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As the city embarks on a national search to replace its longest serving police chief, the leader of a state police association said past performance – not promises – should be key when filling the position.
“There is no playbook for the current environment in which police executives find themselves. However, it is clear that the necessary ingredient for navigating this environment is emotional intelligence,” said Stan Standridge, president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association and police chief of the San Marcos Police Department. “They should be hard on problems, but respectful of people.”
The search comes after El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen’s unexpected death in January. Allen, 71, was El Paso’s police chief since 2008 and the first African American to hold that rank.
The city appointed Peter Pacillas – who has served as an assistant police chief nearly as long as Allen served as chief – as interim police chief earlier this month. Pacillas graduated from the El Paso Police Academy in 1988 and rose through the ranks to be appointed assistant police chief in 2009.
City spokeswoman Laura Cruz Acosta said the city plans to use an outside firm to launch the national search by month’s end, but did not provide further details on the process.
The next leader of the El Paso police force will oversee a department whose budget has grown 27% in the past five years. In fiscal year 2023, the city allocated $192 million to the department, with one of the key drivers being collective bargaining pay increases. The department comprises about 1,131 sworn officers and 271 civilian employees. It serves a population of about 700,000 over 256 square miles and operates five regional command centers throughout the city.
El Paso Matters asked Standridge for his thoughts on how a city should select its police chief, including what input a community should have in the process, what qualities a police chief should possess and what challenges a new chief may face and take on.
El Paso Matters: What are the key qualities city leadership should be looking for when hiring a new chief of police?
Standridge: There is no playbook for the current environment in which police executives find themselves. However, it is clear that the necessary ingredient for navigating this environment is emotional intelligence.
Chiefs should be adaptable, accommodating, imaginative, relational, conceptual and social. They should be hard on problems, but respectful of people.
What are the qualities the police force itself looks for? Do they differ from what city leadership or the community might consider important? How receptive are police officers to new leadership?
I recently asked a group of my citizens what they want from their police department. Their answers were: appropriate use of force, respond to in-progress calls, presence, compassion, leadership, fairness, information, transparency, professionalism, protection, well-trained and (be) responsive.
However, if you were to ask officers what they believe their mandate is, it would look remarkably different from what the citizens want. Officers would say: arrest bad guys, stop pedophiles, stop active attacks, do reports and more reports – and try to do it with a smile, because management expects that.
Professional policing requires that we recognize the gulf that exists between what citizens want and what officers are offering. A professional police chief will have to steward this divide and bring both sides closer to an informed reality.
To do this, chiefs cannot manage by email. Members of police departments want to see their chiefs. Without a doubt, the primary complaint I hear from line-level officers is that they do not see their chiefs. He or she remains in their office and they only see them if misconduct is at hand.
A companion complaint is that their supervisors, including their chiefs, do not recognize them for what they do right, only for what they do wrong. There is a significant gap in police agencies across the nation between management and line-level employees.
To combat this, chiefs must communicate nonstop. They must leave their offices and attend briefings. They must do something radical and actually work the streets alongside their officers.
They must send out routine communication that highlights what the agency is doing well.
They must meet at least monthly with their association leaders and discuss issues that affect all employees, including civilians. Chiefs must recognize that their civilian employees are often the most overlooked, and they must be intentional about involving them in a sworn-dominant culture.
How important is community input in the selection process and what’s the best way to ensure that feedback is seriously considered?
In any city, there will be conflict, issues and tension that arise between some community members and their police department. Consequently, it is incredibly important to give citizens a voice – both during the selection process and thereafter. Dr. Martin Luther King said it well when he said that the riot is the voice of the unheard.
The only pronoun that can be used to address huge sociological issues facing our communities is “we.”
Before a community selects a new police chief, look for the evidence of the candidate’s willingness to meet, to collaborate, to advocate and to follow up. The best predictor of their future as a chief is their past performance, not what they promise to do.
How has law enforcement and policing changed over the last decade and what should a new leader consider to succeed in leading a police department?
The great disrupter now is the negative public narrative, not the economy. Normally a poor economy gives us (police departments) more recruits – now we are combatting the national narrative.
Staffing shortages exist across the nation, and there is no relief on the horizon. While citizens demand that their department be representative of their city, it is also true that fewer and fewer minorities are attracted to law enforcement.
Consequently, chiefs will have to consider best practices, authentic relationships, marketing, and community collaboration to address recruiting. Since staffing is critical, chiefs must leverage technology in ways that were not contemplated a decade ago. For example, cameras are now commonplace. However, departments do not have enough personnel to review hours and hours of videos to identify suspects.
Instead, departments must invest in technology that does this for them, which will require leadership to advocate on behalf of their department with city management and their governing bodies of the need to spend dollars that have not historically been allocated.
Additionally, more and more citizen groups are studying administrative laws and availing themselves of their rights as codified in state statutes.
Instead of accepting “the system” as it is currently structured, they are impacting local politics by using citizen-initiated referendums to change statutes. We have seen this play out across Texas, and this momentum will only increase.
Finally, chiefs must accept full ownership of active attacks and our communities’ responses to them, and they must work with fire, emergency medical services and all other stakeholders to provide an integrated response to these crises.
How common is it for municipalities – when hiring a new police chief – to hire from within the existing department? Is it more common to hire someone from another city or state?
If a community wants different, then they should consider doing something differently.
If there are known issues that continue to warrant concern, then it is common for cities to consider hiring from outside the agency. State boundaries are becoming less and less important.
Communities want leadership, so they should consider all applicants regardless of where they are coming from. I have learned in 28 years of policing that there are always at least two camps in every department – those who want an internal candidate because they like the direction of the department, and those who want a change.
What might be the biggest challenge a new police chief will face and how can the person selected to the post win the community’s support and confidence?
There is no single, biggest challenge. Being a police chief is a very difficult profession. By the time issues arise to the chief’s attention, they are difficult to solve and almost always upset some groups when a final decision is made.
Consequently, chiefs must recognize that leadership is a huge challenge, and I define leadership as relationships forged through service. Chiefs will combat time daily.
There simply is not enough time to invest so heavily in all relationships that need to be established and maintained, while also addressing immediate issues that arise in policing daily.
Chiefs will experience tug-of-war every day. Honestly, we expect too much from our police chiefs. If a chief spends too much time investing in internal processes and relationships, then the community bemoans that he or she is not responsive.
If the chief is so outwardly focused that he or she neglects the department’s needs, they suffer a vote of no confidence.
What to do? Communicate without ceasing, incline the ear and listen, always tell the truth and tell it early, know the law and base decisions on the rule of law, serve others, be vulnerable – you will not have all the answers.