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Avoid Going from Jekyll to Hyde

Written by Albert Varga

Is life imitating art? Can a chief of police morph as novelist Robert Louis Stevenson portrays in the story of Dr. Jekyll? Can the good guy, Dr. Jekyll, change into the bad guy, Mr. Hyde? Of course, chiefs aren’t quite as evil as Hyde. However, situations a chief encounters can change him from a strong and respected leader to a weak and frightened political scoundrel.

Police personnel frequently complain that when a person becomes chief, he often changes for the worse. Are you vulnerable to this Jekyll-Hyde disease? Do you think you are losing confidence, feel overwhelmed, afraid to fail so you always play it safe?

A number of indicators suggest a decline in leadership. The department’s public image declines. Community support wanes. There is a breakdown in communication, and rumors dominate. With numerous and unresolved grievances, the union openly criticizes the chief. The chief is in isolation from most members of the department. Citizen complaints about the department increase. There is a lack of training and a lack of updated equipment. Crime rises at an abnormal rate. The media criticizes the department, and nothing appears to be corrected.

A newly appointed chief is more vulnerable to this Jekyll-Hyde phenomenon. The new position brings in an array of formidable pressure groups without a luxury of someone else taking the heat. The powerful forces are why more chiefs leave their position in less than four years. There are five pressure groups, which can be friendly or become hostile, 1) in-house politics, 2) community politics, 3) media, 4) community at large and 5) the criminal justice system.

“Every department has two great chiefs in its history, the last chief and the next one.” No matter how well an executive leads the department, not everyone will like him, but the chief, old or new, does not have to change his leadership style for the worse. In interviews with several chiefs, we compiled a list as to how best cope with each pressure group and avoid the dreaded Jekyll-Hyde disease.

In-House Politics
As a new executive, you must communicate your style of leadership and policy making in clear directives. To avoid misunderstanding, plan a presentation listing your goals to your staff. Follow this with a presentation to every member of the department. Address the immediate staff members, outlining your policy-making ideas and resolving any dispute with them. However, listen to their ideas, and compromise for the better ideas as long as they don’t conflict with your goals.

With the staff in agreement, arrange a presentation to all the members of the department, including civilians. One chief prepared a video of the presentation for two reasons: to allow everybody to see and hear the same message in case they could not be present at the live presentations and for historical reference. It’s a good idea for the chief to review this video every so often to assure he is staying on course.

Successful leaders frequently follow the concept of a “walk-around” manager. Show your interest in what departmental people are doing. Communicate with the employees, ask questions, encourage and praise. Don’t micro-manage. Know your personnel. Learn their names, positions, and what talents they offer the department. Ascertain when they have a special event, birthdays, anniversaries, a new child, promotion, or other good news. Tell them your interest in them.

Open communication to union leaders within the department. Become familiar with all union contracts. Establish a working relationship and maintain an open-door policy. Avoid a confrontational attitude. Address a grievance immediately, and communicate your progress and findings. Be honest in dealing with each member of the department. Be consistent in treatment of all personnel. Keep reminding yourself of your goals. Use your communication skills, especially the listening skills.

Chiefs have found using a bulletin board updated weekly or a monthly in-house publication as an effective tool to keep information fresh. Officers can use these formats to recognize notable performances. What officer doesn’t like to see his name on the bulletin board or department publication for a job well done? Finally, chiefs recommend the importance of studying the budget and knowing the rules and regulations of the department and directives from the attorney general.

Community Politics
Develop a spirited working relationship with the elected officials. Remember, they control the purse strings. Develop working relationships with the other city department heads, especially the chief financial officer (CFO), a very important person. Keep lines of communication open to all of them. They can keep you abreast of political storms that are brewing. Use the CFO as your sounding board regarding budget proposals. The CFO is an ally you need when you go before the elected officials at budget request time. Avoid partisan politics. (Keep your politics to yourself).

Be friendly with all the elected officials, even if they are not friendly to you. Don’t be intimidated by them; you are a professional. Do your homework before meeting with the elected officials. Communicate facts honestly. Offer a ride-along program so they can see the operation first hand. When possible, allow them to attend certain training such as first aid and home security. They can benefit from the department’s programs and become acquainted with the officers. They may be more favorable toward your budget requests each year.

Practice your skills regarding press releases. Good press releases impress everybody, including the elected body. Give them credit when they are worthy of praise. Invite them to participate in departmental awards programs such as officer of the year awards. The chief who relates well with the elected officials earns their trust and respect. Being friendly with them does not mean you’re a political lackey; you are showing a spirit of cooperation, which will benefit every member of the department.

