Mission: Destroy A Department

Aug. 20, 2022
There are three types of police and law enforcement agency chiefs, and the rarest is the undertaker, a leader who is brought in to lay a department to rest.

I have previously written regarding the three types of agency executives. I have also warned candidates that they need to know from which mold they were made. Furthermore, could they fit into what a new job requires of them? Are they the square peg trying to fit into a round hole analogy? Truly, knowing the correct model that you are best suitable for is important, and especially before accepting a job offer. One of the biggest things you need to be warned up front about is what the perspective employer needs in a chief; rarely do they disclose what type is desired. Applicants need to be upfront if they reach the interview process. What do they want of you? Do not jump at the first job offer if you know this is not a match for you, for you will never be able to meet those demands.

This article appeared in the July issue of OFFICER Magazine. Click Here to view the digital edition. Click Here to subscribe to OFFICER Magazine.

A quick review, there are three types of police chiefs, the risk taker, the caretaker and the undertaker. Number one is the ‘risk taker,’ which is probably most of all the chiefs’ jobs in the United States today. You are taking a risk of leaving a vested job with seniority and pension. Now, you are moving to a new job which may not last for a couple or three years. Most agree that the national average for police chief tenure is 5 to 7 years. Still, you are not going to gain a retirement from it, so why are you taking this risk? But you are also taking a huge risk in achieving your dream. You want to lead a police force the way you have always envisioned one should be led. Do not forget that those who are hiring you are taking a risk on hiring you as well.

The next type is a caretaker, where you basically keep the hands on the wheel. You have a great organization that you are inheriting. They are not replacing a chief with a cloudy past or criminal behavior. So, all you must do is keep your hands on the wheel. In other words, you are the captain of this ship. Keep it in the main channel, out of the rocks and keep it sailing forward.

The rarest of all of the types is the undertaker, or the one who is hired to destroy the department. The leaders are saying that this department needs to be combined into a larger agency, or the department pretty much needs to go away. The leaders will contract for law enforcement services with another agency. So, in other words, we need you to bury this department. Help us find reasons why it is no longer functional and present us with data to validate our desires. You will be rewarded well for this; it will be short-term contract, so have an exit strategy. On your resume you will be explaining this short tenure and may paint yourself into this corner as this type of chief.

There are some additional warnings: you will be a one-flag parade, a one-person army. The incumbent employees who may side and assist you on this mission, may more than likely do it for mercenary reasons. They are positioning to be absorbed by a larger agency at a similar or higher rank. There will be some lost in the mix and can become problematic and the unions (if you have them) will raise their heads. So, I would not suggest putting down any roots in this town and would not suggest moving your family there. Face it, you may try to blend in, but you are going to be known as the undertaker of the agency and some families futures.

Recently, I was sitting in a cigar lounge and speaking with a prominent businessman. We were in a discussion comparing leadership in corporate world versus the public sector. He told me that he was a “corporate henchman” or here, an undertaker. He told me of the company who he was hired by, to go in and basically shut down operations and close the plant. His orders were to do this quietly, effectively, efficiently, with timelines. I was enchanted by this story and stared into the eyes of the undertaker. I could not help that I personally knew this city and probably a few of the families that were adversely impacted. Now, he was rewarded well and moved on without remorse; it was business not personal. Personal note, he told me that he always listens when the name of that city comes up. He has hoped that it would rebound for that plant was the main financial blood of the city. He later said he wanted it to resurrect like a phoenix, for some other cities have risen from the ashes but this one probably never will.

I asked him, how do you go in with a struggling organization and set it on its pathway to closure? He had to go in and seek out every weakness, attach a dollar loss to each and then put a dollar value (loss) on each weakness and also determine where the money flow is and how it goes into the red. The lack of projected incomes for the future and the productive goals were what the board of directors wanted to know. But I asked the question: What if they were doing something right? He sought that out as well. What were they doing right, the good things, right? You must paint that these positives will never outweigh the long-term financial picture. This being a private sector business, it is all about the bottom line. He had to paint the picture in red, in other words, they were losing money. He did a good job, shut down the plant and turned that part of the city into a ghost town. I know this part of his life resume weighs heavy on his soul.

If you are considering becoming a chief, there is a critical first step. You have got to determine what style of chief you are suited for and what executive environment you can adapt to. If you desire a risk taker or caretaker role, you have got to identify your ‘fit’ into or adaptivity to this environment. Now is the time to get the tarnish off the armor, be positive and do the work. A lot of times it’s very easy to find your major negatives but the weak spots often are overlooked. But it’s easier now to address them before you get into the hunt or accept the job offer.

People ask me, which is the hardest job to do? Sometimes I think your caretaker and the risk takers are the hardest. Here you must maintain consistency, performance, and stay within your budget. These two also must work within the restraints that are given to you by the community leaders, both elected and self-appointed. What type of agency that the community is willing to support. It’s very hard work to be a successful chief. If anybody thinks it’s just a day job, never apply for it. You wake up in the morning thinking about what you must do, even afterhours reading and preparation. Later that day, you go to bed and some of the burdens are still hovering in your head. But then again too, when you know you have a job well done, you have the self-satisfaction of knowing you’ve done what you were asked to do.

Finally, if you are a leader, one who leads men and women in an effective agency, I do not believe you could be an undertaker. I do not think I could be the one that could destroy a department. Because when you destroy a department—you destroy its legacy, history, traditions and the spirits of men and women who have come before and made it what it was. If you stomach this assignment, then go fold the flag and hand it over to those leaders who hired you. Yes, there have been some positive mergers and some failures. As small town America faces the costs of providing services on diminishing tax dollars, the job opening for undertaker chiefs will still be open for the taking.

This article appeared in the July issue of OFFICER Magazine.

About the Author

William L. Harvey | Chief

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a U.S. Army Military Police Corps veteran. 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 in field operations, investigations and completed his career as the director of training. Served as the chief of police of the Lebanon City Police Dept (PA) for over seven years and then ten years as Chief of Police for the Ephrata Police Dept (PA). In retirement he continues to publish for professional periodicals and train.        

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