Many Hats of Modern Police Chief
LOS ANGELES — It used to be that police chiefs came up through the ranks, chosen for their leadership ability and law-enforcement know-how. But these days, the person who sits in the corner office at police headquarters had also better be part publicist, customer-service rep, accountant, and politician - or risk losing the job.
Demands on police chiefs have grown exponentially in recent years, prompting an unprecedented wave of hirings and firings in cities across the US. The latest uncertainty, swirling around the reappointment of Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams, underscores how difficult it can be for a chief to juggle the many hats of the job.
"What was the most secure position in public administration just a few years ago has become the most vulnerable," says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, a professional association based in Washington. "The mixture of community expectation, that of the police department itself, and [that of] government officials has become so combustible that police leadership is playing musical chairs."
From 1988 to 1993, 41 of the nation's 50 largest cities changed police chiefs - a testament to the unsettled nature of America's effort to remake police management. Today's chiefs are caught in a whirlwind of public outcries against crime, increased union power, and a wave of accountability shared by politicians who need convenient scapegoats, experts say.
Behind the revolution in police management is the advent of new weaponry and new gun laws, new administrative computer technology, and a shift to community policing. As a result, accumulated knowledge of crimefighting is being downplayed, and candidates for police chief need to demonstrate their management and public-relations skills.
"We are seeing a real changing of the guard in terms of skills demanded of a modern police chief," says Jerry Oldani, president of Jensen, Oldani, and Cooper, a leading public-safety executive-search firms. Police-chief searches have become the most difficult and high-pressure services his firm offers, he adds.
"[Potential chiefs] used to have to rise through the local ranks, gathering field and operational experience, and a kind of survivability tenure from being part of the system," Mr. Oldani says. "Nowadays, cities and citizens want far more than a good cop on the street. Some of their demands are reasonable; some are totally unreasonable."
The consequence? Musical chairs at police headquarters will likely continue, say Oldani and other observers. Big-city chiefs last 2-1/2 to 4 years on the job, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.
In fact, the trend already appears to have accelerated.
*The District of Columbia has had four chiefs since 1990.
*Houston has had three since 1991.
*Cleveland has had three since 1993.
*Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith just named the third chief of his administration.
"Even the most adroit police chief tends to run into political trouble before long," says Charles Mahtesian, a writer for Governing magazine, a monthly periodical for local and state governments. "Brought in to initiate change, they initiate it, then find themselves under attack from all sides, including the side that called for change in the first place."
Milwaukee Chief Phillip Arreola, for example, was recruited as a reformer who had strong skills in minority outreach and proficiency in community policing. But after he redirected police resources to poorer areas of town, he became a political liability for the mayor and was fired.
THE revolving door hasn't stopped even for police chiefs who effectively fight crime. In New York City, William Bratton lost his position as police commissioner last year, despite the largest two-year drop in crime in city history.
Here in Los Angeles, Chief Williams has been criticized by City Council members and Mayor Richard Riordan, despite a significant reduction in overall crime.
"The questions facing a police executive have gotten so complex they're almost Byzantine," says Dan Rosenblatt, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "He's got to please like a customer-service provider, treat all constituents of the city fairly, negotiate union contracts, balance budgets, and dance between political factions ... all while he is fighting a more sophisticated criminal element."
Added to that mix is an effort by police unions to restrict the power of top brass, and the chief in particular.
"There has been a growing trend [by police unions] to take power away from chiefs," says Nancy Rhodes, editor of Policing by Consent, a periodical for the National Coalition for Police Accountability (NCOPA). "That has not been good for [the chiefs'] own ability to enforce the changes they feel are necessary."
All of these forces make for a top police leadership that, because it keeps coming and going, has only a shallow relationship with local communities, experts say.
"Even though you have some very talented people moving around, they are moving into areas with deep-seated, intractable problems that no one person can understand and solve," adds NCOPA head Mary Powers.
That, in part, has been Mr. Williams's problem during his five years at the LAPD.
The city's first black police chief, he was also the first in 40 years from outside the department. He has proven popularity with the public: Opinion polls show nearly 60 percent of citizens here want him for a second term. But many say he has not been able to win over the ranks below him.
A civilian police commission is expected to decide - perhaps as early as today - whether to reappointment Williams.
"Giving Williams the reins to the LAPD without also letting him appoint his own surrogates has been like asking Ronald Reagan to take over the presidency and use Jimmy Carter's Cabinet," says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. "L.A. has asked him to change one of the most intractable police forces in the country, without giving him the tools to complete it."
Most observers believe Williams will be booted out, although he is said to be angling for a handsome exit package.
A former chief of the Philadelphia Police Department, Williams was brought in to reform Los Angeles's notoriously insulated, largely white police force. His tenure followed that of former Chief Daryl Gates, whose military style of policing, in the end, didn't sit well with one of the most multicultural citizenries in the United States.