27 May 2014


Courtesy of Joe Evangelista Photography
Now that's it been a few years since my retirement (two--though I can hardly believe it), I thought I might pen a few words on my time as a chief of police.  The reason for this is that I've come to understand over the years that very few people know what a chief of police actually does.  Whenever I encounter them in  fiction they are either chomping on a stogie and bellowing for some hard-working officer's badge, or personally handling crime scenes and investigations as if they have no hard-working officers at all.  Like many stereotypes, there is some truth to these examples, but only some. 

I have bellowed on the rare occasion, though it was sans cigar.  And yes, I have personally attended crime scenes, but not to usurp the duties of those assigned to the case.  Whenever I found issues that needed addressing, I mostly did so with the supervisor on scene, and in private.  I may have raised my voice on a few of those occasions, but it was probably to be heard over the screams of some guilty person wanting to confess in the next room.  As for commandeering investigations, I had enough to do without micro-managing detectives, though I did receive updates on particular cases whenever I asked for them.  Occasionally, I was guilty of suggesting different lines of inquiry, or investigative tactics.  This was not just my prerogative as chief, but sometimes useful.  After all, they were in the thick of it, while I had the luxury of standing back a bit and seeing it fresh.  But the detectives and officers solved the cases, not me.

As chief I had six main duties:

First amongst them was simply to lead; set an example and establish standards for performance and acceptable behavior--policy making.  The buck stops with the chief.  He sees to it that his officers receive credit for work well done, and he takes the heat when his department drops the ball.     

Second would be the budget.  Without money being applied wisely and well, operations and effectiveness begin to suffer.  I never once went over budget.  It can be done.

Third is personnel.  As chief, I had the final say in hiring...and sadly, sometimes firing.  I signed off on the performance evaluations of sergeants and above in my department.   I also had the final say on promotion to the next higher rank.  The down side to this, of course, was the disappointment, and sometimes resentment, felt by those not selected.  It could be keen and heartfelt.   

Liaison.  As the chief you become the public face of the department.  You get to attend a lot functions and host a number, as well.  You deal with many, many people.  In my case, I answered to a mayor who was also the director of public safety.  But he was only one of many masters: The county prosecutor is the chief law enforcement officer at the county level in New Jersey, and so was in my chain of command when it came to criminal law, and search and seizure issues.  The borough council expected my attendance at every meeting and got it.  They controlled the purse strings and crafted ordinances and it was my duty to advise them when it pertained to public safety and order.  Several citizens groups also asked for and received my time.  In addition, I worked cheek by jowl with the fire chief, the rescue squad captain, the beach patrol, public works manager (a very useful person when it comes to major storms, flooding, blizzards, etc...), and the director of emergency management at both the municipal and county levels.  I was also a member of the county police chiefs association and attended their monthly meetings, as well.  These were just the ones I dealt with on a regular basis...there were others.

Discipline: It was also my duty to oversee the disciplinary process and internal affairs investigations.  If you want to know what stress feels like, just picture yourself telling someone you've known for decades, and personally like, that you're suspending them from duty and taking a big chunk of their pay for a month.  And don't forget to remind them that they will no longer be eligible for promotion.  Oh, by the way, my wife wants to know if your wife is available to pitch in at the school Halloween party next week?  Get the picture?  Sometimes IA's can result in dismissals and even criminal charges.  It's not for the faint of heart, trust me, but it is terribly important to the health and integrity of the department.  Good officers (the vast majority) want bad officers (a tiny minority, thank God) gone.  Their jobs are hard enough without them.

Finally, a category that I'll simply dub "Wearing the Hat."  Whenever anything big goes wrong, or when the bad has temporarily overcome the good, you show up.  It can be a major fire scene, a child's drowning, a toxic waste incident, catastrophic weather event, or civil unrest.  You stop what you're doing, whether it's vacation, dinner with friends, or your wedding anniversary; put on your chief hat (sometimes only figuratively) and go to the scene.  Though in many cases, there is nothing more to be done than what is being done--you still go.  Why?  Because citizens are reassured when the head honcho arrives, and the officers try a little harder when they know you care enough to be there.  There's no down side to it.  The opposite is true for the absentee chief.  Sometimes, there are things that can be done, or usually, facilitated by the chief, but I'll save that for another post.

As for the resolute, square-jawed person pictured above, he has left the theatre.  I am now long-haired and sporting a scruffy goatee.  Occasionally people drop loose change in my coffee cup.  I don't know why. 





  1. Great post. I learned a lot.

    Your first point reminded me of a time three decades sgo when I asked the director of the library to give me some lessons in management. One of the first was: Share credit; horde blame.

  2. David, you summed up the role of police chief very well and I'll bet you were one of the best.

    Unfortunately, in Columbia, the chief of police position has been dirtied by frequent hirings, firings, threats, and transparent misdeeds including an attempt to frame one of the chiefs by planting drugs. What a fiction story it would make if it weren't so tragic.

    Two years already? I hope you're enjoying retirement as much as
    I am and it just gets better every day.

  3. Excellent post, David. It should be required reading for mystery writers. :)

  4. Thanks, Rob. Yeah, that's a very useful maxim I learned in the army and never forgot. Another was: Counsel in private, praise in public. Also useful.

    Fran, I could write an interesting blog on the tragic, and sometimes spectacular, demise of police chiefs (careers, that is). Many, like the Columbia case you cite, were the result of internecine political warfare. Others, were self-inflicted. Some left me shaking my head in bewilderment. A tip to any young chiefs out there--stay away from "selfies" that you don't want discussed in closed session of city council.

    I am enjoying retirement, Fran. I didn't have to even leave my house this Memorial Day Weekend and I'm loving that.

  5. I so enjoyed this column, David. And--like Rob--I learned a lot from it. Many thanks!

  6. Thank you for this peek into the Chief's office.

  7. Great column - thank you for giving us an inside look at the Chief!

  8. David, nice article.
    Funny you should mention selfies in your comments. Just last week our local sheriff (who was very well thought of by most citizens) managed to get his selfie published in the local paper along with a three page story alleging improper relations with three women he'd promoted to top positions in the department over a very short time. The selfie along with a multitude of compromising e-mails are now, like you said, in the hands of the city council.

  9. Thanks, Liz, John, Rhonda, and Eve. I'm glad you found the blog worthwhile. It's nice to be useful from time to time.

    It was not by chance that I mentioned the selfie issue, R.T.--it has already laid low a police exec of my acquaintance several years ago. In fact, they weren't even called selfies then. To say that I thought he was foolish would be an understatement, but as Eve is always saying (and I paraphrase), everyone is fighting a hard battle. A good sentiment, I think.

  10. Thanks for fantastic information, David. Always great to get this stuff strait from the hip. As others have already said, should be required reading for any mystery writer.


  11. Fascinating piece, as the public often cannot separate what may be realistic and artistic licence in police procedural fiction. I enjoyed this very much.

  12. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece, Dixon and James. I'm thinking of following it up with some sanitized examples of my favorite moments (and some not so favorite). If nothing else, it may amuse.


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