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Preparing For And Surviving Politics For The Police Executive - Articles Surfing

'Chief, this is Council Member Doe and I would like to talk to you about a citation one of your officers issued,' or 'Chief, this is Council Member Smith and we need to talk about your traffic enforcement initiative in my neighborhood. My neighbors are screaming at me about this,' or 'I am the City Manager and I don't care that you are the Chief of Police. You do not have the authority to conduct an investigation of another city employee without my permission. The Police Department answers to me first.' Does any of this sound familiar? It probably does as political influence is exerted upon police administrators every day. It is incumbent upon you, proactive, professional police administrators to prepare for political influence if you want to survive. And, survival is achievable! First, however, you must understand the rules'

'Politics, stated simply, is the exercise of power. As such, it is value free, its 'goodness' or 'lack thereof' stemming from its application rather than from some inherent character. Although police executives can occasionally be heard avowing to 'keep politics out of the organization,' this unqualified posture is unrealistic. Personal politics exist in every organization, and democratic control of the policing mechanism is fundamental to our society. However, policing and partisan party politics have had a long and not entirely healthy relationship in this country.' (Swanson, Territo, and Taylor, 1988)

Who's political? We are all political in some form or fashion. Being political is not just for partisan politics. All of us have personal agendas, career goals, and family politics. Next time you are at a little league game watch the parents.

The application of 'political power' has been in existence ever since humans have learned to jockey for position. History has a plethora of examples of political influence that have been both positive and negative for society. From the crucifixion of Christ, Hitler's reign of terror, the breakdown of the Iron Curtain to Clinton's what 'is, is', politics have molded our everyday life to some extent. Indeed, some political events influence mankind forever, and we will never know what former President Clinton's definition of what 'is' is'.

Historically, it wasn't until the mid nineteenth century that politics and policing came to together. New York City was the host of the Tammany Hall corruption scandal where elections were controlled by the police and the police were used to collect graft. Here was also the birth of the 'political machine' with its graft, corruption, crime, poverty, and the exploitation of women and children by industry. (Swanson, Territo, and Taylor, 1988) It was common that when a new mayor was elected the entire police department would be dismissed and the new mayor would put his own police department in place.

Fortunately, policing has evolved from what many, arguably, would describe as thugs with badges to a profession striving to grow by building upon a foundation of ethics and professional standards. Much of this evolution can be attributed to August Vollmer who, at the turn of the 20th Century, was the first to strive toward professionalism for police.

During the relatively short lifespan of policing, politics has had much influence on how we succeed. There are many police executives/leaders who hold bachelor degrees and are graduates of the FBI National Academy, Southern Police Institute, Babson Command College, and the Leadership Command College at the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas. So many leaders today are proactive, dedicated professionals. It's ironic that the subject of politics, which can make or break a career, is rarely, if at all, talked about in a preparatory sense.

We must ask how we become police executives? Some police executives emerge up through the ranks. Sometimes this is good and sometimes not so good. If your organization is steep in the 'good old boy' system, then probably not so good. Others, sometimes foolishly, seek the position. Regardless of just how the police executive attains his/her position, the goal of a leader in the policing profession should be to lead their organization into the 21st Century, and help their employees grow to their full potential. Have you ever asked yourself, 'What do my employees want'?

The majority of police executives have stellar careers and make a difference in their organization, the people/employees they come in contact with, and the profession as a whole. There are others who just don't do their job very well. For whatever reason, some are promoted into police executive positions when they are not qualified or are a product of the 'good old boy' system. Some forget who they are - - the police! They become corrupt, believe they are above the law and are untouchable. How wrong they are! Some fall victim to the stress and become alcoholics or drug abusers. Sadly, some become apathetic and just don't care anymore. Finally, some fall prey to an ever-changing political environment that is frequently intertwined in all of the above. They weren't prepared.

