Whose Side Is The Chief On?

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.

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.

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