Little Job Security in Being a Police Chief


With the retirement of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, Los Angeles now joins the dance of the chiefs.

Top police brass nationwide regularly change their partners--chiefs match up with one city for a few years, then leave to take up with the next, or bow out into retirement.

The era of longtime police chiefs, such as Los Angeles’ Daryl Gates, has given way to the era of short-timers, as chiefs and sheriffs of major departments rarely last longer than three years anymore.


In fact, by surviving nearly all of his five-year term, Parks outlasted a bunch of them.

Among large police organizations, 21/2 to three years is now the average chief’s tenure, according to several police associations, including the Major Cities Chiefs of North America, representing chiefs of departments with 1,000 or more officers.

That average has been drifting downward. As recently as the mid-1980s, the Police Executive Research Forum found that police chiefs generally held their jobs for five to six years.

Chicago, for example, has had three top police officials in the last 10 years, counting interim chiefs. Philadelphia has had four, and Dallas, Washington, D.C., and New York have all had five--although the current New York commissioner, Raymond Kelly, served once previously.

In many medium-sized cities as well, police chiefs serve without contracts, and at the whim of political leaders. Many wear out their goodwill within a few years, drawing the ire of police unions, politicians or community groups, and move on.

As a result, some chiefs now regard themselves as itinerant laborers, or baseball managers going from one team to another. They live with uncertainty, and take it for granted they will move repeatedly. “I live life one day at a time,” said Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez.


Long stewardships typical of a previous generation of chiefs are a luxury few chiefs enjoy today, said Detroit Police Chief Jerry A. Oliver, who ran departments in Richmond, Va., and Pasadena before becoming Detroit’s sixth chief in 10 years.

“Change agents have a shelf life,” Oliver said. “When you make changes, you make enemies, and sooner or later your enemies become 51%.”

In some departments, turnover at the top is such a way of life that lower commanders joke that it’s hazardous to go on vacation: You never know who might be in charge when you get back.

North Miami Beach Police Chief Bill Berger, president of the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, said that actually happened to him. Once while working as an underling in another jurisdiction, Berger said, he returned from a conference and was surprised to be summoned to see his boss--a chief whose name he didn’t recognize.

Meanwhile, introductions are a way of life at the annual conference of the 50 top chiefs in the country, where a quarter of the attendees each year are new faces, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

The dizzying turnover at high ranks of policing may prove fortunate for Los Angeles, as the city begins its search for its sixth chief or interim chief in 10 years.

Qualified candidates for the post, considered one of the country’s top police jobs, may not be numerous. But by necessity, they job hunt with some frequency.

For example, few eyebrows were raised when Portland, Ore., Police Chief Mark Kroeker announced last month that he would apply for Parks’ job, even though Kroeker has only been in Portland since December 1999. After all, if Kroeker--Portland’s fourth chief in a decade--changed jobs now, he would merely be conforming to the statistical norm.

Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey is something of a veteran in chief circles, having held onto his job for four years. He said he doesn’t plan to move, because his chances for renewal look good. Still, he mused when asked in an interview whether he might be interested in the Los Angeles job: “If the right offer came around,” he said, “and things didn’t work out here....”

Experts say very small police agencies seem to have less turnover at the top than do larger jurisdictions. But in larger jurisdictions, the rotating-chiefs phenomenon is pervasive.

A study from the late 1990s of chiefs in cities with a population of more than 50,000 found that, at that time, nearly two-thirds had held their jobs for less than five years, according to the police-executive research group. A majority had replaced predecessors who also had served less than five years. The same study found that only about a third draw six-figure salaries, although most earn more than $70,000 per year.

Although police experts say chiefs’ terms seem to be shrinking of late, the trend is not unprecedented.

Short-timers were common for much of the LAPD’s early history. In fact, Los Angeles in the early 20th century was a veritable police-chief mill. Serving at the pleasure of the mayor, chiefs often came and went after serving just a few months--or in some cases, a few days.

Subsequent civil-service protections for chiefs changed that. Chiefs such as Los Angeles’ William H. Parker, chief from 1950 to 1966, ushered in an era of relative stability (an anomaly was 1967 to 1969, when Tom Reddin and two short-term acting chiefs held the post). Ed Davis was chief from 1969 to 1978, and Gates from 1978 to 1992.

But another wave of reforms in the 1990s changed the landscape again. Altered civil-service provisions, improved pension plans and trends toward earlier retirement have accelerated change in top positions.

One influential factor driving high turnover of police chiefs is a volatile mix of scandal and political backlash. Often, new chiefs are hired after public outrage emerges over issues such as racial profiling, riot control, corruption, high-profile shootings or brutality cases.

The incoming bosses are expected to shake up the status quo, and thus find their jobs are set for political conflict from the outset.

“The mandate for change is with every chief,” said Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, formerly police chief in Buffalo, N.Y.

That is true whether they are brought from outside their departments, or hired from within, as Parks was, he said.

A number of prominent chiefs seem to embrace the role, portraying themselves as challengers to the business-as-usual cultures of their departments. Said Detroit’s Oliver: “We are not our dad’s police chiefs.”

But such chiefs are practically guaranteed to run afoul of one or more competing constituencies--officers unions, politicians or community groups, said Wexler, of the police-executive research group.

Parks’ well-publicized disputes with the LAPD officers union over work schedules and discipline, for example, were not unique. Other chiefs have been similarly undone, Wexler said.

The same motifs crop up in city after city. A union no-confidence vote against Parks late in his term, for instance, is a tactic replicated in several jurisdictions, Seattle included.

Other experts compare the short tenure of police chiefs to the frequently short terms of big-city school superintendents. In both instances, leaders are hired to oversee institutions that have become flash points for public discontent over social problems. They pay the price.

“So many roads through American life run right through your office,” Portland’s Kroeker said. “You find yourself in the middle of discussion about race in America, about education failing, about young people [using] drugs.”

And as with schools, Seattle Chief Kerlikowske said dryly, “everyone knows how to run the police department.”

But policing experts are divided over whether short terms for chiefs are good or bad. On one hand, short-timer chiefs may have a hard time getting much done. Reform efforts may be stifled because more reactionary elements in police bureaucracies prevail by simply outlasting a vulnerable chief and that chief’s command staff.

“These are very large complex organizations. You don’t turn them like speedboats,” Kerlikowske said. Further, high turnover of chiefs breeds unrealistic public expectations of quick reform, he said.

Other chiefs say the endurance required to handle the stress and long hours of the job make short terms for chiefs a necessity.

Moreover, they say change at the top fosters innovation, and ensures chiefs remain in top form. Successful chiefs end up engaging in what Kroeker called “speed leadership” because they know their time is short and they must move quickly.

This pressure is not without its downside, however.

After announcing his intention to apply for Parks’ job, Kroeker said friends reacted with one voice, telling him: “You’re out of your mind.”