Preparing for political influence requires a conscious effort on your part to recognize that the political environment, like the weather in most states of this great country, has a tendency to change when you least expect it. To be effective and to be strong - survive, you must have an understanding of perception because 'What people perceive, is what they believe. It doesn't matter what the truth is'. You must also be able to anticipate issues that will have a political impact on your organization. (Leadership and Perception, IACP Magazine, March 1999)

The political environment of any governmental entity can be in various forms. Most municipal governments have some form of city council or aldermen with either a city manager or strong mayor. County Commissioners or a Board of Directors governs most counties. There are other political groups that can be very influential such as a proactive Citizen Police Academy Alumni and the ever-popular Citizen Review Board. Citizen action groups, 'Watchdog' groups, Civil Service, labor organizations and others. You must be able to deal with all influences that emanate from these groups.

Who are these people we call politicians? According to Mark Twain, 'There is no distinctly American criminal class ' except Congress.' Politicians are frequently stereotyped as being untruthful, dishonest, corrupt, snakes in the grass, similar to the stereotypical lawyer. The truth is that the majority of these people have a genuine concern for their communities. You must keep in mind that these people are usually novices and volunteers. All politicians have an 'agenda' and possess unique personalities and opinions. Although some elected officials may be highly intelligent, others may be dense and obtuse. However, depending on their perception, there can be a conflict between their interpretation of right and wrong.

The police perform threat level assessments constantly and frequently subconsciously. Politics in the policing arena are not always threatening but usually perceived as such until proven otherwise. Like any other perceived threat, the police executive will assume a certain posture in defense of a threat. Some police executives feel safe 'laying low'. The 'out of sight, out of mind' philosophy doesn't work very well nor for very long. Sooner or later someone will focus on you. Some become a 'yes man or woman'. You can try 'sucking up' all you want but there will be a time when you have to say 'No.' When this time comes, and it will, things will change. It is a foregone conclusion that sooner or later some form of political influence will impact you. Political influence can be directed to you through a variety of conduits:

' Public scrutiny regarding a particular issue. (shooting, pursuit, excessive use of force)
' Internal scrutiny regarding a particular issue. (promotion, discipline)
' A new city manager/administrator, city council, board of commissioners, etc.
' A new mayor or city manager may want to bring in a Chief of Police.
' 'Good Old Boys'
' Malcontent employees.
' Grapevine or rumor mill.
' Complaints to politicians, City Managers/Administrators, County Commissioners, and the ever-eager media.
' Negative Publicity:

Therefore, 'the best defense is a strong offense'. It is incumbent upon you the proactive, professional, police administrator to have a working knowledge of what can impact you and have a plan. Learn to Play the Game. To try and be successful in dealing with politics you must not only be proactive, you must know what it takes to play the game. It doesn't always matter whether a particular issue is positive or negative. You need to make an assessment of the potential political impact and take the necessary steps to either capitalize on the positive or limit the negative. Learn to manage that which impacts you. Over the years we have heard much about learning to manage your boss. No one likes to be manipulated, so be very careful. Managing your boss requires finesse and an acute sense of timing. You should strive to ensure the success of your boss as this will usually ensure your success. Some 'Bosses' don't deserve to succeed and may be incompetent. That is why an acute sense of timing is so important. You need to know when and how to take action or not take action. If you are particularly egotistical then managing your boss and letting him/her take credit for your efforts may be difficult. This same management theory holds true for the political arena: 'manage that which impacts you.' A police captain has less, depending on job assignment, political interaction than a chief of police. Therefore, a captain can only manage that which comes to the captain's attention. The chief of police can get be the target of much political influence and needs to conduct business appropriately. Build a relationship based on trust. From sergeant to chief, a manager in the policing profession must fulfill the initiatives handed to them, even politically motivated ones, with a commitment to provide an excellent work product. You can establish the trust relationship by having a track record of being credible. You build trust by showing genuine interest in meeting the needs of your governmental body. The professional police executive needs to be ever mindful of the 'slippery slope.' Last but not least, DO NOT LIE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!

