As a new chief, you have a great opportunity to lead your agency to become effective, efficient, and provide the best level of service possible to your community. Your agency may already be doing so, but as our communities and our profession both change, police leaders must be on the forefront of anticipating, preparing for, and implementing leading practices to address those changes.
Just being a new chief brings about its share of excitement, anticipation, and potential change, not only for you and your agency, but also your community. Even if things are going well already, you will naturally want to put your mark on the agency and focus on your own priorities.
Whether you are a new chief, having recently been promoted or selected for the position, or you are an experienced chief who has moved to a new agency, there are several steps you can take to set yourself, and your agency, up for success. Here are a few of the top ideas for you to consider:
1. Establish Lines of Communication
As a new chief, or a chief new to an agency, it’s important to establish lines of communication from the beginning. On your first day and even first week, don’t spend too much time in your office; walk around and interact with your new team.
Develop a plan to meet with as many of your employees as possible over the first few weeks. As time goes on, demonstrate your approachability by attending roll calls and unit meetings, and spending time out on patrol, including with the midnight shift. Visit off-site facilities, let people talk with you and ask you questions, and ask questions of your own about people and their duties.
Don’t just have an “Open Door Policy”, literally have an open door. You will be busy as a new chief; phone calls, meetings, paperwork, learning new processes, etc. will all seem like priorities. However, when your staff has a comment, question, problem, idea, etc. and they come to you, take that as a positive sign, set aside the paperwork and don’t see it as an interruption. Make time for them, and make what is important to them, important to you.
Remember, this is a fresh start, so try to avoid talking about how things used to work in your previous agency or position, and don’t criticize the previous administration or personnel. Have the perspective of “it’s a new day” and move forward.
Have two-way conversations with employees to establish your expectations through this transition and beyond, and let your staff know that these conversations are only the beginning.
2. Evaluate the State of the Agency
To help you evaluate the state of the agency, establish a committee or assign an individual to review the entire policy manual, focusing on those high risk/high liability areas that may need updating. If your agency is accredited or certified, get a copy of the most recent assessment report and any community surveys conducted by or on behalf of the agency and review them. Consider conducting a SWOT analysis to determine the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for your agency. If your agency has a long-term strategic plan, review it and see where, or if, it fits into your ideas for the agency.
Review minutes of council/commission meetings to learn more about how the governing body operates, what issues they are addressing, and what community concerns come to their attention. Check media reports for the previous year or so and take the simple step of conducting an internet search for information on your agency.
Begin to formulate your own observations about priorities for the agency, but also meet with other governmental leaders (your department head/colleagues in the city/county/etc.), other local public safety and criminal justice leaders, and community leaders.
Meet with the person you report to (mayor, city manager, etc.) to get his/her perspective, priorities, and direction, and determine frequency of meetings, communication expectations, and what your professional relationship will look like.
Consider developing a survey to gain feedback from your staff and community to build your understanding of what they see as priorities.
One of the best ways to evaluate the agency is to schedule one-on-one meetings with every employee. In small to medium size agencies, this is certainly doable. In large departments, you may need to meet with representative groups of employees. Don’t forget your non-sworn staff, part-time staff and even key volunteers. Have a template of questions you want to ask but use it as a guide for a fluid conversation, rather than an “interview.” Block time on your schedule for each interview and keep some extra time open so you can continue the conversation if need be. Listen more than you speak; you will learn a considerable amount about the agency as you start the process of getting to know your staff while letting them get to know you.
When you complete this process, which may take several months, summarize what you heard, without attribution of course, into main themes. Then report back to your staff in a formal presentation or informal conversations. You will have the opportunity to not only show how you listened to them, but also can present your “next steps” as to how you will address what you learned. In doing so, you will also help establish open lines of communication (#1) and begin to assess and prioritize areas for change (#4) from the employee perspective.
3. Engage with Your Community
Engaging with your community is crucial to establishing trust and key partnerships. Reach out to stakeholders, including political bodies if appropriate, community groups, schools, business and neighborhood leaders, and law enforcement leaders from neighboring areas. Establish mutual aid and assistance agreements or review the existing agreements if they exist. Plan on updating and signing new agreements now that you are the chief and consider making it a formal event with the media to demonstrate your partnerships.
To get a better sense of how the community perceives the agency, consider setting up "meet the chief" events or an agency open house and attending town hall meetings to field questions from those you serve. Be open and accessible and understand that people may simply want to meet you. Visit civic clubs and consider joining one that meets your interest.
Review and set the direction for your social media engagement and designate a public information officer and social media coordinator if one is not already identified. Your community engagement will be enhanced when you employ new technologies and platforms.
4. Assess and Prioritize Areas for Change
There may be many items you’d like to address as chief, but you must assess and prioritize areas for change. Don’t jump on issues on the first day, or even the first few months. Change must be planned, incremental, and thoughtful. Change for change’s sake is rarely positive, but reasoned change with a purpose is generally accepted by staff and community. Take some time to assess the environment from the perspective of your new position.
However, as you speak to staff and take note of what needs improvement, quickly deliver on “easy” changes that you see within the agency to demonstrate your commitment and attention to their needs. Be careful of personal agendas, and be mindful of the impact of the change, both positive and unintended. Understand that informal hallway conversations often get presented as “direction” from the chief.
