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Taking the Leap into Chiefdom

There is much to consider before you decide to apply for a job as chief of police.

October 17, 2017  |  by William Harvey - Also by this author

As chief you'll need to communicate with your officers. But you'll also have a whole new set of issues and demands. Photo Courtesy William L. Harvey
As chief you'll need to communicate with your officers. But you'll also have a whole new set of issues and demands. Photo Courtesy William L. Harvey

You are reading an announcement for a chief of police job and you're considering applying for the position. This sounds like your big chance and you are excited. However, you need to stop and think long and hard about it before leaving your civil service protected job and all that that entails. You will be leaving behind the vested protection of employee benefits afforded by your current job for some real unknowns.

I was recently mentoring a young commander who is considering applying for a chief's job. During our conversation, I decided to share my insights with you. My goal is not to deter you or frighten you away from this great career step. However, this pursuit comes with risks. Some you may know about and several you may have never considered.

Where Do You Stand?
My first suggestion is to contact the human resources department at your current agency and review your status. Determine how to lock in your vested retirement benefits and further options before you do anything else. I don't want you to be within the grasp of lifetime retirement and let it slip away. If or when you become a chief, taking that position will remove you from officer status and classify you as management. More than likely, this will exclude you from the department's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) or current working conditions. Read the fine print from human resources because there can be vast differences, both pro and con.

For the chief's job you are considering, you may be offered a contract or work agreement: Read the fine print! Remember that this new position may not be permanent. Can you live with it temporarily for the sake of taking your first career step in this new direction? The terms of the new position may include a required annual renegotiation. In that case, you must understand that once you take the job you'll have to be prepared for not being renewed at all; there are no guarantees here. Once you're a chief it is a new world, and no longer one with civil service protection but one subject to the prevailing political winds.

Initial Background
Next, closely read the announcement and find out all you can about the department, the municipality, and the area. Why are they seeking a chief? Are there existing issues left in the wake of the former chief's exit? How fiscally strong is the municipality, and does it have budget resources? One clue would be if the job announcement calls for grant application skills; this likely means they are broke.

Is the area you would be moving to growing, and do you really want to live and work there? If you are moving to another state, fully acquaint yourself with the new state requirements for law enforcement officers. You could have to attend the academy, a partial academy, or challenge the system. Many jobs will give preference to intrastate candidates; they are paying you well to work, not to attend the academy.

So what are some points to review in this new job offer? Here are a few but not a definitive list.

Pay
You never leave a job for less money. Forget the dream; you cannot pay the bills with a chief's shield. The general rule of thumb is always seek a 10% increase or more. If you have to move to another locale, perform a cost of living comparison between current and new locations to make sure you're comparing apples to apples when determining the difference between what you're making now and what your new salary would be. This could make the decision for you. It could also give you bargaining points for salary negotiations.

Family Meeting
If you change jobs, there could be collateral damage. Think about how this decision will affect all members of your family, and consult with them before you move forward.

If your spouse has a career, what are the impacts on them? If you have children in school, do you want to move now if they are within just a year or so of graduation? Do you have family that live close to you now, and are you willing to move that far away from them? Weigh all inputs and value the opinions of all. The glitter of the new chief's shield will dull if your family falls apart.

Time Off
Vacation time may be a point of contention. As a tenured employee, you may have had six weeks of vacation with some in the bank. Now as a chief, at some agencies you may have none, earning just a few days in a year. It could prove difficult with your current family situation to reduce your recreational time to little or none. You must be able to negotiate a starting base of two weeks for starters to make your move worth it, in my opinion.

Benefit packages can be contentious when it comes to sick leave, personal days, family days, and bereavement days. Every place will be different. You may try to ask for a base of 40 hours of sick leave just to be safe.

Health Insurance
Health insurance is a new problem for someone who is used to it being part of the benefits package. For a chief, some municipalities may not offer you (or your family) health insurance until you have been employed for a determined length of time. Will you have to extend your current health insurance benefits under Cobra? Do they offer disability, dental, or vision packages that are better than or equivalent to what you may be accustomed to?

Traditional Perks
Traditional perks or executive benefits may include a vehicle (allowed use as a personal vehicle), gym memberships, professional memberships, dry cleaning, clothing allowances, mobile telephones, and conference attendance. Do not be shy; ask for these and get them nailed down at the outset.

Residency Requirements
Will you have to move and or live within the new jurisdiction? If so, will your new employer provide moving expenses and administrative time off to move? How long before you are required to relocate?

Historically, the average tenure for a chief of police is 5 to 7 years. So before you buy a home, consider renting, just in case your tenure is shorter than your expectations. You do not know the local real estate market now and probably will not know it when you leave.

The penalties of capital gains are real. Personally, I made a mistake early on and purchased a home that I later had to sell and incurred financial penalties. Since then I have rented. Renting also means you don't have to worry about taking care of home maintenance yourself, which helps clear your already full plate and allows you to devote your time and energy to the rigors of the new job.

Special Agreements and Clauses
If there are any special agreements or clauses in the contract for a new chief's job, read them carefully. You may even wish to create your own. Years ago, I was advised to have a non-political agreement written into my contract. It states that I am not to attend any political meetings, fundraisers, or the like. It matters not what your personal political leanings might be; this agreement means you are insulated from being lured into political brouhahas and jealousies. If you attend one political event then you will be obligated to attend everyone else's. Consider this style of agreement to keep you out of the political fray.

Planning for the Future
If you can, it's best to plan ahead before you seek out a chief position at a particular agency. One of the reasons most departments desire your completion of advanced degrees before you apply is that nobody wants to hire a chief who they are going to have to send away for six months. If you want or need a degree or certification, do it now and not later, preferably on your current department's budget. It will make you more promotable now and more marketable later on when you are looking for a chief's job.

Think about retirement now. Are you vested in your current job? Retirement portability is rare, and with a chief's job there's always the question of whether you will last long enough in the position to vest. Before you get into the chief's business, spend an afternoon with a financial counselor; I mean a real certified financial planner. Ensure that your dreams are not too risky.

It's also a good idea to seek out a mentor who is already a chief and can guide you on your journey. And before you go and mess up your chances, clean up your social media habits so you don't endanger your hiring potential by posting something you shouldn't.

Be Careful What You Seek
I have not covered all of the finer points of the chiefs' business, but some important points for consideration. The application and selection processes for a chief's job encompass an entirely different world than what you have grown accustomed to. These are designed to be stressful and they are not fair. Despite how qualified you are, there is always an internal candidate or someone with political connections who will surface. Be prepared to accept defeat a few times.

Police chief is an honorable job. I will tell you to keep your dreams alive with the caveat that you must be extremely careful. Be careful what you seek, for leaving a secure job with great benefits is a leap of faith.

William L. "Bill" Harvey is the chief of the Ephrata (PA) Police Department. He retired from the Savannah (GA) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.


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