In being proactive in the political arena, you must make use of the 'monkey'. A monkey typically has great climbing ability and is very difficult to remove from its perch. For those that are in a leadership position, the monkey has a tendency to land square on your shoulders. Don't let it stay there unless it's supposed to be there. The governmental body will make decisions that place the monkey right on your shoulders. It doesn't need to stay there, again, unless that is where it belongs. When a decision or action by the governmental body has an adverse impact on your organization explain it to the employees. Tell your employees what has happened, how it happened, the impact of the decision and an action plan on how to deal with it. This, in effect, puts the monkey back onto the governmental body. It is equally important to be fair. When the governmental body takes action that has a positive impact on the organization, provide the same information, an action plan and commend the governmental body on their decision.

Don't be afraid to Take a Stand. There comes a time when, as leaders, we have to take a stand regarding some issue. After all, we are the police! We are supposed to stand up for what is right as well as doing what is right! There is a distinct difference between being stubborn and taking a position on an issue. Stubborn people take a stand for all the wrong reasons. You will know when to take a stand and for the right reason. Issues will present themselves that will test your ethics and integrity. There is always a price to pay when taking a firm position on an issue. You should ask yourself, what will I accomplish? Is this the right time? How will I feel if I don't act? Although taking a stand means stepping out, you must remember that when you're right, you're right, and you should be willing to put it all on the line and take a stand for the right reason.

Sometimes, you will be your own worst enemy. People will think you are incompetent if you act incompetently. If you have politicians, employees, or others gunning for you, they will exploit every opportunity that should avail itself to make you appear incompetent. Therefore, DOn't LOOK STUPID. If you are not as competent as you think you should be, then surround yourself with a staff that is. The very best way to keep others from shooting at you is to take away their ammunition. Most issues that come to your attention are not of the emergency nature. You should not have to resolve an issue, very often, in the autocratic mode of leadership. Take the time to prepare an intelligent response or make an educated decision. To do this, you have to do your homework, which requires researching, being open minded, and listening. You may think highly of yourself, but it is a safe bet that you do not know all there is about policing and leadership. When speaking at a meeting or before the governmental body, be prepared. Know the subject matter. Don't let yourself be embarrassed before your employers or peers over questions to which you should have known the answers. If you are not a good speaker, then assign someone else to make the presentation.

During the tenure of all police executives, a variety of issues, usually unanticipated, will present themselves where you will be required to take some form of action. Many of these issues, if not handled appropriately, can get the police executive into political turmoil that he/she may not survive. Political turmoil can arise from any of the following:

 Arresting a politician
 Arresting a politicians family member or friend
 Vocal opposition to a City Council initiative
 Campaigning
 Fighting the 'Sacred Cow'
 Being at odds with the City Manager/Administrator
 Some interdepartmental initiative that City Council and/or the City Manager doesn't agree with.
 Internal investigation of other City employee
 Elections: City Manager may campaign behind the scenes. Not supposed to according to ICMA Code of Ethics.
 Poor Leadership

One major issue that can place you in a quandary is when information comes to your attention that might indicate official misconduct on the part of an elected official or employee. Anytime there is a hint of criminal misconduct by any public official, you should make notification to an enforcement/investigative agency immediately. By contacting your local District Attorney's Office, Attorney General, State Police or Department of Justice, this triggers protection under the Whistleblowers Protection Act. Once it is known that you may have this information, the targeted official may try and exert some form of political pressure to get you to either back down or discredit you. You may be told by your supervisor not to conduct an investigation or to discontinue an investigation. This may clearly put you in conflict with your mandate to enforce the law as authorized by your state and your natural instinct not to put your employment in jeopardy. Some city managers have the perception that they can dictate to the police what they can investigate and what they cannot. The authority comes from the legislature, not members of City Hall or the governmental body. To survive this you must go on the offensive. Do not compromise your ethics for some corrupt or unethical employee/politician. Your supervisor or city manager may try and influence you to turn the other cheek. Do not carry this monkey on your back, instead, put it on the person who is responsible and let the investigative agency decide if there is merit to the allegation.