The Media
A chief’s relationship with the media (print, television, radio, blogs) can often lead to problems that will affect relationships with all the pressure groups. A misunderstood news item can infuriate the community and members of the police department or violate the policies of the attorney general or county prosecutor. The chief must be confident and trained to work with the media. N

ever should the chief fully abdicate the issuing of criminal investigation information to elected officials. It’s a poor practice. Some mayors prevent a chief from communicating with any media; try to prevent this from happening with your skills and reputation.

The chief can do some things to maintain a good working relationship with the media like establishing a media policy. Assign a competent officer to be trained as the public information officer for media releases. Always be prepared to give a press release on a major event. Don’t over project to the media; for example, don’t declare you will clean up all drug abuse in one year. Don’t be intimidated by the media.

Work with the administration in releasing non-criminal related news. Be friendly and courteous in dealing with the media, and remember they can be an ally in fighting crime. Develop reliable contacts with the media based on trust and reliability. Study the art of the press release and understand the “off the record” and “no comment” guidelines.

One chief went to a nearby college campus that featured journalism where he practiced press releases with the students while the professor tutored him. Soon, the chief conducted practice press releases as a regular feature in the journalism classes. The students, the chief and other police officers who participated benefited from the exercises, and this led to a better relationship with the media.

Community at Large
If a chief ever wanted an ally, the community as a whole can be the greatest asset. But the chief must earn the respect and trust of the people, and it will take work and time worth the energy. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani understood James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s thesis, “The Broken Window Theory.” It was a metaphor for the demise of neighborhoods beginning with small problems left unattended that grow into large community problems.

The prevention for the decline of a neighborhood requires the police to address the small problems (quality of life violations), which in turn have an effect of lessening the bigger problems. Giuliani saw this concept work in New York City while other mayors and chiefs also saw its success. It takes attention to detail and hard work, but the citizens liked the effort, even if the results weren’t as great as predicted. A number of steps are effective in winning the hearts of the community at large.

Follow up on the “small stuff” complaints, especially noise violations, vandalism, loitering, littering, abandoned vehicles, and other quality of life issues. Get out into the community, walk around, talk and engage the citizens, go to the scene of a complaint, let people know you are interested in their plight. Partner with the business community regarding security. Show your concern for their security and safety.

Citizens frequently complain about traffic offenders, especially speeders in their neighborhood. One chief placed volunteer citizens who had made such complaints in an unmarked police car with a handheld radar gun to survey motorist on their street. The citizens made a report of their findings and helped them understand the false perception that every car on their street is speeding.

It’s an important benefit to a chief to master the skills of public speaking. Offer your services to speak at local service clubs, scout groups, PTAs and similar groups. Join a civic association such as the Rotary Club or Kiwanis, which are among many organizations that do charitable work for the local, national and international community. Don’t join an organization that involves partisan politics.

Establish a departmental local charity such as food for the local needy, toys for kids at Christmas, or funds for victims of local disasters such as fires or floods. Get your officers and police union involved. Have an active youth program, such as the Police Athletic League, D.A.R.E. or other youth organization. Encourage officers to volunteer.

Criminal Justice System
Attorney generals, county prosecutors, corrections agencies, courts, and fellow chiefs want you to have a successful operation. This system functions as your partner, supporter, mentor and adviser. The criminal justice system is also one that can become your worst nightmare if you don’t play by the rules of commons sense, honesty and respect for the law. The attorney general or prosecutor assures that police departments respond uniformly to calls for service, investigations and arrests. When chiefs fail in this regard, they can lose their department and be prosecuted. In regard to relationships with the world of criminal justice, chiefs have recommended a number of principles.

Ensure that all members of your department are well-trained and follow the rules of evidence and search and seizure. Keep yourself and the department abreast of the newest issued guidelines from the prosecutor or attorney general. Seek legal guidance and advice from your prosecutor when needed. Partner with the county agencies whenever possible for task-force operations for such investigations as gangs, narcotics, drunken driving, undercover operations, vice enforcement, and major crime investigations.

Become a member of the chiefs association, and use it for guidance, assistance and social relationships. Cooperate with other government agencies; they will return a service in kind. Avoid friction between other agencies. If a dispute arises, make every effort to resolve the situation in an amiable way.

Unlike Dr. Jekyll, a chief does not have to drink a magic potion to avoid the loss of his good character. Successful chiefs agree that it takes sincerity, honesty and hard work. Keep your confidence, continue your education and, above all, master the art of communication.

Albert J. Varga is a retired deputy chief of Police in Hamilton, NJ and police director in Lambertville, NJ. He is currently a senior manager at Jersey Professional Management, Cranford, NJ, a consulting firm for government services. He can be reached at ajvinc@verizon.net.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2008

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