Cities are losing police chiefs and struggling to hire new ones

Political pressure and budget cuts have made the job less appealing, experienced officers say, as cities seek fresh leaders to signal change

This summer, a headhunter called Lashinda Stair, second-in-command at the Detroit Police Department, and asked if she was interested in potentially becoming the chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department. Her answer: “Absolutely not.”

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In a year that has seen protests in the street, defiant unions, and mayors who are quick to push out police chiefs, the job of running a police department has become less coveted among many law-enforcement leaders. They say what used to be the pinnacle of achievement in their profession is now a job in which it is difficult to implement changes and easy to get blamed when things go wrong.

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“There’s a lot of folks that are hesitant when they see chiefs are getting beat up and getting thrown under the bus by their bosses,” said Art Acevedo, Houston’s police chief and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents chiefs from 69 of the country’s largest cities.

Eighteen chiefs from those 69 cities have resigned, retired, been pushed out or fired since protests and increased calls for police accountability and reform began after George Floyd’s death in May, according to Mr. Acevedo. Though the group doesn’t keep records, it’s an unusually high number in such a short time, he said.

Replacing a police chief is often the simplest way to signal change in a department and is less difficult than implementing structural overhauls, policing veterans say.

The exodus has included the chiefs of Louisville, Atlanta and Rochester, N.Y.—cities in which Black people were killed by police and civil-rights activists responded with protests and calls for change.

But many chiefs have left in cities in which there haven’t been controversial killings this summer. Carmen Best, Seattle’s first Black female police chief, resigned after the city council cut her department’s budget and her pay. U. Reneé Hall, Dallas’s first Black female chief, resigned without giving a reason after criticism of the way Dallas officers handled protests. Chief Sylvia Moir is leaving Tempe, Ariz., after city officials said they wanted to go in a different direction amid the nationwide calls for police reform.

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Ms. Best couldn’t be reached for comment; Ms. Hall canceled two scheduled interviews.

Recruiters are having difficulty persuading candidates to apply for the open jobs, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, which conducts the searches for cities.

“When you have city after city losing their chief, how do you get the next generation to step up?” said Mr. Wexler.

In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan appointed an interim chief, but she delayed the search for a permanent one for fear of not finding a qualified candidate. Ms. Durkan, who opposed the police budget cuts, said it would be difficult to lure someone to a department facing pressure from liberal activists for further budget cuts and policy changes.

“If we started a search right now, I doubt we could attract the candidates that Seattle deserves because they don’t know what job they’re applying for,” Ms. Durkan said in August, after Ms. Best announced she was stepping down.

Officials in Tempe, a city of 195,000 outside Phoenix, appointed an interim chief for one year, putting off their search, too. “The hope is if we give ourselves six months or eight months that the landscape will be improved,” said city manager Andrew Ching.

Tempe has experienced Black Lives Matter protests like many other cities, but there was no particular incident or issue in the city behind the resignation of Ms. Moir as police chief. Mr. Ching described the change as the city wanting to go in a different direction “accelerated by the high-profile things that were happening in other parts of the country.”

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The city recently established a task force to make recommendations to the police department on training, hiring and improving relations with minority communities.

Ms. Moir said city officials wanted the department to transform more quickly than is realistic, due to political pressure. “Local officials have very short windows to show change, and that is often inconsistent with real reform work,” she said.

When Ms. Moir arrived in Tempe in 2016 from El Cerrito, Calif., she introduced new training intended to reduce the use of force and racial profiling. She also started mindfulness meditation for her officers.

“When folks across policing see reform-minded leaders who are also cops’ cops being completely discarded without some real foundation as to why, they can’t help but question why one would want to tackle the challenge of being a chief,” said Ms. Moir.

She said she isn’t currently seeking another position as a police chief.

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Janeé Harteau, who was police chief in Minneapolis from 2012 to 2017, said she has received calls to gauge her interest in open positions. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do the job,” she said. Chiefs aren’t being given enough time or support to make real changes now, she said.

Ms. Stair said she is content in Detroit and that she isn’t alone among experienced officers she knows in her reluctance to make the jump to chief. “I think it’s as simple as turning on a TV or riding downtown in any city you live in,” she said. “Do you really want to leave and go deal with that kind of thing?”

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