Most states have a Whistleblower Protection Act, which is similar to the following 'Whistleblowing has been defined as the act of a man or woman who, believing the public interest overrides the interest of the organization he serves, publicly blows the whistle' if the organization is involved in corrupt, illegal, fraudulent or harmful activity.' (Texas Whistleblower Protection Act) If, after having made notification to an enforcement/investigative agency, you are subjected to an adverse employment action, such as termination, you have the right to sue for retaliation under the Whistleblower Protection Act. In Texas, if you receive an adverse employment action within 90 days after you have notified an enforcement/investigative agency the adverse employment action is deemed prima facia evidence that you have been retaliated against. The burden of proof then shifts to the governmental agency you work for to prove otherwise which is often very difficult to do. When considering filing a lawsuit, you must decide whether it is worth to fight this fight at this time. There are times when you have to swallow your pride and suck it up. You would be wise to seek good legal advice as you can win the battle and loose the war. When your job is on the line, you will find out who your friends are. You should align your allies and not be surprised if someone on your staff starts to posture himself as your replacement. You should be very careful what information you disseminate. It should be true and accurate unless it is your intent to disseminate false information to see where it leads. On occasion, disinformation can give the police executive an idea where the weak links in the communication chain are. It's interesting to see how fast information can get to the city manager and/or governmental body.

You must be mindful of the fact that the majority of the times, political pressure does not result in adverse employment actions. Political pressure is usually very subtle. This subtle pressure can be exerted in a variety of ways. An elected official might decide to call you directly and question you on certain issues. They might put pressure on the City Manager to try and get him/her to influence you. Some member(s) of the governmental body could micro-manage the budget and scrutinize all the expenditures for your organization. Some might try to involve themselves in personnel matters. Usually a couple of members of the governmental body can influence the vote of the rest. There are times when the City Manager may try and influence them to have a particular issue decided before it goes to the City Council meeting. Some pressure can lead the weak executive to compromise her/her ethics and integrity, which could ultimately result in corruption. This issue cannot be stressed enough. No one is worth this kind of compromise. The police executive should seek support and advise from those who have the strength to help/her make the right decision. Not all political pressure is threatening or destructive. Knowing that there is some pressure can motivate us to accomplish our goals. Frequently, the governmental body comes up with good ideas. After all, we are supposed to be a team.

It is not uncommon for the police executive, as well as other police employees, to befriend and associate with members of the governmental body. This is particularly true in small cities where everyone knows each other. Certain city charters and commission rules prohibit members of the governmental body from discussing business or getting involved in personnel issues. These rules are sometimes overlooked as these relationships often build a conduit for the exchange of information. Anytime an employee, especially you, goes around the city manager and straight to council members with information or attempts to lobby an issue, this can be very dangerous. The potential to get burned is very high.

In an e'mail from Chief Redfern of the Easthampton Police Department he stated 'I had to chuckle when I read Chief Melvin Griggs description of a chief's job, 'running amongst the raindrops and trying not to be hit.' Being a police chief for 15 years now, I was the emcee at another chief's retirement party after being chief for over 30 years! I asked him while we were at the podium, 'So Bill, what's it been like all these years being a small town police chief?' He paused for a moment and said, 'Being a small town police chief is like being the only fire hydrant in the dog pound. You know you're going to get it, you just don't know what direction it is going to come from.' If you are proactive, not afraid to take risks, then sooner or later someone will come gunning for you politically. For whatever reason, a new council member, city manager, mayor or influential citizen may take issue with you. Not only are there activities you can do procedurally but also equally important, you must be prepared personally. This is a part of business and you have to learn to separate what is personal from what is professional. This is a skill that is very important and should be honed on a regular basis.

