Six Steps to Recruiting a Great Police or Fire Chief

TownandCity(This article, written by Rick Dacri, was published New Hampshire Town And City, May/June, 2016 edition)

Police and fire departments help form the fabric of your city or town. From the sounds of the sirens, to the classic blue uniforms, the fire trucks leading the Memorial Day parade, or our first responders’ bravery and strength on the front lines of a tragedy, police and fire represent your municipality’s values, beliefs, and community culture. So, when police or fire leadership must change, a tired recruitment approach and an outdated job description are insufficient to fill such an important role.

Too many personnel searches fail before the recruitment process even begins. In some cases, town managers, eager to quickly fill an opening, begin the process unprepared, without fully thinking through their needs.

Successful recruitment includes six essential elements for hiring the right police or fire chief for your municipality:

1.Know thyself: You must fully understand your city or town before you can picture your ideal candidate. Know where have you been and what brought you here; where are you going and how you plan to get there; what your short term and long term challenges are and how you will meet them. Remember, a candidate, inexperienced in addressing your challenges, is likely to fail. And a candidate must be able to fit within your community: A police chief who has never seen snow may face serious challenges come January!

2. Be a visionary: Develop a clear candidate profile. What qualities will the successful candidate possess? The successful candidate will be the right person, not just a job description.

As an example, I recently assisted a town manager in replacing his police chief.

The town manager realized that, in order to identify the right candidate, he would need to forecast the needs and challenges ahead for the department.

So we began the process of objectively assessing and analyzing the department’s current and future needs by consulting with the police department’s leadership and staff, key town department heads, the town council. We then informed community members, giving them an opportunity to provide input on the department and its future direction. The town manager used the unbiased, objective assessment that resulted to develop the ideal candidate profile for the next police chief.

In developing the profile of your ideal police or fire chief, look at six critical elements: 1) job priorities, including the specific education, experiences, and technical knowledge required; 2) professional characteristics; 3) essential personal traits; 4) negative traits–traits that will make the individual unsuccessful; 5) short term challenges the candidate would face immediately upon starting the job; and 6) long term challenges he/she would face in your community and state. Armed with this profile, you can identify what you need in a candidate, what you do not want, where you should find such a candidate, and what questions you must ask during the interview. You won’t find this depth of information in a job description.

3. Location, location, location. Ask yourself, if I were looking for a police chief, where would I find one? The answer could be municipalities similar to yours; professional associations; police academies; etc. In other words, it isn’t just the internet. Employ all the best recruitment techniques to ensure you have a steady flow of qualified candidates. In addition, often the best candidate is employed and not looking for a new job (the so-called “passive candidate”). That’s why using recruitment ads alone does not work. And don’t reshuffle resumes from neighboring communities’ searches.

4.Take another look: Put your candidates under a microscope. You need to know everything about the person in front of you. Make sure the individual meets all your needs by conducting multiple interviews with tough questions from all the right people. And don’t short cut references; ask the hard questions. You should never find that the person you hired is different from the person you interviewed.

Once you’ve found your candidate, it’s critically important to conduct a thorough job interview. Prepare carefully. Too many costly mistakes are made during the interview phase. Formulate questions before hand, which explore ability, skill and fit. Make the candidate work. This is not a time to throw softballs like, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” and “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

Use a more meaningful approach:

  • Ask questions that will show you whether they can solve problems, handle a crisis, cope with a tragedy.
  • Ask about trends they see and steps that must be taken to prepare.
  • Ask questions that are behavioral in nature, requiring a response based on actual experience.
  • Create scenarios or case studies based on challenges your community faces.
  • Require them to analyze issues and provide solutions.

Watch how he/she thinks, problem solves, analyzes and presents. Probe until you are sure that you have all the information you need.

Listen to what the candidate says and how he/she says it. Ask the candidate if he/she has any questions; those questions will tell you a lot about the candidate. You want a thinker, a leader, an innovator, and someone who can see around corners.

Finally, hire for fit. You must focus on the person who will fit within your community. He or she is the one who can work with your staff, elected officials, and residents; assimilate within your culture and community; and adopt your town’s belief systems. Find people who best meet the requirements of the job. Critical job skills go beyond the technical and must include personality traits and those “soft skills” such as teamwork, relational competences, and empathy. Finally, select candidates with the right attitude. Remember, one thing you cannot change in people is their inherent attitudes. Evaluate the impact your new hire will have on your staff, residents, and community. Be uncompromising about hiring the right person. If you make a bad-hiring decision, you will soon have to make the tough decision to terminate.

5.Pull no punches: Be clear about expectations. Before extending a job offer, be clear with the candidate about your expectations and goals and know whether your candidate has the ability and the desire to meet them. On the other side, be sure you know what the candidate’s expectations are of you. Remember, it’s a two way street.

6.The end is only the beginning. Your job isn’t over when the hire is made. Provide post-hire coaching and executive coaching for your new hire. You want a smooth transition and many candidates need support to ensure they will hit the ground running. This is a critical element of the entire process, and, unfortunately, one that is commonly not even considered.

Finding a new police or fire chief is probably the most important responsibility of your town manager and board. Be deliberate in your process. Take the necessary time to do it right, but don’t make the process so protracted that you lose the candidate. Making great hires requires a planned strategic approach. Recruitment is complicated, but by following these steps, you can ensure you make a great hire. Your town or city depends upon it.

Rick Dacri is a workforce expert, management consultant, and author of the book “Uncomplicating Management: Focus On Your Stars & Your Company Will Soar.” Since 1995 his firm, Dacri & Associates, has helped municipalities achieve dramatic improvements in individual and organizational performance. He can be reached at and

Other posts you might like:

  1. Municipalities: The Magnet That Draws Candidates
  2. Top 10 Tips to Ensure the Board and Manager Maintain a Strong Working Relationship
  3. HR HelpLine: When You Need Expert Advice

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