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Plan Now To Be Chief
The goal to become a chief or sheriff is a logical career path for many police officers. Reaching that goal is definitely possible. In fact, in a smaller department, and most departments are 50 officers or less, that goal is very much within reach. And like all goals worth attaining, reaching the position of chief will require a lot of time and effort.
A wise and cagey sheriff once told me, "You don't run for sheriff two months before the election." Instead, you start preparing to be a chief or sheriff the moment you swear in as a law enforcement officer. From that day on, your police career will be a non-stop series of daily decisions that will ultimately determine whether or not you still have a chance for the top job. Aside from a clean personnel file, and we all get beefed if we are doing any work at all, the most important step to advancement is probably higher education. Although you may not like this, or agree with the reasoning behind it, it really doesn't matter. What is important is what those who might promote and hire you believe. The higher the position in policing, the more dealing with finances and with personnel begins to matter.
With any size department larger than a handful of officers you will almost certainly need a four year college degree to rise to the top. Argue street-smarts versus book-smarts as much as you like, but simply look around to see who is getting promoted. In police work, we call that a "clue."
The real problem is that lots of your peers have a four year degree. Viewed from the outside, for example by the city council who will hire you, one four year degree is pretty much the same as any other. For instance, a bachelor of science in geology is the same as a bachelor of arts in psychology.
The real keys are the other advanced and police specific degrees you might earn in addition to the perfunctory bachelor's degree. And this especially includes the FBI National Academy. Every lieutenant and captain on the force, at least the ones with advancement in mind, should have his application in with the NA. According to the FBI, approximately one out of every five active duty NA graduates holds a position as a chief or sheriff. Don't overlook the other major institutions that offer similar, intensive police management training, including the University of North Florida's IPTM, Northwestern University's Traffic Institute, and the University of Louisville.
In your quest to become a chief, experience is equally as important as advanced education. And not just any experience, but both a diverse background of assignments and a list of difficult assignments. Volunteer for those hard jobs now. Take on the kind of work that your chief does. Want the job? Start to work on it now.
Published in Law and Order, Oct 2005
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