There Seems To Be A Lot Of Turnover Among Police Chiefs In Texas’ Largest Cities. Why?
Troy Finner, a 30-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, became HPD’s new leader this April. That makes Finner the fourth new big-city police chief appointed in Texas since January. Finner was preceded by Al Jones in Arlington, Eddie Garcia in Dallas and Neil Noakes in Fort Worth.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Finner told members of the press he felt like “the most blessed man in this world right now.”
But after spending a couple of minutes thanking God, his family, the citizens of Houston and the city’s leadership for the opportunity, Finner cut his speech short saying that Mayor Sylvester Turner told him before the ceremony that he "didn’t want a long press conference today."
Turner reportedly told Finner, "Troy, you’re on the clock now as the chief of police and it’s time to go to work."
Finner’s repeating of Turner’s comment during the ceremony was played as a joke, a way to break the ice. But, the mayor’s comment to Houston’s new police chief speaks to a larger trend seen in major cities across the country.
“There is a shortening of time when you compare the tenure of a police chief nowadays to a tenure of a police chief back in the '80s,” said Alex del Carmen, a police chief trainer and the associate dean of the School of Criminology at Tarleton State University. “Now, in terms of what leads to that [shortening of time], I would argue that like everything else in life it’s not just one answer. It’s many answers.”
Criminologists like del Carmen, and many former police chiefs, agree that when it comes to turnover there are several factors that contribute to chiefs leaving their organizations. However, the most common reasons are stress and friction between the chief and local governing bodies.
“They’re in an impossible position,” said Mary Dodge, a professor of criminology at the University of Colorado who has studied police chief turnover and tenure. “Ultimately, your police chief is the person who is making all of the decisions, is taking all of the heat for anything that might go wrong in that department and it could be that they’re working 19 hours a day.”
Dodge’s research has shown that the stress of the job tends to lead to health concerns like high blood pressure and heart attacks. But she added that the stress isn’t only brought on by the tough decisions and long hours, it’s also caused by the long list of people the chief is accountable to.
“Imagine them in the middle of a circle and they’re surrounded by politicians that they have to please, the rank and file that they have to deal with [and the] community,” she said. “Then added on top of that you have police unions, you have the ACLU, and in some cases, you even have the Department of Justice looking over their shoulder.”
Gary Peterson’s a former police chief from California. He’s also the founder of a police executive recruitment firm called Public Sector Search & Consulting. They help cities like San Francisco, Kansas City and Dallas lure and hire new chiefs. Peterson also thinks stress is a big reason a police chief might leave their post, but he also pointed out that police executives don’t have contracts that guarantee terms.
“You’re being appointed by other folks whose positions are temporary, like the mayor, city managers, police commissions,” he said. “Their positions are tenuous as well.”
That sentiment was echoed by Brian Higgins, a former police chief from New Jersey and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Higgins believes policing has been politicized and that pushing out a police chief is often a tactic used by city leaders to save face after a controversial incident.
As an example, Higgins pointed to Seattle where former police chief Carmen Best abruptly announced her departure after a tumultuous few months when intense protests against racial injustice and heavy-handed police practices drew national attention after the killing of George Floyd last summer.
“As soon as an issue occurs the chief is the one who goes as if the whole issue goes,” Higgins said. “Even though the mayor’s the one who brought in the chief and the mayor was leading the municipality during that time.”
Higgins is not alone in his belief. Art Acevedo is the new chief of police in Miami. Before that he was chief in Houston and in Austin. He’s also the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA). So he’s seen firsthand how quickly a city leader can make a chief disappear.
“More often than not, elected officials — when they have a critical incident — they very quickly try to show that they have the situation under control and that they’re not going to tolerate it,” Acevedo said. “So, what do they do? They get rid of their chiefs.”
Acevedo said this practice not only happens in Texas, but also across the nation.
“It’s important to have a continuity of leadership,” he said. “We’re having that conversation nationally. Not just among the Major City Chiefs, but also at the United States Conference of Mayors.” Acevedo explained that city leaders who hire and fire police chiefs based on politics are “doing themselves, their community and their police departments a disservice.”
Beyond that, Acevedo believes this practice of mayors and city managers ditching their chiefs “just to say they did something” is not only a leading cause in police chief turnover but also the number one reason that tenures are shrinking for police executives.
According to many police groups, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, two-and-a-half to three years is the average tenure for a chief at a large police organization. That number has dropped since the mid-80s. Back then, the Police Executive Research Forum found that chiefs generally stayed in their roles for five to six years.
“Changing the culture of a police department is like turning the Titanic. It’s slow, it takes a long time and you’ll see a lot of resistance."
So, why is this happening? According to criminologist Alex del Carmen, “More and more city managers, towns, cities and municipalities are becoming concerned with the quality of leadership that they have in place. So, the standards are getting higher.”
That means city leaders are looking for individuals with advanced degrees and some previous experience in leadership roles, del Carmen said.
“[The city leaders] always become very concerned about the way that the community will perceive the police chief. So, what that’s doing is phasing out some of the current chiefs that were hired some 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “They’re bringing in a new type of chief that is perhaps more diverse in thinking and in race and ethnicity. And also someone who is more inclusive.”
Gary Peterson from Public Sector Search & Consulting said you can couple those new and higher standards with the fact that many of the individuals who are eligible for positions as chief of police are usually also eligible to retire before they’ve even taken the job.
“So, when these chiefs see other chiefs across the country being forced to retire, fired or having their staffs reduced in the midst of reforms, and they see that they can’t make their own reforms because of the political dynamics… It makes it easier for a seasoned police executive to say, ‘On one hand I can stay and get beat up every day and not be able to enact change,’” he said. “‘Or I can retire.’”
Art Acevedo faced a similar position when he left HPD, except he pointed out “I wasn’t run out of town.”
In an email obtained by the Houston Chronicle, in which Acevedo announced his exit to HPD staff, the chief hinted that his exit from Houston was influenced by the potential of a new mayor coming into office.
“I was not looking for this opportunity when it arose, but with the end (of) Mayor Turner’s final term in office fast approaching, and my strong desire to continue serving as a police officer, we decided the timing for this move was good,” Acevedo said.
Criminologist Mary Dodge points out that exits that precede new city leadership can often happen because new leaders have new agendas, and new agendas tend to mean lots of changes. She said changes don’t happen easily.
“Changing the culture of a police department is like turning the Titanic,” said criminologist Mary Dodge. “It’s slow, it takes a long time and you’ll see a lot of resistance.”
Because of this, Dodge explained, police chiefs often grow frustrated. And because of those frustrations, whether it be with the department itself or rules imposed by city leaders, police chiefs will opt to leave their positions voluntarily via retirement or a new role at a different police department instead of sticking around.
Time will tell what’s going to happen in Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi and Houston. But many of these cities have recently elected new city leaders or plan to this May. If the new chiefs of police can’t play nice, fail to implement changes fast enough or struggle to deal with controversial incidents — history has shown us that they’ll be out of a job quickly.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of School of Criminology at Tarleton State University Associate Dean Alex del Carmen's name.
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