to champion your needs as well. The absolute worse thing a new chief can do is take credit for what his staff has done. One of the best quotes to live by from legendary Alabama Coach Bear Bryant is “if anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That's all it takes to get people to win football games for you”. The bottom line is you always praise your staff for the good work. Things go bad, stand up and take the heat which is what you are paid the big bucks for.

Did I mention you will champion their causes? New chief, often their causes are your causes as well. What some do is not share what went on at council meetings. Cops love correct information; otherwise they will make it up via the rumor mill. I have often said most police departments do not run on electricity and gasoline but rather rumor and innuendo.  For instance during your first budget battles, they will see that you decided not to buy new cars. Now all of the cops are going to be po’ed that they have to drive around in old high mileage cars. The sergeants are annoyed that they have to do whatever they can to get the old cars repaired and keep them limping along for another year. Now to you it means that you do not have to lay anyone off or can actually hire a new officer to fill a vacancy. This may have been your only other option given with this budget scenario. Did you share this with them or just keep it to yourself. Do not ever think that your cops don’t care, they do.

Finally, when you can explain to them that you are not an idiot but it sure looks that way. There will be some casual conversations or opportunities to chat with the new staff. One thing you will find out is that things are very different and difficult for a new chief. Now that you are, you're responsible for what any agency, and every last person in it, does 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. No, you are not out there working an automobile accident in the rain on a cold night. You may be at the house reviewing a project, attending countless after-hours meetings or working late. Newly appointed chiefs have a tendency to listen to the radio around the clock, never go home and get involved in needless little things. Give yourself a break, pace yourself and have some trust in your staff.

If you are going to communicate with your new staff, do so forth right. Yes, the formal letter of how wonderful life is going to be now that you are there is going to happen. Tone it down and when you do actually communicate with your staff, tell them what they want and need to hear. You are still a cop and care about cops.