5. Review Officer Wellness Resources
To further emphasize the importance of your personnel, take time to review officer wellness resources. Think about how you can use your new role to emphasize holistic officer well-being, on both the individual and agency culture levels. Educate yourself about existing wellness services within the agency and your governing body and begin considering resources and trainings that are available for you to enhance current efforts.
Taking care of staff is an important responsibility of police leaders and shows your dedication and commitment to those who carry out your agency’s mission. But don’t neglect taking care of yourself as well. Being a chief is rewarding, but it is hard work that is often stressful. Set the example by exhibiting a good work-life balance, staying physically and emotionally fit, and being up front about the importance of wellness.
6. Focus on Professional Development
Professional development is an ongoing process that helps keep everyone working to a high standard. To assist you as you navigate your new responsibilities, identify a fellow law enforcement executive outside your organization who can serve as your mentor and confidant and consider other ways to connect with executives including through membership in regional, state, and national/international chiefs and sheriffs associations. In addition to building or enhancing your network of fellow chiefs, you will have other opportunities for professional development and identifying leading practices that you may consider implementing in your agency.
Learn all you can about the important processes you will be responsible for as the chief, including budgeting and financial operations, human resources, and state or local laws that provide the authority for your position and agency. If your state has a professional development course for law enforcement or professional leaders, consider attending.
When it comes to your employees, as you address issues that come across your desk, observe the way they use judgment, problem solve, and make decisions, offering your own mentorship when appropriate. Focus on their professional development as well, and adopt a philosophy of continuous improvement, both individually and organizationally.
Assess leadership training opportunities through your own or a regional or state academy, or a private training provider, and make a plan to have your supervisors, command, and executive staff attend those sessions most appropriate to their current or desired future rank. When our staff enhances their individual abilities, our agency and the service we provide to the community also improve.
7. Develop Your Leadership Style
Take time to develop your leadership style. Consider taking one of the many diagnostic tools available and be open to the results. You may know your style or may have taken an assessment previously, however over time our styles change and with a new position you will most certainly see things from a different perspective.
Time management and delegation are essential skills, especially as you prioritize which issues will get your attention. Start thinking about whether you want or need to restructure your executive or command staff to help with overall agency functioning. Make sure you have the right people in the right positions, and that their duties are appropriate. Once you know them and their abilities, trust them to do their jobs and don’t micro-manage. No matter what, be open to learning from others.
If your agency doesn’t already have one, develop a fair and impartial assessment process for selection to specialized assignments and promotion.
Don’t be afraid to admit when you are wrong. You are the chief, but you don’t have all the answers. Your best intentions may have unintended consequences and when you realize that be ready to admit your mistake and have a plan for addressing the fallout.
Success requires teamwork and demonstrating a positive and receptive leadership style will also help develop leaders within the agency to help you move the organization forward.
8. Be Patient and Realistic
Patience is crucial when stepping into this role and throughout your career. Keep in mind that ideas you implement may not be immediately accepted. Change can be difficult, and it will likely take time for the agency to adjust to different approaches.
Present new concepts with realistic timelines to help with staff expectations and understand there will be resistance. Stay the course when it’s appropriate. But also be aware of the “we’ve always done it this way” camp and help them determine the “why” of a particular process or policy. If there isn’t an understandable reason, perhaps it’s time for a change.
9. Stay Flexible and Ready to Adapt
As much as you can prepare, it’s important to stay flexible and ready to adapt. Pay attention to personnel needs and shift your approach when appropriate. Always be prepared with backup plans whenever possible and maintain composure and control through unexpected situations.
Allow personnel the independence to implement their own solutions and give them opportunities to work through things on their own, even if they might not handle an issue how you would, before correcting them or offering recommendations.
Be the last to speak during staff meetings so that you can learn other perspectives, unimpeded by people who feel they have to agree with the chief.
10. Lead by Example
Leading by example and sharing your passion for the profession will inspire personnel to contribute to a shared vision. Don’t forget you’re a police officer first and that you have the same responsibility to serve and protect. Be in the field, take calls for service, back up your officers on calls, visit your schools and interact with your school resource officers and crossing guards, and attend community meetings alongside your staff. Wear the standard uniform for your agency in the same manner that you expect your line officers to wear, gun belt and all. Let your staff see you as a police officer who just happens to be the chief.
Identify and leverage your character strengths to navigate challenges, strengthen connections, and demonstrate approachability. But also know your weaknesses. As you work on them, identify those on your staff who are better equipped and should take the lead in particular circumstances. Integrating values, such as community trust and officer wellness, into your everyday interactions and agency operations will set the tone for how you expect the organization to communicate and behave.
While these may seem like simple steps, and of course there are many more than just 10, they are important to helping you get settled and develop a game plan. As you do so, remember to not only look to the first few weeks and months, but also start to develop a longer plan of where you want your agency to be in a year, five years, 10 years and beyond. In essence, your responsibility is to prepare your agency to deliver the best possible public safety services for a time you likely will not see. The future success of your agency, years after you retire or move on, will be an important part of your legacy.
Chief John Letteney, of the Thomasville Police Department, is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). During his more than four decades in law enforcement, he has served in patrol, investigations, training, accreditation, tactical operations, inspections, and administration. He served as chief of police for the Southern Pines Police Department (NC) from 2005 to 2012 and the Apex Police Department (NC) from 2012 to 2021. In 2005, Letteney retired as a captain/zone commander from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in Rochester, NY.