Policing is one of the municipal budget’s largest components. It’s also one of local government’s higher-risk functions. Yet police chiefs and city managers do not always have the best working relationships. In some instances, they are suspicious of one another and keep their distance. Chiefs sometimes express concerns that city leaders are micro-managing police departments, while city managers may complain that the police chief can be intimidating and is too willing to “go around them” to get things done.
Both, however, are jointly responsible for public safety in their community. In fact, it’s not just critically important that they develop a trusting relationship, it may also be fundamentally important to each of these professionals and to the success of their administration and careers.
1. Understand the Evolving Law Enforcement Environment
From the threat of terrorism to the challenges of recruiting, hiring, training and retaining qualified law enforcement personnel, police departments are dealing with increasingly complex issues. While public safety threats to the community are always on a police chief’s mind, some of the biggest areas of concern we have seen facing police departments and cities in our law enforcement practice center on:
- Racial profiling
- Use of force policies
- The investigation of use of force incidents
- Encounters with the mentally ill
Some actions – such as the inappropriate use of an officer’s discretion, a badly written policy or inadequate training – can result in serious issues, such as civil liability and the loss of public trust in both the police department and the local government. It is imperative that city managers and police chiefs work together and support one another before any of these issues arise. If one of these institutions fails or encounters significant obstacles, the other is weakened in its ability to serve the community.
2. Build a Trusting Relationship
City managers and police chiefs should not be waiting to communicate until a crisis occurs. A trusting relationship requires regular communication and an understanding of one another’s roles and perspectives.
- City leaders need to gain a general understanding of police terminology and procedures, specifically policies for managing high risk, such as use of force, early intervention and dealing with the mentally ill.
- In turn, police chiefs need to understand the city managers’ roles and responsibilities, and how the police department’s budget and strategy fit into those of the city. Chiefs should also ensure they have the capability to engage in an independent, unbiased internal investigation quickly in response to an incident.
3. Commit to and Move Toward Community Policing
This relationship is also important for implementing problem solving through community policing. Both police chiefs and city managers are often high-profile members of the community. Their relationships with community members can, and should be, leveraged to improve public safety.
The police are often asked to resolve issues more appropriately resolved with other city resources. For example, traffic safety issues can sometimes be addressed by the city’s engineering department, like adding or removing traffic signals or modifying intersections, rather than writing tickets. Other issues, such as those related to homelessness, require tapping into the city’s social services network. When the city manager and police chief are working together, they can address these issues of concern more effectively.
In order to move toward community policing — if they have not done so already — police chiefs and city managers should engage in a conversation about public safety in their community. They should discuss the biggest public safety issues facing the community, as well as current law enforcement trends, and discuss how they can support one another and members of the police department.
This regular communication on day-to-day activities will improve law enforcement in the community and also set the foundation for coordinating with each other should a crisis occur. When the police and city managers work together and listen to — and benefit from — each other’s expertise, the community is safer and far better served.