Law enforcement leaders walk a fine line with municipal administrations. The average tenure of a chief of police is 2-3 years. They wear many hats, i.e. police manager, authority on the law, politician of sorts, representative of the municipality, representative of their rank and file, and unfortunately, whipping post for the local political leaders, community, and the local union. In my 40+ years that includes law enforcement, law enforcement management, law enforcement higher education, and law enforcement consulting I have run into a fair number of chiefs and sheriffs. Some are exceptional. Some are complete train wrecks. Some are train wrecks in the making. Many are unremarkable and therein lies the issue.
The structure of municipalities is such that it does not reward excellence, per se, as in the private sector. In my years in the private sector there is one all-encompassing truism, either produce or leave the organization. Move the organization forward, achieve or exceed your metrics, or find employment elsewhere. For the officer on the street, or the detective, or even the middle manager in law enforcement there is little incentive to achieve. The best one can hope for is adequate financial compensation that is typically on par with those who may not be good workers, getting advanced training that may lead to something else either within or without the organization, and the building of time on the job for a pension that may or may not be there depending what tap dance the legislature might do to stave off payment of millions of dollars to retirees.
The banality of leadership is an idea fostered by 1) keeping one’s job at all costs, and 2) maintaining the status quo. Build alliances. Don’t rock the boat in the department or in the local political waters. Build alliances. Be aware of landmines. Build alliances. Endear oneself to the political leaders, the community, and the rank and file. Build alliances. Get the point? A police chief told me, “If I did everything I needed to clean up the community I would first need to have a house cleaning and restructuring in the department. That would annoy the local political leaders. I wouldn’t last a year and then they would hire a ‘yes person’ from the inside. Welcome to my world.”
And so, the concept of banality or being mediocre is actually rewarded. The term status quo is the shortened mission statement. In spite of the rhetoric of police departments about community policing one can always go by the axiom you shall know them by their deeds. By the way, community policing is a philosophy and NOT a litany of programs like DARE, Neighborhood Watch, etc. Community policing empowers the officers on the street to do the problem solving themselves utilizing the department and other agencies as a resource. True community policing scares the daylights out of some chiefs who are essentially control freaks. Ask a local chief when the last time they did a double-blind photo array, or if they do them at all, and see what kind of response you might get, or better yet, ask how the concept works. Sometimes an impromptu pop quiz of simple police concepts is indicative the chief is spending too much time away from the department. Typically, this chief has underlings doing most of the work running the department with operations, administration, or both.
The point is that a good chief can be suppressed. Bad chiefs can have a longer tenure because it is embarrassing to a municipality to get rid of the albatross and start looking for someone new who can play ball and not annoy anyone or get into trouble. Mediocre chiefs can actually thrive because banality is key to their existence and survival. The exceptional leadership wisdom given to the rank and file by mediocre managers is usually, “Write your tickets, answer your calls, and don’t get into trouble.”
One final thought. We usually hire the best to be our police officers. Historically, only about 20% of police officers get promoted. The result is we have a glut of extremely talented and knowledgeable people who are basically going nowhere in their jobs. If they can pass a promotional exam or somehow endear themselves to those who can help elevate them there is a reward with an increase in pay and subsequent pension. Unless officers are somehow rewarded for their work the status quo will be perpetuated and contribute to the banality of police leadership.