You should not respond with anger when challenged. Anger is very destructive both emotionally and physically. When we are angry we have a tendency to make the wrong decisions. With anger comes an unquenchable thirst for revenge. Revenge is like a razor sharp two-edged sword. If not handled very carefully one is likely to get cut. You should always be cognizant of the fact that not all speech is constitutionally protected. When we get angry we sometimes say things that we shouldn't. The United State Supreme Court has held in Connick v. Myers that a public employee's speech upon matters of purely personal interest is not afforded constitutional protection. Badmouthing the City Manager or the governmental body to the general public can put you jeopardy. Lastly, when pressure is affecting you adversely you should not be afraid to seek counseling from not only your policing family but also from professionals such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

There is truth to the saying that 'If the Police Chief is doing his job right, he is probably the most powerful person in town.' Power, like politics, is not inherently bad. It is in the application or inappropriate application that can bring about success as well as turmoil. Power is received by virtue of your position. As a police executive, a certain amount of power is bestowed upon you by law, charter, legislature, etc. Real power is that which is granted to you. When you have the support of the employees, and citizens, you have a lot of power at your disposal. We have seen many times where attempts to unseat a Chief of Police has resulted in defeat and often times the City Manager has to leave. Although this power exists, you must recognize its potential, it must not be abused.

It is the natural inclination of all police officers to document facts as they occur. After all, this is what a police officer does when he/she writes a report. It would behoove you to document conversations, or other information, when you feel that the information may be needed at a later date. The surreptitious tape recording of conversations should be conducted with the greatest of caution and infrequency. This should be done only when you know the contact will be adversarial. Do not record all the time. Once it is known that you have the propensity to record conversations people will be less forthcoming with information. Most importantly, when it is known about the recording the trust relationship between you, the employees, City Manager, and governmental body is severely jeopardized.


Most of the time, the political environment in an organization is not as gloomy as some police executives perceive. It is your responsibility to make an accurate assessment of the political climate and provide leadership based on ethics and integrity. Most politicians are good people trying to do what they think is right for their communities, constituents. The police executive must remain cognizant of the fact that most politicians are everyday people, novices, who have a lot to learn about how government works. You should be proactive is your approach to assisting the governmental body in learning and accomplishing their goals.

You must not be na've. The political climate can change abruptly and you must be prepared to respond. Issues arise that require a professional, educated response and you must be ready to step up and provide that response. You should be proactive and utilize those resources that can help protect you when adversarial issues arise. You must also realize that you can only do so much to protect yourself. Chief Cornelius Behan, Baltimore County Police Department said, 'There are obviously some things beyond the Chief's control that can dictate his survival. A chief must be working in a climate that is good for him. The control that the chief has comes before he takes the job. It's possible to walk into communities where you're doomed to fail from the outset.' Before going into a position that is hopeless, make an assessment, be prepared, proactive, professional, and with these tools you can survive.

Submitted by:

Michael Keller

Michael A. Keller has been in the public safety profession since 1973 attaining the position of Chief of Police & Director of Public Safety. He is the CEO of the Keller Consulting Group. He has consulted with police agencies on issues involving Police Management and Planning, Leadership, Employee Discipline, Internal Investigations, Criminal Investigations, and investigations regarding the Sexual Exploitation of Children. He is a member of Project ALERT and Team ADAM, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He holds a Bachelor's of Arts Degree in Police Administration, is a graduate of the Leadership Command College, and a graduate of the FBI National Academy 176th Session. He has written numerous articles on Leadership and Policing for various publications. He has extensive media experience and has been a guest on ABC's Good Morning America, CBS's Today Show, Dateline NBC, CNN, and Larry King Live. He is an avid saltwater fisherman. http://www.kellerconsultants.com



Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).


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